Wednesday 31 October 2018

Britain is not in decline

I just finished and cannot praise highly enough Robert Tombs' The English and Their History. To be honest, I never read a one volume history of England (Lord Macaulay's History of England doesn't count as it only covers the reigns of James II and William III and is in several volumes), but this is now the only one to read. 

It is not good to read a history book from cover to cover, as I have just done. One should read in small portions, think, then re-read. So many ideas jump out.

One of Dr Tombs' themes is that the myth of British decline since 1945 is precisely that, a myth.
There was something in the complaint Britain had been a third rate power with a great Empire. Except at sea it had slender means and was shaken by frequent disasters. If Mrs Thatcher could not delay German unification in 1989-90 neither could Mr Gladstone in 1870- 71. Loss of Empire was the most spectacular face of decline but the Empire as a whole was ceasing to be (if it ever really had been) the bedrock of wealth and power and this winding up has not weakened or impoverished England - rather the contrarry, for what was a liberation for the colonies was also a liberation for England. The fact is that the power of the empire, real when it could be mobilised, had been mostly taken up by defending itself. In military terms, even leaving aside technologies such as aircraft and the atom bomb, Britain in the 1950s was far stronger in sheer numbers of men than at the height of Victoria's empire. .....
Britain was overtaken in the 1940s only by America and Russia, but it had itself overtaken its old rivals France and Germany: whereas at the height of Victorian power its armed forces had always been smaller than those of France, Russia, Germany and even some lesser states and only at sea has it been predominant. Moreover, Britain's former hegemonic and imperial position was not taken away - no country has been able (or perhaps wished) to exercise comparable sway. Of the two 'superpowers' (a 1943 coinage) that seemed to dwarf Britain in the 1950s, one proved to have feet of clay. The other, whose huge economic and military expansion constituted the real change in the post-war structure of power, has found in Vietnam, in Middle East and Afghanistan the very different ideological and political state of the world no longer permits the light touch hegemony formerly exercised by Britain. 
The English and Their History, Penguin edition, p.760

I agree with this. 

Although the 1970s, when I grew up, were a terrible decade for Britain, our relative decline in relation to other countries was not very important. So I thought at the time and it happens, perhaps by luck, that I was right and all the clever men were wrong.

I thought so because everyone was so vastly richer than anyone imagined possible in 1950, which is one reason I did not understand or sympathise with Mrs Thatcher in her day. But politics in those days was drearily materialistic and all about economics. 

And we all (including me) thought of Britain as a small, shabby place.  It was shabby and felt small.

As Julie Burchill said, in the 1970s we tried being Belgium and didn't like it. 

Which reminds me of Lord Curzon's remark in 1907 that 
" ... if India should go ... England, from having been the arbiter, would sink into the inglorious playground of the world. Wondering pilgrims would come to see us just as they climb the Acropolis or inspect the Nile... A congested population would lead a sordid existence with no outlet for its overflow, no markets for its manufactures ... swallowed up in a whirlpool of American cosmopolitanism ... our aspirations defined only by a narrow and selfish materialism ... England would become a sort of glorified Belgium."

Historians now know, but we did not then, that Britain's relative decline in the 1960s and 1970s was due to the fact that Britain had industrialised first and people moving after 1945 from agriculture into towns in Western European countries like France and West Germany increased for a time growth in those countries. It wasn't about us. It was about them catching us up.

Loss of the empire was sad or a cause for celebration, depending on your taste, but did it matter? Did the empire affect ordinary British people's lives?

Britain probably did not got much out of her empire in monetary terms, if anything, though economic historians continue to argue about this. Free trade prevented us doing so and prevented us forming the white dominions into a tariff union, as Joe Chamberlain presciently wanted. But the value of the Empire cannot be measured in l.s.d. (pounds, shilling and pence, not the drug). 

Speaking personally, it fills me with sorrow that Canada, Australia and New Zealand no longer consider themselves British and part of the (imperial) family. This was mostly inevitable, but partly because we abandoned them and joined the E.E.C. in 1973. 

What good did the empire do us?

It cannot be measured in economic or military terms. We spread British civilisation throughout the whole world. It could very easily have been France that achieved this world hegemony - France and England warred over this from 1701 to 1815 - and for all my intense admiration for French Catholic civilisation, British hegemony was very much better for the world as a whole. French republican, secular culture, with its glorification of violence and a disastrous revolution in its national anthem, would be worse. 

