As the toffs began to retreat

Neal Ascherson

  • What We Have Lost: The Dismantling of Great Britain by James Hamilton-Paterson
    Head of Zeus, 360 pp, £25.00, October, ISBN 978 1 78497 235 6
  • The Rise and Fall of the British Nation: A 20th-Century History by David Edgerton
    Allen Lane, 681 pp, £30.00, June, ISBN 978 1 84614 775 3

‘That bloody woman!’ James Hamilton-Paterson’s mother was not given to outbursts. Then in her eighties, she had worked in the National Health Service for most of her life. But when she came across the three teenage girls (they might have been her own granddaughters) sitting on cardboard and begging in Victoria Station, something gave way. She broke into tears – but tears of rage. When she could speak, she said: ‘It’s all going backwards. After all our gains. Those bloody politicians, that bloody woman …’

Like her, and like her son, I grew up with the assumption that we were going forward – jerkily, and with long unexplained halts in cold places, but forward. Prewar had been better, in ways which couldn’t be recovered (so my own family thought). But somewhere ahead, as the train began again to crawl across the grey plain of the 1950s, there would be warmth, light, undreamed-of gadgets, houses with inside toilets for all, travel on airliners. It was only a few years ago that I looked out of the grimy train window – as it were, at a station dimly seen in the night – and it came to me that we had passed this place once already. Mrs Hamilton-Paterson was right: it was all going backwards. Bankers’ economics? Didn’t we leave that station seventy years ago? Tories telling the poor they should have fewer children? Obsession with the national debt? Keeping foreigners out unless they are millionaires? Welfare only for the workshy underclass? ‘After all our gains’, Britain is slithering back downhill through the past we once rejected.

Both these books are concerned with loss and failure: Britain’s loss of global influence and its failure to maintain the extraordinary industrial and scientific leadership it once attained. David Edgerton’s book, the more academic of the two, is a brilliant and often very aggressive challenge to a set of assumptions about the recent past. James Hamilton-Paterson, still one of England’s most skilled and alluring prose writers in or out of fiction, has done something even more original. With imaginative scenes enacting ‘what we have lost’, he combines closely researched and detailed accounts of the decay of one legendary British product after another. Cars, motorbikes, shipbuilding and the nuclear industry are all there.

The great historian Gwyn Alf Williams entitled a book: ‘When Was Wales?’ Edgerton is proposing a startling answer to ‘When Was Britain?’ He argues that a ‘British nation’ existed with a new, special coherence between 1945 and 1970. It’s a pity he doesn’t explain what he means by ‘nation’, an omission that leaves a fog over some of his conclusions. Instead, he declares briskly: ‘The British nation, as I define it, was not a natural state of affairs. The British nation was created: it emerged out of the British Empire and out of a cosmopolitan economy, after the Second World War.’ And so, he writes, ‘a British nation was created, by which I mean a distinctive economic, political and social unit within the borders of the United Kingdom.’ This unit, and ‘the internal rebuilding of the nation’, required a decisive rejection of economic liberalism and the development of a ‘peculiar kind of nationalism’, which meant ‘creating not just an economic border but increasingly a culture of national self-supply’. ‘The British nation’, in other words, now implied a society committed to protectionism, to exporting (‘Export or Die’ was the slogan) at the cost of sharply reduced imports, and to a universal welfare state that existed within a culture of social and economic planning and strong state intervention – often in the form of nationalisation. This was the Britain prefigured before and during the war, in debates which were by no means dominated or even initiated by Labour. It came to be the postwar Britain not only of the Attlee governments but – in varying degrees – of all administrations up to the end of the 1970s.

