Saturday, May 19, 2007

Fifty years of Britain

I first saw London fifty years ago. A graduate student, I was on one of those circular tours of Europe--of the “If this is Tuesday, it must be Belgium” type. We didn’t visit Belgium, but we did go to the Netherlands, West Germany, Austria, Italy, Switzerland, and France.

I have long felt an affinity with what I regard as the more profound and rigorous traditions of Germany, France, and Italy. British empiricism has always struck me as a lackluster affair, cobbled together out of spare parts in some dreary English backstreet. Still, like most American intellectuals, I felt the tug of Anglophilia.

Although the effect of World War II were still evident in bombed out sites and low standards of cuisine, I found London quite charming. Who doesn’t? At any rate, returned for a week in 1960, exploring the possibilities of writing a dissertation on a manuscript in the British Museum. For this purpose, I obtained a Fulbright grant in 1963. I was to remain in London for four years. With almost total flex time, I explored (with my partner, another Fulbrighter) much of what the city had to offer.
By 1967, when an academic job beckoned from stateside, I could sense warning clouds. Germany--and soon France and Italy--overtook Britain. Inflation surged ahead, and friends who remained in London had to make drastic changes in their standard of living. Successive governments proved incapable of getting control of the situation--until, that is, Margaret Thatcher came along.

Most Americans have trouble giving Margaret Thatcher her due. Not so Tony Blair who, even though he is a Labourite, does not flinch before the sobriquet “son of Thatcher.” At any rate the whole matter has been turned around. Now it is Americans, with their shrinking dollar, who feel poor in Britain.

It seems that this remarkable series of transformations has been charted in a new book by an able Scottish journalist, Andrew Marr, who explains why he loves living in Britain in this piece from The Independent.


The story of the British in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War is a morally attractive one with much to learn from--a time of optimism and energy, despite apparently crippling difficulties.

Politicians on both sides of the political divide believe that Britain will be important in the new world to be built and a great force for good. Returning soldiers and millions of civilians are determined to make up for lost time, to live happier lives.
Patriotism is not narrow, there is such a thing as society, and the common good is not laughed at. Labour is promising a New Jerusalem and though no one is entirely sure of what that magical city might feel like to live in, it clearly involves a new deal in health, schooling and housing.

In British film there is great energy and ambition. Designers and architects have brought over here plans originally drawn in Europe between the wars to create a brighter, airier and more colourful country. In science and technology Britain seems to have achieved great things which augur well for peacetime.

There is a general and justified pride in victory, not yet much tainted by fear of nuclear confrontation to come. If people are still hungry and ill housed, they are safe again. If they are grieving, they also have much to look forward to, for the baby boom is at full pitch.

There is much in the Britain of the later Forties that would surprise or even disgust people now.

It was not just the shattered cities or the tight rations that would arch modern eyebrows, but the snobbery and casual racism--even, despite the freshly shocking evidence of the concentration camps, widespread anti-Semitism.

Yet overall, this was a country brimming with hope. In history, no quality rubs up as brightly.

The great debate about the meaning of our post-war history has been, roughly, an argument between Left and Right.

There are historians of the Centre Left such as Peter Hennessy who are generally impressed by the country's leaders and get under their skin as they wrestled with dilemmas.

Then there are those led by Correlli Barnett who emphasise failure and missed opportunities, at least until Margaret Thatcher arrives to save the situation in 1979.

Everyone else struggles between these force-fields. And so what is my view? That we grumpy people, perpetually outraged by the stupidity and deceit of our rotten rulers, have (whisper it gently) had rather a good 60 years.

Britain suffered a crisis in the Seventies, a national nervous breakdown, and has recovered since. Britain in the Forties and Fifties was a damaged and inefficient country which would be overtaken by formerly defeated nations such as France, Germany and Japan.

But the longer story, the bigger picture, is that Britain successfully shifted from being one kind of country, an inefficient imperialist manufacturer struggling to maintain her power, to become a wealthier social democracy, and did this without revolution.

And shift she did, in the greatest scuttle in the world.

