Britannia in fur coat and no knickers

October 6, 1995

THE LOST VICTORY: BRITISH DREAMS, BRITISH REALITIES 1945-1950 by Correlli Barnett. Macmillan, 514pp, Pounds 20.00 - ISBN 0 333 48045 7. THE SCHUMAN PLAN AND THE BRITISH ABDICATION OF LEADERSHIP IN EUROPE by Edmund Dell. Oxford University Press, 323pp, Pounds 35.00 - ISBN 0 19 828967 7

Correlli Barnett (Trinity School, Croydon, and Exeter College, Oxford; modern history), a scathing scion of suburbia, whose father, friends' fathers, uncles and neighbours all led routine and unaspiring lives, whose dreary days were relieved only by the arrival of small consignments of canned steak and kidney pudding at the local grocer's, whose Austin Sheerline was effortlessly passed by a Peugeot 203 on the winding N20 in Quercy en route to Spain, whose sensual experience ran to the freshly laundered antimacassars in a second-class coach on the line from Rouen to Dieppe, joined the North Thames Gas Board as a "graduate trainee'' in 1952.

The preceding paragraph mimics the text and temper of The Lost Victory, by turns outraged and outrageous, a strangely familiar jeremiad with a fascinating autobiographical subplot. The subplot can be followed in the footnotes, where the young Barnett (thinly disguised as "the present author"), eager to make his way in the world, pops up with brazen regularity, provocatively shredding the neatly sewn net curtains of his early life.

The present author's first task on joining North Thames Gas was to write for the chairman - Sir Michael Milne-Watson (Eton and Balliol) - a precis of the report of the Anglo-American productivity team on the gas industry. "Briefly put, the American industry belonged in all aspects, from production and distribution to customer service, to the 20th century; the British to the 19th. To cite one small example, American gas meters were installed in boxes on the outside of houses along with the electricity meter so that the meter readers had no need to catch the householder at home to read the meter. The meters were also fixed by standard screw couplings, whereas in Britain lead pipes had to be bent into shape and the joints between them and the brass unions on the meter blown in hot lead by a skilled gasfitter." Five years later, not one of the American practices described in the report had yet been adopted. The culture was inimical to change. Once his initial enthusiasm had waned, Barnett himself became as adept as his fellows at stretching a little effort over a long day. He discovered "the unacknowledged bargain between employers and the white-collared by which partly or wholly redundant jobs for life and a pension were traded against low salaries". The atmosphere in the upper reaches of the board he characterises as "a cross between a senior common room, the Foreign Office and the (officers') mess in a fashionable regiment", neatly rounding up a troika of Barnettian betes noires. In 1957 he left for pastures new (surprisingly enough, in public relations).

With the benefit of hindsight, this formative experience, alienating, chastening and frustrating, appears to be an absolutely crucial influence on the traverse and the targets of Barnett's whole project: what has become a sequence of works under the general rubric of "The pride and the fall", a rubric eerily reminiscent of Evelyn Waugh, investigating (and lamenting) the causes and course of Britain's decline in the 20th century. The Lost Victory is the third in this sequence, following The Collapse of British Power (1972) and The Audit of War (1986), the latter an idea and an expression that Barnett has made very much his own, rooted in his work ever since The Swordbearers (1963) and still salient here. A fourth volume, at least, is foreshadowed in the latest one. The three that have appeared so far are all essentially historical studies, sufficient unto themselves, but The Audit of War and The Lost Victory, in particular, also have a larger and avowedly presentist purpose. They are what Barnett calls operational studies, designed "to illuminate Britain's present and future by the light of her history". In other words, notwithstanding his aspersions on soi-disant experts (especially academics) who "trail a pike" in Whitehall, Barnett has written these books in the express hope of making an intervention - which is, of course, a political intervention - in the public debate. In this he has had a notable success, which may well have whetted his appetite for more. It is interesting to note that the subject of the promised fourth volume is education and training at all levels in the decade after the second world war. The Audit of War caused a tremendous stir in policy-making circles, not least because it was taken up by the Conservative ideologue and premature Thatcherite, Keith Joseph, in his ruinous incarnation as secretary of state for education.

The appeal to Joseph and his myrmidons was clear. Barnett, a brilliant military historian, has become the great excoriator of the postwar consensus and the effete elite ("the small-l liberal Establishment") that upheld it. He has taken on the core myths as he sees them - the myth of victory, the myth of empire, the myth of power, the myth of influence, the myth of solidarity, the myth of solvency: in short, a complacent and deluded account of the national past. For such a task military history was not enough. Total excoriation required "total strategy", that is, "strategy conceived as encompassing all the factors relevant to preserving or extending the wealth and power of a human group in the face of rivalry from other human groups". Like The Audit of War, The Lost Victory therefore ranges over technology, foreign policy, defence, social welfare, industrial productivity, cultural values, and the character of the nation itself, not to mention "the pink-on-the-map Empire" ("India, that famine-stricken burden on scarce shipping resources"), conciliation, ca'canny, and the cautionary vocabulary of "the no-longer-strong".