This is where Edgerton proclaims war on a certain strain of ‘declinism’. It’s common to read accounts of how the war bankrupted Britain and prevented economic recovery, while traditional elites with their non-commercial ethos continued to fill the boardrooms. On the contrary, Edgerton says: it was precisely in this postwar ‘national moment’ that British industry reached the peak of its development. In 1950, Britain recorded the highest ever percentage of the workforce in industrial occupations. It was also, apparently, the most proletarian country in the world, with 80 per cent of the population classified as ‘working class’. As for the ruling-class elites, they were, Edgerton says, by no means so dumb and indifferent to the possibilities of ‘British capitalism’ as myth suggests. In reality they kept close connections with finance and industry: ‘this very picture [of economic innocence] has in part been produced by the ruling classes themselves. They carefully played dead, and many foolishly danced on an empty grave.’

Labour’s programme could be seen as more nationalist than it was socialist. Still, it transformed. ‘In 1950 the United Kingdom was still the same coal-fired, food-importing area it was in 1900. By the mid-1970s it had been changed into an electrified, motorised nation which could easily feed itself.’ Edgerton writes of ‘an extraordinarily powerful futurism’ which, among other things, drove the world’s most ambitious nuclear programme. Looking back on this, and on the new welfare state itself, Aneurin Bevan soared out of reality to call it ‘the most remarkable piece of social reconstruction the world had ever seen. By the end of 1950 we had … assumed the moral leadership of the world.’

It didn’t last. Internally and externally, Britain’s condition today is very different and in some ways much worse. Decline did take place, so declinism is a proper subject for school essays. But these two books disagree about how and why and when decline set in. Hamilton-Paterson writes about monstrous and avoidable policy mistakes, but he also thinks that ‘at bottom Britain knows it is not businesslike in the contemporary sense.’ He senses an enduring collective weakness, in other words, which lamed British development all through the 20th century.

Edgerton, in contrast, thinks that most declinist theories are garbage. He points out, convincingly, that a narrative of British decline has been indispensable to Thatcherism and the right generally, to be blamed on the ‘nanny state’, the trade unions and public spending. It has also been the creed of people unable to accept that Britain was falling behind upcoming neighbouring nations. ‘Declinism has to be seen as the unwitting last refuge of great power delusions … a form of jingoism, a delusion about inherent superiority, dressed up as critique.’ Less convincingly, Edgerton suggests that decline did not really set in until the 1980s. Until then, ‘British economic nationalism’ kept functioning rather well. In the 1970s, ‘British social democracy and the welfare state were to be at their peak’. Trade union membership rose to its maximum point; inequality reached its lowest. Edgerton even debunks the 1979 Winter of Discontent which is supposed to have propelled Thatcher to power. Almost 30 million working days were lost by strikes that year – but 20.7 million of them were after the election, when Thatcher and the Conservatives were already in charge. His diagram of British decline shows not a steady descending gradient but a sudden cliff-edge. It implies that almost everything changed abruptly in the 1980s, although, ironically, previous government spending on modernising nationalised industries now made them easier to sell off, and the safety net of the old welfare state – still expanding – reduced some of the pain of the massive job losses.

This version of history, excitingly bold as it is, doesn’t quite square with memory. Not with mine, at least. Back then, I was travelling almost monthly between Britain and Germany. The West German media affected prim horror at the ‘Englische Krankheit’: the disease whose symptoms were labour disputes, unemployment and stagnation. But the surreal squalor of cities like Liverpool and Glasgow fifty years ago, with the shabby high spirits of their inhabitants, fascinated the young of Berlin or Munich. What time-travel destinations, what awesome, exotic places to make movies! Driving along the new M11 from Harwich, I would count a broken fan-belt strewn across every few yards of hard shoulder. British cars hadn’t been designed for motorway speeds. And as for the British businessmen I encountered in those years, hiding out in the bars of Leipzig, Hanover or Poznań while French or Italian salesmen lunched ministers in the best hotel, they seemed not to be certain why they were there or what lingo these chaps spoke.

Under London’s cracked pavements, the ancient iron gas pipes were beginning to rupture. In hospital, I sat with a spinal probe jammed between my vertebrae while the consultant kicked the thirty-year-old control cabinet for breaking down. It certainly felt like decline. Relative? For sure: even France was becoming a country where ‘things worked’, and medical care was now as good in Avignon as in Edinburgh. Absolute decline? No. Britain in the 1970s was still alive and changing, with all manner of significant rebellions breaking the surface. Absolute decline is when change dries up, when your niece keeps a place for you in the fish queue, when your son on a scholarship abroad phones to say he’s not coming back.