This mattered and gives my country huge reasons for justified pride. 

Unfortunately, many British people feel shame instead. They are taught in schools and universities, in the words of an anonymous historian quoted by Robert Tombs, that 'the empire is our holocaust'.

Decline happens when people feel they are in decline, whatever the facts, because decline is not about facts but is subjective. 

British people - most of them - thought they were in decline in the 1970s and 1980s. 

I did not like Thatcherism at the time but I recognised that it would have worked if it succeeded in raising our national self-confidence and ending the sense of decline, and this is what it did. 

What Robert Tombs, who voted Leave, calls declinism is the reason we applied three times to join the E.E.C., as well as the reason for Thatcherism. 

It is interesting that no-one suggests that the end of our putative decline is thanks to our joining the E.E.C. It was due to changes made by Margaret Thatcher.

We are the only E.U. member that never had any obvious reasons to feel grateful for being part of that club, beyond the advantages of the customs union.

The British never any longer think of themselves, as
 they did in the 1970s, as 'the sick man of Europe'. (Tsar Nicholas I coined the expression to describe the Ottoman Empire and it was very regularly used to describe Britain from 1976 until some time in the 1980s.) Brexit has not and will not change that. 

The British are, however, still convinced that they are a secondary, not very significant country, which is not true, except in the sense of being (like every country in the world) second fiddle to the USA. 

This has had two big consequences for foreign policy. Most people since the war, except the far left (Jeremy Corbyn, for example), the far right (Sir Oswald Mosley) and a very few mavericks (Enoch Powell), thought until 2016 that Britain needed to be the close ally and satellite of the USA. Donald Trump's election has thrown that up into the air to some extent, but the deep states of America and England remain very close indeed. So close that MI6 seems to have tried to prevent Donald Trump being elected president.

The second consequence is that many think that Britain needs to be in the European Union, because we are too weak to do well outside.

Once more, national strength is a subjective, not an objective question. If the British are defeatists Brexit will go wrong. If we are the creative, innovative and courageous people we always have been (and arguably showed that we were at the referendum) it will go very well, at least in the medium term and perhaps sooner.

I remember the very thoughtful Conservative cabinet minister William Waldegrave musing in the 1997 election that it might be a good idea for the UK to leave the EU, but we must realise that this would mean the end of our global influence. 

If it were so then that would be fine by me, but I do not think that it is necessarily would happen, for the reasons Robert Tombs gives. 

I see no reason in any case why loss of our global power should hurt our national self-confidence. On the other hand, were Scotland ever to leave the U.K. that would be a absolutely disastrous for Anglo-Welsh self-esteem. Fortunately, Brexit means Scottish secession is less likely.

Talking about whether it is necessary that we continue to throw our might around, I even ask myself what the reason is that we stay in Nato. 

But that is the subject for another article and also a lot of thought by me.


  1. One of the Romanian myth of unity is that language is country. I see English this way.

    1. The indigenous English are clearly an ethnic group and they have received far fewer immigrants than any large country I can think of on the continent before 1948 or even before the 1960s. About the Romanians you know better than me.

    2. I do regognise or think I recognise a sort of Angle face in men of Birmingham and the Midlands, but there are no longer Saxons or Angles. Kentishmen and men of Kent are English. Cornishmen are not ethnic Englishmen in the same way.

    3. Cornishmen are not ethnic English men at all even though many have Anglo-Saxon blood.

    4. Neither are most Welsh or Highland Scots


    5. (regarding the ethnic group) - since the post talks of Britain, I had something bigger & much more nebulous in mind.

    6. I couldn't get this post & comments out of my mind... First thing that struck me were your replies: I would never think of such characteristics of my ilk - certainly not of any of the terms mentioned or implied here. The categories fealt wrong - not that feeling decides (although it might in these matters - not all good). It is, however, quite difficult to say what exactly is that I think I come from if not 'an ethnic group' of certain colours etc., which is also what I imply people are (in this most illusory sense of existence) - at least those I will never meet, that is.

