Saturday 15 July 2017

The myth of Britain’s decline

Robert Tombs, who supervised me at university, has written a timely piece on Brexit and declinism entitled
The myth of Britain’s decline
 with the encouraging sub-headline
Our glory days are not over – they’re in full swing
I quote him.
Who would deny that Britain is no longer the great power it once was? Well, speaking as a historian, I would. Declinism is at best a distortion of reality, and
mostly mere illusion. But so important is it in shaping our view of ourselves and our relations with the world that it demands sceptical scrutiny. It rests, above all, on two assumptions. First, that we have long been failing economically. Second, that we have suffered a loss of sheer power and hence influence in the world.
He argues that Britain's apogee was the result of being the first country to industrialise and this position of being the richest and most powerful country in the world was not sustainable.
Britain has been relatively wealthy at least since the Middle Ages, and industrial pioneers gave us a temporary dominance in manufacturing during the mid-19th century. This was a brief and unique episode. Naturally, other countries adopted British technology — helped by British capital and expertise — and began to catch up. This was desirable as well as natural, because it provided richer markets for British goods and services and valuable investment opportunities for British savers.
Since the 1880s, pessimists have always tended to compare British economic performance at any moment with those most rapidly catching up. When postwar European integration began in the 1950s, Italy, France and Germany were the most spectacular catchers–up, recovering from their wartime devastation and shifting their large and relatively unproductive agricultural sectors into industry.

He is a brilliant historian, whose one volume history of England did what Lord Macaulay's History of England did and superseded the last fashionable novel on the tables of young

ladies. Dr Tombs is rare among Cambridge dons in being Leave. Still rarer admitting it. It is social death in my alma mater and at the other place.

In Romania poets priests and professors are still right wing, but this alas will change.

When he taught me Robert Tombs was young and handsome but now for some reason he has grey hair.

I remember him looking askance when I said the ideas of Joseph de Maistre interested me.


  1. I remember as a student my supervisor Philip (now Lord) Norton telling me that there were more Conservative academics than you would imagine but, like good Tories, like Hailsham's view of religion or fox hunting, had better things to do than make a point of it. In my experience, they have become fewer and fewer which makes academia such a tediously predictable place now. I'm glad to be out...

  2. The UK is run by the accountants, not the technologists.

    1. It's certainly not run by technologists. What are technologists? Not by accountants judging by how the government spends like a sailor and claims to be imposing austerity. It's run by very many people but at the moment no-one seems in charge.