In manufacturing, the tide began visibly to turn in the 1970s. Britain had been the world’s largest exporter of energy (coal) and manufactures in the world up to 1939. Now, although it remained until the 1960s one of the three biggest capitalisms on earth, British industry (cars, steel, ships) was increasingly failing to compete with production in catch-up countries – Japan, West Germany, Scandinavia. Unemployment was rising. Nationalisation, once designed to capture ‘the commanding heights’ for comprehensive planning, was now revived as an unsteady lifeboat for failing manufacturers. The National Enterprise Board was founded. The British National Oil Corporation (BNOC) appeared; Rolls-Royce, the companies forming British Leyland and Sinclair computers were among the industries rescued by the state.

As part of the rescue process, governments encouraged mergers. Many proved disastrous. Hamilton-Paterson is excellent on this. He has a real, critical love of cars, and clearly a passion for motorbikes: his chapter on Triumph and its merger with several other motorbike companies is vivid, knowledgeable and shocking. ‘A combination of appalling mismanagement, personal rivalries, union intransigence and sheer stupidity was to bring this lively industry to its knees in little more than twenty years,’ he writes. Too often, the staffs of rival companies now herded together under one roof sulked, refused to co-operate and continued to plot against one another. Meanwhile the new group managements watched helplessly as the workforce lost confidence in its own product (like British Leyland’s Allegro, remembered by unforgiving experts as ‘the worst car ever’), and saw no pressing reason not to skive, strike or nick tools.

Edgerton is vigilant against blame being heaped on ‘the unions’; he doesn’t miss an opportunity to point out how marginal labour disputes were to the fate of British manufacturing in the 1970s and 1980s. Hamilton-Paterson is more nuanced. He accepts that ‘much bigger strikes and go-slows … together with worsening quality and production standards, were eventually to threaten BL’s very existence.’ But he also points out that massive industrial action was a pan-European phenomenon in the 1970s and that campaigners against trade union power forget ‘how abominable and often downright dangerous factory working conditions could be in those largely pre-robot days’.

*

The two writers converge in their contempt for British management. Their complaint is roughly two-pronged. They mock the amateurism of the old unreformed boardrooms, but – much more important – they point to the more recent disasters brought about as ‘money men’ began to replace directors who had engineering qualifications or solid technical experience. Managements decorated with ancient titles are an easy target, even though Edgerton reminds his readers that British aristocrats have often been cunning investors. An inquisitive civil servant worked out a correlation between a firm’s imminent bankruptcy and the award of honours to its board. And the same civil servant’s boss observed that the board of Dunlop at the moment of its collapse in 1985 ‘read like a messenger’s speech from Henry V’.

As the toffs began to retreat, they were replaced on boards by a very different species. The ‘money men’, attentive to the company’s share price rather than to its product, moved in as the City of London – once the centre of industrial investment as well as financial services – ramped through its Big Bang and became a casino of debt speculation. It’s a shame that neither author refers to The State We’re in (1995), Will Hutton’s analysis of this fateful change in British capitalism, which retains all its deadly relevance this side of the 2008 bank crash.

Edgerton is more concerned to modify the legend of scientific and technical illiteracy in British management, while Hamilton-Paterson sees the destructive impact of the ‘money men’ on industries more clearly. The catastrophic and unnecessary fate of ICI (which broke the hearts of some of my own chemical-engineering relatives) came about as men and women with long shop-floor experience and technical qualifications were pushed out of management by newcomers who claimed to be financial wizards. They weren’t. They played the great corporation for short-term stock-market gains, and they lost. Hamilton-Paterson adds the example of Network Rail’s bungled electrification of Great Western (its cost rose in two years from £874 million to £2.8 billion). ‘That’s privatisation for you: layers upon layers of managers and accountants who know nothing about railways. The old British Rail alternative was layers upon layers of experienced railwaymen who knew nothing about accountancy but who did know exactly what electrifying a line entailed and simply got on and did it.’ Later in his book, he attacks the notion (‘holy writ’ today) that a college degree in management enrols one in a portable profession in which it hardly matters what a company does. ‘Current wisdom apparently sees no difference between managing a company that makes marmalade and managing Network Rail.’ He quotes Tony Benn, looking back on the turmoil at BL’s Longbridge plant: ‘And then you bring in managers from a business studies course who’d got a degree in business management but who couldn’t mend a puncture in a motor tyre – and you speak about the people who made the cars as the problem?’

