Half-century hallmarks

England 1945-2000 - The Verdict of Peace
December 21, 2001

Robin Butler considers the fall and rise of Britain since 1945.

Here are two weighty volumes of history dealing with the second half of the 20th century. That is almost all they have in common. One covers the period 1950-56 and is the fourth volume in Correlli Barnett's quartet, subtitled "The Pride and Fall Sequence". It presents a specific perspective, familiar to those who have read the first three volumes. The other covers five and a half decades, decade by decade, with a series of essays by different authors covering a wide range of aspects of English life. The essays are accompanied by verbal snapshots, evocative of memorable incidents that give a flavour of each decade. They are preceded by an overview of the period by Lord Jenkins of Hillhead and an epilogue by Ferdinand Mount.

Readers will buy the two volumes for different purposes. Those who buy Barnett's book will do so to see how he plays out his theme of the mistakes of the British establishment that completed the decline of Britain from the imperial and industrial giant of the 19th century to the pygmy of the second Elizabethan age. Those who buy the Folio Society history will do so because they want a reasonably comprehensive chronicle of the main events and influences that characterised English life in the second half of the 20th century and to complete on their bookshelves the handsome series of volumes that constitutes the Folio History of England.

Besides their size, the two volumes have two characteristics in common. Both round off a series and are in that sense a conclusion of what went before; and both, in different ways, take a gloomy view of Britain's performance in the second half of the 20th century.

It is some personal relief to me to find that Barnett ends his excoriation of the British establishment before he gets on to the years in which I served in government. I am the archetype of those to whom Barnett attributes the decline of Britain. Public school and then Oxbridge educated in the classics, I became a Treasury official and was precisely the sort of person whom the civil service embraced and promoted when Barnett thinks it should not have done. If Barnett were to extend his history, I tremble to think of what further acts of omission and commission he would have found me and my contemporaries guilty. Proof of these disastrous characteristics is perhaps the fact that I positively enjoy the trenchant prose, the coruscating phrase or epigram, the meticulous construction of a case for the prosecution from the exposure of government records revealing a world I have loved and respected over the years (the references and bibliography constitute a quarter of this book's 720 pages). As I read Barnett's marvellous prose, I find myself thinking that, were it not for the grisly outcome, I would have enjoyed being in the dock in Nuremburg.

Barnett's theme is that Britain lost its chance to rebuild its industrial strength in 1950-56 through smug self-satisfaction and an aspiration to play the part of a world power when the greater priority was to tackle the problems of investment at home. Yet, even though I was not personally involved in that period, I find myself rallying to the defence of the older establishment he attacks. "Well, you would, wouldn't you?" I hear Barnett say. Impoverished and weakened as Britain was by the second world war, was it really open to it to withdraw from contributing to the interests of the West when others were even weaker, indeed were prostrate? There were, after all, huge interests that Britain recognised it was too weak to sustain, for example in India and the Mediterranean. But when Bevin - not a natural member of the Oxbridge-educated establishment - had engaged the United States in western Europe, through both Nato and Marshall Aid, and Stalin's Russia was a genuine threat, was it really open to Britain to refuse to help the US in Asia? We might have wished that we had not undertaken those commitments - many wished at the time that we did not have to take them on - but the argument that it was open to us not to do so is based on a view of the world as it is and not as it was.

At times, Barnett's polemic turns into invective. When Iain Macleod is first introduced, his school and university are spelt out, presumably only because they are Fettes and Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge; and it can hardly be fair to attribute to him, a few paragraphs later, the fact that the Ministry of Labour was "so conveniently close to Macleod's clubs White's and the Carlton". This is not worthy of a scholar, but for me these lapses are redeemed by the passionate writing of a man who is moved by love of this country and anger at what he sees as the causes of its decline. The Verdict of Peace is, like its predecessors in the series, an enjoyable and stimulating read.

England 1945-2000 has a much wider canvas and a less coherent theme. For the older of its readers, it reminds us of our yesterdays rather than trying to persuade us of a thesis. After Roy Jenkins's characteristically synoptic and lively introduction, the book is organised into decades with a series of essays and snapshots in each. A minor problem of the book's structure is that, after a general essay on the character of each decade as a whole, the other essays are necessarily on aspects of life in the past 50 years that run through the period and whose subjects are not confined to the decades in which the essay happens to be placed.

The editor seems to have organised the essays so that they appear in the decades in which their subjects first come to prominence as issues affecting British life - for example, the essay on immigration and its effects is placed in the section on 1945-50 when mass Commonwealth immigration first began to have its effect. But I found myself wondering, for example, why the essay on the environment was placed in the 1950s; presumably because of the Clean Air Act, but the environment became a popular issue much later in the half-century.

Another problem of the book is that it is titled England 1945-2000 and most of its themes cannot sensibly be discussed separately from Scotland and Wales. Presumably the reason for this is that the volume is the final volume in a series titled The History of England in which England had a much more separate identity and series of interests than it did in the latter parts of the 20th century. Some contributors make a valiant but, to my mind, artificial attempt to justify basing at least part of their account on England alone. Others make no attempt to do so.

These are minor though slightly distracting details. The individual contributions are of a high standard and reasonably comprehensive. The general essays on each decade paint a picture that I found myself recognising and assenting to, and the subjects chosen for individual treatment cover those aspects of national life that most of us would expect to see covered in a discussion of the past 50 years, though I think that a history of Britain in the second half of the 20th century should include something about the changing role of judiciary, particularly the growth of judicial review.

The snapshots are well chosen. Events that preoccupied us in their time and that we may not have thought about for years come flooding back and with them emotions, not necessarily relating directly to the events described but contemporaneous with them - the Festival of Britain, the Lady Chatterley trial, the start of decimal currency, the Marchioness disaster, the Cromwell Street murders, to choose just some of the episodes included. This is nostalgia but, since it is part of the experience that makes us what we are, it should not be neglected on that account.

Because the book is composed of contributions by many hands, it is impossible to identify a single theme. If there is meant to be such a theme, the clue is perhaps contained in the photograph chosen for the frontispiece, of the kiss between the Prince and Princess of Wales on their wedding day. No one can look at that photograph without thinking of the sequel - the dashed hopes, the fairytale that went wrong, the ultimate tragic death in the Paris underpass. Is that meant to be the moral - the story of a fairytale gone wrong?

If so, I think it is too gloomy a picture. It is true that much has gone wrong for Britain over the second half of the 20th century. We have worshipped, and still worship, some false gods; we have explored, and maybe are still exploring, some culs-de-sac; our relative wealth has declined though our absolute wealth has increased; and our power and influence in the world has certainly declined. But, as Ferdinand Mount argues in an essay that constitutes the epilogue to the book, we have lost our empire and the stiff-upper-lip qualities that were necessary to sustain it, and life is more fun as a result. For most of us, and for a greater number than at the beginning of the period, life is pretty good. We are free; our society is for the most part stable; many business people want to invest here; and this is the country in which most of us, and many others, want to live. We could have done worse.

Is it the purpose of books of contemporary history to promote reflections of this sort? It is certainly a requirement that they should paint a picture that we recognise. Most readers of England 1945-2000 will, in my judgement, find a picture they recognise and will draw their own conclusions from it. Those who read The Verdict of Peace will be faced with the author's convictions and will have to decide how far they agree. Both books were enjoyable to read.

Lord Butler of Brockwell is master, University College, Oxford.

England 1945-2000

Editor - Felipe Fernández Armesto
ISBN - -
Publisher - Folio Society
Tel: 020 7400 4200
Price - £34.95
Pages - 624

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