British governments, Labour and Tory, duly got rid of the Empire. This meant the deaths of untold numbers in other continents - Muslims and Hindus caught up in ethnic cleansing, the African victims of massacre and dictatorship, civil war and famine for the Arabs, Cypriots and many nationalities of the Far East.

Britain, meanwhile, refocused on her new role as a junior partner in the Cold War, close to Europe but never quite European, speaking the same language as Americans, but never meaning exactly the same.

Always, we have been a country on the edge.

We moved from being on the edge of defeat, to the edge of bankruptcy, to the edge of nuclear annihilation and the edge of the American empire, and came out on the other side to find ourselves on the cutting edge of the modern condition, a post-industrial and multi-ethnic island, crowded, inventive and rich.

The years before Thatcher were not a steady slide into disaster.

Nobody has put this relative British success better than the American historian George Bernstein, who called his account of post-1945 Britain The Myth of Decline and who said of the years before the crisis of the Seventies:

''Britain's performance in providing for the wellbeing of its people--as measured by employment, a safety net that kept them out of poverty, and improved standards of living--was outstanding.''

And this despite ferocious economic conditions.

There is a danger of distorting real history with false endings. If one decides that the breakdown of the Seventies was the single most important thing to have happened to post-war Britain, which shadows everything before and since, then inevitably the story of the Forties, Fifties and Sixties becomes darker.

Humdrum events dutifully rearrange themselves as ominous warnings.

All the things that went right, all the successful lives that were lived during 30 crowded years, the triumphs of style and technology, the better health, the time of low inflation, the money in pockets, the holidays and the businesses that grew and thrived, are subtly surrounded with ''yes, but'' brackets... guess what's coming next.

But this is a strange way of thinking. In personal terms it would be like defining the meaning of a life, with all its ups and downs, entirely by reference to a single bout of serious illness or marital break-up in middle age.

Does this mean we should cheer our leaders? Certainly not. For most of the modern period politics has served Britain less well than our self-congratulation about parliamentary democracy might suggest.

Good people, acting honourably, failed to lead well. We have been run by cliques of Right and Left who did not understand the direction the country was taking.

Hennessy is right: the political class was intelligent and faced terrible choices which are easy to brush aside afterwards when the dangers have passed.

But Barnett is also right: we could have had a better country, had we had clearer-minded leaders who did not shrink from telling hard truths, or from treating the voters like adults.

So, Labour did not build a New Jerusalem. So, the Tory Cabinets of the Fifties and early Sixties failed to create the restored great power, the New Elizabethan Age they dreamed of.

The Wilson and Heath years were supposed to be a time of modernisation, a refitted, retooled Britain. They ended with trade unions rampant and the lights flickering out.

John Major set out promising to create a country at ease with itself and ended up with a country ill at ease, above all with John Major.

Tony Blair's New Labour Britain was never as cool or efficient as he told us it would be, even before the Iraq war. Nor was it whiter than white.

Each failure occurred on its own terms.

The exceptions were the Labour government of 1945, which developed a Welfare State even if it did not achieve the social transformation it wanted, and Margaret Thatcher's first two administrations, which addressed the British crisis head-on. Both set templates for what followed.

But even these two counter-examples are not completely clear.

Post-war Labour ran out of popularity and momentum within a couple of years, while Mrs Thatcher's vision of a remoralised, hard-working nation of savers and strong families was hardly what the partying, divided, ''loadsamoney'', easy credit, big-hair Eighties delivered.

What follows is a story of the failure of political elites. Often the famous political names, those faces familiar from a thousand cartoons and newsreels, seem to me like buzzing flywheels with broken teeth, failing to move the huge and complex structures of daily life.

If that was all, it would be a depressing tale. But it is not.

Opening markets, well-educated and busy people, a relatively uncorrupt and law-abiding national tradition, and an optimistic relish for the new technologies and experiences

offered by 20th-century life all make the British experience generally better than political history alone would suggest.
In the more recent decades the retreat of faith and ideology, and their replacement by consumerism and celebrity may have made us a less dignified lot.