  2. You're just attacking a straw man. As Peter Hitchens has often said whenever he is accused by some NPC of "believing that the past was always better than the present day", the point is not that the past was altogether better in all respects, but that our present day could have been incalculably better than it is. We have been a sensationally badly run country. And each bad decision set us on a new timeline where everything was worse. That's the point. Not this straw man of “declinism”. It is obvious that not everything declines at once. In absolute terms we are richer, have longer lifespans, warmer homes, cleaner air, more natural teeth than we did in 1960. But we could have had those things and much more without most of the bad stuff.

    We could easily have chosen not to start World War II with the most Anglophilic German leader in history leaving a Communist state as the sole European superpower.

    We could easily have chosen not to permit any New Commonwealth immigration. And if we had made that mistake we could have reversed it very easily. Any labour shortages could have been met from Ireland.

    We could easily have kept all the grammar schools open and running and improved the Secondary moderns and technical schools making the system fairer by allowing late developers to transfer. Like in Germany. We would now have a much better educated population.

    We could easily have chosen not to tear up most of our railways. We would now have cheap good railways like Germany does.

    We could have remained in EFTA and now we would probably enjoy trade just as frictionless with the rest of Europe. Even if we had made the mistake of joining the EU had we not signed the European Single Act the movement towards a federal EU could have been stopped in its tracks (since national vetoes applied to this area of decision making at the time).

    We could have tamed the unions easily without destroying our heavy and extractive industry. Growing home ownership by itself meant that Union power was weakening anyway as people with mortgages are less likely to strike. No other large continental countries followed Britain’s high-speed privatisation policies. Germany, France and Italy have all retained their car industries and ship building.

    Revenue from North Sea Oil could have been put into a sovereign wealth fund which by now would be worth hundreds of billions. 

    If the nationalised industries had been sustained there would have been no serious structural unemployment. Had this been the general thrust of politics in the 1980s there would have been no opportunity for the rise of the revolutionary New Labour. Our small Island would not now have a demographic future resembling Brazil baked in the cake.

    Nearly all of those major bad decisions were not just bad only in hindsight, but at the time they were made. There was no public pressure for any of them and nearly all cases public opposition.

    1. I am not attacking a straw man at all. I am not discussing in this post whether mass immigration into the UK has been a good or bad thing or whether we need have let industries collapse as we did. Robert Tombs, by the way, thinks the only alternative was endless subsidies, possibly from the EEC which the Labour left wanted us to leave.
      The immigration policies of New Labour were absolutely catastrophic, but had Thatcherism and New Labour never happened Old Labour would have had an equally catastrophic immigration policy when it eventually returned to office.

    2. "Absolutely catastophic". Why? Presumably becasue they forgot to give the vote to people who are actually making a positive contribution to the UK!

    3. Nearly all of those major bad decisions were not just bad only in hindsight, but at the time they were made. There was no public pressure for any of them and nearly all cases public opposition.

      I'm pretty much in agreement with everything you've said here.

      Britain has been spectacularly badly governed by a spectacularly inept and vicious ruling class.

    4. allowing pseudo intellectuals like you into Cambridge for a start instead of reserving it for the ruling class. In the Victorian era you would have remained within your own social strata and been better for it, along with society.


    5. Working class boys made up 20% of the undergraduates at Oxford and Cambridge in the 1920s. I do not know what the figures were for the reign of Queen Victoria but I bet there are fewer working class undergraduates now than in the 1920s.

    6. Or was the 20% figure only for Cambridge? I rather thinks so but I forget. I am only a pseudo-intellectual.

    7. Your fey statistics illustrate my point beautifully. Have you considered a political career? You would be perfectly suited to the current British environment.

    8. (Theo) I will agree with a part of your preposterous statement, from a certain point of view: the grand universities called wisdom in & have not yet figured out what to do with it (I've asked & saw for myself - roughly at the same time) - yet, best place for this matter to get itself sorted.


      Intellectuals - odd beasts... Nevermind them.

  3. If we are the creative, innovative and courageous people we always have been (and arguably showed that we were at the referendum) it will go very well, at least in the medium term and perhaps sooner.

    We finally agree on something

    1. It is a pity that you had to use the blinkered, uninformed, racist , nationalistic ( in the ugliest sense) , xenophobic, bigoted and just plain lies, that were certainly creative, to carry that vote


    2. Good to hear that we finally agree, but I am sorry if it has taken a very long time. Especially as I am almost always right.