That leads on to one of the curiosities of British historiography: the fact that historians can’t stop writing about C.P. Snow and his ‘Two Cultures’ lecture of 1959. Sixty years have passed, and mudslides of dismissive abuse have regularly descended on Snow’s thesis. Nevertheless, his ghost refuses to shut up. His claim, roughly, was that British elite culture was divided between ‘scientists’ (generally of lower social standing) and a posh, Luddite ‘literary’ class dominant in intellectual and economic life who despised them and repressed their contribution. Snow infuriates Edgerton: ‘laughably wrong’, ‘childish fictions’, ‘an intellectual nullity’. As he says, ‘Two Cultures’ means to make the case for science and modernity, but in effect undermines its own argument as ‘it sucks science, technology, modernity out of British history, leaving it overpopulated with caricatures of literary intellectuals, anti-scientific mandarins and the like.’ He has no difficulty in showing that men (and a few women) with high scientific achievements stood behind most of Britain’s successful enterprises – and some of the unsuccessful ones too. ‘For it was they who were critical in pushing the grands projets of the postwar state,’ including Concorde and the AGR (Advanced Gas-cooled Reactor) in the nuclear industry, both rather meanly described afterwards as two of the worst investment decisions in world history.

Shrewdly, Edgerton suggests that the obstinate survival of the ‘Two Cultures’ idea has a lot to do with politics. The dream of technocracy, Harold Wilson’s ‘white heat’ image, is held to have failed, and therefore to have been a dream and a failure of the left. The facts don’t bear this out: technocracy remained the mode of both civil and military developments, and the goal of Tory as well as Labour prime ministers . But in the declinist blame game, it has been comfortable to put ‘socialist fantasies’ in the dock with Harold Wilson himself (although Wilson’s own reputation, so dodgy for so long, is now lifting off, as he is increasingly recognised as the most far-sighted of Labour prime ministers).

On Snow, the two authors diverge again. Hamilton-Paterson quotes a long passage from the notorious lecture, which he evidently values, and remarks that – even today – his scientific friends know far more about literary culture than his literary friends know about science. As he says, Wilson’s ‘white heat’ rhetoric inveighing against backwoods ‘technophobia’ in his own party as well as among the Conservatives, owed a lot to Snow’s speech four years earlier. And Edgerton’s reminder that nobody fussed about binary cultural gaps in the glory years of Britain’s global domination doesn’t obscure the fact that managements still appoint CEOs with little grasp of what they are commanding. The banking crisis revealed a parade of absurdly expensive bosses who only pretended to know what their underlings were doing and wouldn’t have understood if the underlings had tried to explain it. That farce, managerial arrogance combined with barely concealed digital illiteracy, remains common in larger businesses and finance houses. The obvious remedy – participation in management by skilled representatives of the workforce – is still hysterically rejected in most British boardrooms.

After 1945, Edgerton’s ‘new British nation’ set out to be self-sufficient, but not just economically. He gives many pages to the ‘warfare state’ which arose under the Labour government, its enormous and largely concealed expense condemning Britain to years of rationing and austerity and robbing the welfare state of resources. ‘After the Second World War, Britons built not only a new Jerusalem but a new Sparta.’ In the 1950s, during the early Cold War, defence spending at 10 per cent of GDP was far higher than it had ever been in peacetime – much higher than in 1913 or 1938. Less evident is the extent to which rearmament affected the whole balance of power in government and even in the universities, where the sudden demand for male scientific, engineering and mathematical graduates actually reduced the proportion of female science students below its prewar level. Edgerton sees that as highly significant: ‘The profound militarisation of the 1950s went along with a new masculinisation of the public sphere, the other side of the much noted promotion of feminine domesticity.’