Yet modern Britain has made great advances in science, culture and finance which have benefited, and will benefit, the world.
Among the puzzles facing humanity at the beginning of the 21st century are global warming; the mystery of consciousness; and how ageing Western societies adapt to the new migrant cultures they require to keep them functioning.
British people have been important in bringing answers, just as they were seminal in the development of the Web, and in creating modern music and television. We have become a world island in a new way.

In the period covered by this book, the dominant experience has been acceleration. We have lived faster. We have seen, heard, communicated, changed and travelled more. We have experienced a material profusion and perhaps a philosophical or religious emptiness that marks us off from earlier times.

If, by an act of science or magic, a small platoon of British people from 1945 could be time-travelled 60 or so years into the future, what would they make of us?

They would be nudging one another and trying not to laugh. They would be shocked by the different colours of skin. They would be surprised by the crammed and busy roads, the garish shops, the lack of smoke in the air.

They would be amazed at how big so many of us are - not just tall but shamefully fat. They would be impressed by the clean hair, the new-looking clothes and the youthful faces of the new British.

But they would feel shock and revulsion at the gross wastefulness, the food flown from Zambia or Peru then promptly thrown out of houses and supermarkets uneaten, the mountains of intricately designed and hurriedly discarded music players, television sets and fridges, clothes and furniture; the ugly marks of painted, distorted words on walls and the litter everywhere of plastic and coloured paper.

They would wonder at our lack of church-going, our flagrant openness about sex, our divorce habit - our amazingly warm and comfortable houses.

They would then discuss it all in voices that might make us laugh at them - insufferably posh or quaintly regional. Yet these alien people were us. They are us.

The crop-haired urchins of the Forties are our pensioners now. The impatient, lean, young adults of 1947 with their imperial convictions or socialist beliefs are around us still in wheelchairs or hidden in care homes.
It was their lives and the choices they made which led to here and now. So although they might stare at us and ask, ''Who are these alien people?'' we could reply: ''We are you, what you chose to become.''

Andrew Marr's A History of Modern Britain has been published by Macmillan at £25.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thatcher and Reagan, both, were a response to a Malaise, an impotence, to failure after failure. We often forget that those failures were very real. Today, for example, Jimmy Carter called GWB "the worst in history." What he forgets is that HE held that honor before GWB. He stacked failure upon failure, and he has the chutzpah to call the kettle "black?" The Left may despise Thatcher and Reagan -- not without some justification -- but "Morning in America" was not merely an ad campaign, it was an elan. For all their mistakes, and they had their share, both energized a restoration in the possibility to become great, not merely accept the Malaise of failure of their predecessors.

Marr, however, seems to omit a salient feature in his account: The Role of Class in Britain. The Class Warfare broke down after WWII. The "landed gentry" lost their privileges, while the worker lost perspective in Labour's Clash of Class. Rather than perpetuate Class Conflict, the two had to approach each other with a modicum of respect and deference. The Worker could go to Oxford, the privileged could ride trains, and both needed coal. The Days of Upstairs/Downstairs were eclipsed by meeting in the stairwell.

The British have contributed so many wonderful insights, leaders, scientists, writers, and "rights" to a forlorn humanity. Their "stiff upper lip" may get a bit stiff, a bit uppity, a bit set in its ways, but it also disciplined the hearts and minds of humankind to self-control and self-mastery. How this little Isle on the Edge of Rome's Empire became the New Jerusalem is a testament to its fierce wrestling with itself -- always with utmost civility, mind you (if Cromwell and Mary Queen of Scots are taken off the table).

Would India be the world's largest democracy without the Brits? Would the U.S. be the first, free, and open society without the Brits? If only the rest of us had their Disraelis, Churchills, Gladstones, Newtons, Shakespeares, etc. No wonder the French are in perpetual envy! The French may have spirit, cuisine, art, amour, but the Brits have spine, discipline, and gifted minds. The Yin and Yang, the Isle and the Continent, the Unique and the Common. Alas, they may find rapprochement "in between."

"The Way Up is the same as the Way Down," but life is in the "mean." We may yet one day learn that truth. At least, we have two good teachers in the Polarity of the Binary. And the Battle goes on.

11:47 AM  

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