    3. I am always aware that there are two points of view on any subject: mine and one that is usually wrong.

    4. Re NATO

      I think it depends if you believe:

      A. There is a genuine existential Russian threat to Europe. This does not mean Russian enslavement of all of W Europe but a major change to life as we know it.

      B. If the answer is Yes, do you believe a politically crippled NATO by Its own Brexit and offering less robust air and naval forces would sufficiently defend Europe to protect the U.K. from Russian political and economic hegemony?

      C. If the answer is no, do you think, as many do, that Europe’s defence (U.K. spelling for your benefit) should fall to the EU and NATO should now be focussed on out of theatre scenarios, terrorism, etc. and would the UK benefit from this modernised mission?

      My personal belief is that NATO expansion, while admirable in terms of its aims has transformed NATO from an effective military organisation with a political component to a politico-military organisation and its value has diminished. Nonetheless the political dimension of a withdrawal of the U.K. would be disastrous to the survival of the alliance and could leave Europe without a ready substitute for NATO to combat whatever genuine threats do exist.

      Re Thatcher. Always loved Maggie. A true friend to America and the first U.K. PM that I didn’t think was a closet Eurocommunist.

      Re Reagan. Disliked him intensely back then. Have grown to respect him greatly. Particularly in today’s political environment.

  4. There are two main obsessions with Empire...the one that denigrates it utterly (and wrongly) and the reactive one which overcompensates the other way (again wrongly). It was a mixed bag and of its time. Did lots of good and lots of bad. As we become more self aware (in theory) the dubious tends to be makes for more interesting headlines and sells more books.

    1. It did not 'do lots of good'; that was the propaganda we were all fed, and accepted to at least some degree, that 'there were good aspects to the British Empire'. No there weren't, really, all nations subjugated would have been better if left alone.

      Read Shashi Tharoor for more on what empire really was.

  5. Britain has lost a sense of itself. That is a decline of a very acute sort. It may yet regain a sense of itself, but if it does not, it will be lost

  6. Speaking personally, it fills me with sorrow that Canada, Australia and New Zealand no longer consider themselves British and part of the (imperial) family. This was mostly inevitable, but partly because we abandoned them and joined the E.E.C. in 1973.

    I don't think it was inevitable. In Australia's case Britain's decision to join the E.E.C. was merely seen as the latest in a long long line of betrayals.

    Britain abandoned the Empire in 1914, in order to chase the phantom of European Great Power status. As a result Britain now has no empire, and no great power status.

    The Suez humiliation made it crystal clear that Britain no longer counts for anything in the world. Britain had simply become part of the American Empire, useful mostly as a base.

    it might be a good idea for the UK to leave the EU, but we must realise that this would mean the end of our global influence.

    Britain's global influence ended in 1945, although Britain didn't realise it until 1956. That's not a bad thing. Britain should accept being Belgium.

  7. You spot the contradiction on my piece. I do not think leaving the EU necessarily means the end of global influence for the reasons Dr Tombs gives but if it did I would be happy. Yet earlier I had agreed with Miss Butchill that we had not liked being Belgium. I suppose what I meant was that in the 1970s we had not liked not being a prosperous, respected, purposeful country.

    1. Belgium was probably a bad example. An absurd artificial nation that is synonymous in many people's eyes with all the corruption of the EU.

      Switzerland might be a better country to emulate. Neutrality is definitely an option since the U.K. faces no conceivable defence threats whatsoever.

      It might also be better to get rid of the last remnants of the Empire, such as Scotland and Wales.

    2. Belgium is essentially an unhappy marriage and seems to me a paradigm of the post-national, post-Christian Europe of the future, held together by economics.

    3. (digressing) I see Scotland from Spain, it it looks allot like a country already; much more than Cat.

    4. Is that you Ana? It sounds like the comedienne aping Sarah Palin saying she could see Russia from her window.

  8. Funny that. I am talking of a faint perception of peoples, an insubstantial subject to say the least...
    Does Sarah Palin like separatists?

  9. I don 't think the UK as a whole is in decline but individual areas have declined as others have benefited as always happens.

    What I can recall of the UK of the 1970s is not good and much damage was done to the physical heritage (buildings) of the UK in the late 60s. The UK definitely had a rebirth in the 80s and improved throughout the 90s. The rate of improvement seemed to me to stall in the 2000s.

    However we are still something like the world's 5th largest economy which isn't bad going for a small island.