Not down, and far from out

The Myth of Decline
January 21, 2005

There is a long and valuable tradition of American commentators writing perceptively on the condition of Britain, and thereby contributing to British debates across a wide spectrum of politics and policy. The 1960s were something of a golden age for such studies, with, for example, Samuel Beer's Modern British Politics (1965) and the first of the Brookings Institution studies, Britain's Economic Prospects (1968), providing important critical assessments of a decade when a number of modernising initiatives were pursued in response to the growing perception of British decline.

Subsequently, of course, decline has become the grand narrative of postwar British history. Indeed, in certain quarters, a sort of inverted Whiggism prevails in which, apparently, progress can be pasteurised from the record and "declinism" and its attendant concerns can triumph instead.

While diminished geopolitical status and economic difficulties at home have been commonplace in postwar Britain, there have always been academics and other commentators who have proclaimed a different historical realism: that of more-or-less successful adaptation to the end of empire and - as in "most of our people have never had it so good" - unprecedented personal economic security and material advancement.

The gulf between the discourse of economic decline and the historical record reached its apogee in the mid-1970s, with Thatcherism the most visible consequence. Declinism, of course, provided fertile soil for neoliberalism in Britain as in America, and constitutes, thereby, an added reason for scepticism.

The American dimension also provides an additional reason why a transatlantic perspective on postwar British history might be very welcome, and especially from this historian who is well-regarded for his work on New Liberalism (the precursor to much of Tony Blair's conception of new Labour policies) and who has been a frequent visitor to Britain, beginning with a postgraduate year during the "crisis" of 1974-75. The publisher's puff that this is "a unique challenge to orthodox interpretations of one of the most turbulent periods in British history" completes the process of whetting the appetite.

George Bernstein's targets are two myths. First, that of decline, not only as an inadequate historical paradigm but as seriously misleading because the focus on economic underperformance and diminished geopolitical reach and status obscures revolutionary social and cultural trends that in "my own belief (make) Britain today... a more exciting, dynamic, diverse, prosperous and so a better place than it was in 1945".

Second, there is the myth of Americanisation, more particularly that there was no homogeneous mass culture imposed on the British people by American capitalism but rather more diverse processes of social and cultural change, some homegrown and some imported. Of course, the distaste for the vulgarities and banalities of American culture is a long-standing and largely elite preoccupation.

The positive impact of American influences is here attested in two senses: on the one hand, as a contributory factor in promoting those revolutionary social and cultural changes that, in Bernstein's opinion, more than offset the economic negatives; and on the other, in service of Margaret Thatcher's implicit policy goal to undermine the very cultural forces that for neoliberals had generated decline in the first place, by making the British more like Americans with respect to their propensity to entrepreneurship, self-reliance and, so it was hoped, political conservatism.

To an informed British reader, much of this book is hardly a unique challenge to orthodoxies, and certainly professional British historians will wonder why so much is made of what is really quite routine. They will wonder further why many of the contemporary debates, such as those on consensus and Englishness, are dealt with so slightly, especially in such a long book. Part of the answer is that Bernstein believes that contemporary history ought to be written by historians, not social scientists, and that while he may visit the UK he has not read the interesting literatures on contemporary British history, which on the whole are by political scientists. Absent thus are key debates, such as the Europeanisation of British politics and the hollowing-out of the British state, or, at a less elevated level, even on the contested cultural significance of football.

Football does not even feature in the index, though the re-emergence of St George does achieve a mention. The other part of the answer is that, whatever the publisher's hype, the principal intended audience is American, and one can imagine this book at airport bookshops appealing to the sceptical visitor who is not quite certain what will confront them after their long journey across the Atlantic.

Roger Middleton is reader in the history of political economy, Bristol University.

The Myth of Decline: The Rise of Britain since 1945

Author - George L. Bernstein
Publisher - Pimlico
Pages - 816
Price - £9.99
ISBN - 1 84413 102 5

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