At first, Britain’s own ‘military-industrial complex’ built tanks, guns and attack aircraft, preparing for a continental war which would be both nuclear and conventional. It was not until the 1960s, following the 1957 White Paper on defence, that military effort was concentrated around nuclear warfare, and the conscript army (National Service) was disbanded. The UK ‘was returning to liberal militarism, to professional capital-intensive forces in order to reduce expenditure’.

British nukes were certainly capital-intensive. America’s 1946 McMahon Act, forbidding the sharing of nuclear information with any other country, appalled the British, but they would probably have gone ahead with plans for an independent British atom bomb in any case. ‘We have got to have this thing over here whatever it costs … we’ve got to have the Union Jack on top of it,’ Labour’s foreign secretary, Ernest Bevin, said. In the event, Britain’s nuclear deterrent was only briefly independent. Since about 1963, it has been essentially American. Everyone knows that. And yet nobody knows how to put an end to the ritual, humiliating pretence that Britain’s ‘possession’ of nuclear weapons is the guarantee of top-table status.

People talk easily about political ‘consensus’ in the postwar years. Edgerton disagrees. There was no lasting consensus between the parties on the welfare state, he says, and the idea of a ‘Butskellism’ common to Labour and Tory is a myth. Only for the ‘warfare state’ was there a consensus, to keep its secrets and to pay its vast bills. Britain’s hugely profitable arms trade is an enduring by-product of that state, and here Hamilton-Paterson contributes an unsettling thought. ‘It is the arms industry perhaps more than any other that best preserves the inventive standards and traditions of British engineering, research and technical expertise.’

For Hamilton-Paterson, the British problem is simply not taking the economy seriously. ‘If one looks back over nearly three centuries of Britain as the world’s first industrial nation, one single feature stands out … That is, the utter want of any serious, thoroughgoing plan.’ To this, Edgerton retorts that between 1945 and 1980 his ‘new British nation’ planned elaborately, repeatedly, and for the long term: at many different levels and often with great productive success. There was no overarching Sovietic ‘Five-Year’ script, although I remember how the liberal Observer used to urge a more comprehensive planification on the French model. But energetic sectoral designs emerged everywhere. I wish these authors had given space to the massively planned ‘distribution of industry’ which drove regional development, or to the forced 1 per cent levy on a firm’s turnover to pay for the Industrial Training Boards.

*

How magnificent and confident, and how irrecoverable, those schemes now seem! Hamilton-Paterson ends What We Have Lost with a marvellously written requiem for British firms and brands now dead or buried under takeovers or lost to the portfolios of foreign-based conglomerates. He mourns ‘a Britain that can never come again because so much that was original and characteristic has gone under the hammer for cash which has long since disappeared into the black hole of the national debt … So we have come to this. My country has been sold off to defray charges.’

There is a fine Scots word for the sale of the contents of a house, farm or factory: a ‘displenishment’. We have certainly witnessed the displenishment of Great Britain. Hamilton-Paterson’s grief, his sense of injury and loss, is eloquent. But, speaking for myself, I can’t share that ‘brand’ nostalgia. I would trade a hundred Hillman Imps or a dozen Bristol Britannias (‘The Whispering Giant’) for one Man from the Ministry, standing outside an ‘advance factory’ waving an Industrial Development Certificate. He didn’t stand around in a wasteland of nail-bars and food banks, squeaking that ‘Britain is open for business!’ He planned the business, planted it where it was needed and gave it a launching push with public money. He and the men and women he worked for – Hugh Dalton, Jennie Lee, Tom Johnston, Aneurin Bevan – would know how to stop the metaphorical train’s backward slide and set it climbing again. But to what strange landscapes? For that disciplined, centralised ‘new British nation’ they created will never be found again.