The central plank of the postwar consensus was the welfare state -"New Jerusalem" in Barnett-speak - together with a certain view of the social contract, or what might now be called civil society. Implicit in this view was a belief that Britain, that is to say the British people, had won a good war; and that as recompense they demanded, and deserved, a good peace (or, more cynically, a good piece). Such beliefs found triumphant expression in the famous 1965 conclusion of A. J. P. Taylor's English History 1914-1945: "The British were the only people who went through both world wars from beginning to end. Yet they remained a peaceful and civilised people, tolerant, patient, and generous. Traditional values lost much of their force. Other values took their place. Imperial greatness was on the way out; the welfare state was on the way in. The British empire declined; the condition of the people improved. Few now sang Land of Hope and Glory. Few even sang England Arise. England had arisen all the same."

For Barnett, this is all so much tosh. In the first place, the British people had not won a war, good or otherwise. Their allies had done that. "Britain had not been so much a victor in her own right as simply on the winning side" - a striking point and, incidentally, one on which Barnett is in complete accord with his nemesis Noel Annan: "LedIby a master of rhetoric, BritainIbecame a victim of her own rhetoric. She fondly imagined she had won the war. She had not. America and Russia had won the war. Britain had in her finest hour not lost it." Talk of a civilised society makes Barnett reach for his gun. His people are not tolerant, patient and generous. They are inexpert, inefficient and inert. There is no single passage in The Lost Victory as powerful as the disturbing, dystopian prevision that closes The Audit of War, but the message is the same. "And so it was that, by the time they took the bunting down from the streets after VE Day and turned from the war to the future, the British in their dreams and illusions and in their flinching from reality had already written the broad scenario for Britain's postwar descent .. As that descent took its course the illusions and the dreams of 1945 would fade one by one - the imperial and commonwealth role, the world power role. British industrial genius, and, at the last, New Jerusalem itself, a dream turned to a dank reality of a segregated, subliterate, unskilled, unhealthy and institutionalised proletariat hanging on the nipple of state maternalism."

There are alternative accounts, neither complacent nor deluded, though for Barnett inadmissible. Taylor's English History was the vade mecum for a generation or more, and is still widely read, but the key interlocutor of The Lost Victory is Never Again (1992), Peter Hennessy's inspiring anatomy of Attlee's Britain, which explores many of the same themes and examines much of the same evidence. The interlocution, however, is silent. Hennessy's work appears in Barnett's bibliography but is nowhere mentioned in the text. There is in fact some agreement between them - as Ross McKibbin has remarked, the weak version of Barnett's argument is accepted by everyone; it is the strong version (the one he insists on making) that is unpalatable - but there is no mistaking the radically different balance of sympathies in Hennessy's overall assessment. "The Attlee years had their failures - a refusal to confront the truly harsh reality of diminished world status, a reluctance to modernise the state, a tendency to look back at the problems of the 1930s rather than forward to the needs of the 1950s. Yet Britain had neverIexperienced a progressive phase to match 1945-51. It is largely, though not wholly, the achievement of those years - and the wartime experience, the crucial platform on which those advances were built - that (made) 1951 Britain "a kinder, gentler and far, far better place in which to be born, to grow up, to live, love, work and even to die."

For the small-l liberal Establishment a new social order and a new world order were two halves of the same walnut. Barnett is as savage about the pretensions of British foreign policy in this period as he is about the perversions of the welfare state - encapsulated with some relish as a total strategy of "all fur coat and no knickers" - but his treatment of one particular episode, the notorious rejection of the Schuman Plan for a European Coal and Steel Community in 1950, is both derivative and perfunctory. Edmund Dell, by contrast, is nothing less than punitive, as the title of his book might suggest. Dell is icily clear. Britain could and should have joined it. None of the time-honoured, time-serving excuses will do. "There was no British political problem comparable with the French political problem. If Frenchmen such as Robert Schuman could press for rapprochement with Germany based on equality of rights within the European Coal and Steel Community, and carry their country with them, there was no reason why an equivalent political effort could not have succeeded in Britain." The obstacle was not the Empire or the special relationship, or "federalism'', or even the proposed high authority. "The obstacle was lack of leadership, of imagination, of analytical and diplomatic skills." And so an historic opportunity was missed - the opportunity to play a leading role in fashioning European political and economic integration. Nearly half a century later it has not been recovered.

Dell's book is a meticulous account, shot through with anger. It too has a personal subtext. Not only is Dell a convinced, and consistent, European; he is also a former Labour cabinet minister. He is angry about the abdication, but more fundamentally about the failure of government that it represents. Here he is at one with Barnett. In both these books a succession of exhausted ministers battle feebly with their prejudices and predators. The titanic Ernest Bevin, ailing but irreplaceable, is portrayed as a disastrous foreign secretary, culpably negligent in his handling of Britain's relations with the rest of Europe, at once poorly served and overwhelmed by his officials. the officials themselves are variously indicted as club and committee men and writers of memoranda ("a continuation of the Oxbridge essay by other means"), overweening and overcautious, sheltered, smug and unimaginative. What is left for Britain with such stuff? According to Harold Macmillan the role of Greeks in the new Roman empire. "Never forget about the Greeks, Forster," the poet Constantine Cavafy once admonished E. M. Forster. "Never forget we are bankruptIPray that you - you English with your capacity for adventure - never lose your capital. Otherwise you will resemble us, restless, shiftless, liars. " Alex Danchev is professor of international relations, Keele University

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