Category: history

That time I was nearly burned alive by a machine-learning model and didn’t even notice for 33 years

Remember Red Plenty, Francis Spufford’s historical SF novel about the Soviet Union’s efforts to create a real-time planned economy using computers and the ideas of Oskar Lange and Leonid Kantorovich? Sure you do if you’re on this blog. Well, it turns out that it had a dark and twisted 1980s sequel.

We already knew about Operation RYAN, the Yuri Andropov-inspired maximum effort search for intelligence offering strategic warning of a putative Western preventive war against the Soviet Union, and that it intersected dangerously with the war scare of 1983. We also knew that part of it was something to do with an effort to assess the intelligence take using some sort of computer system, but not in any detail. A lot more documents have just been declassified, and it turns out that the computer element was not just a detail, but absolutely central to RYAN.

At the end of the 1970s the USSR was at the zenith of its power, but the KGB leadership especially were anxious about the state of the economy and about the so-called scientific-technological revolution, the equivalent of the Revolution in Military Affairs concept in the US. As a result, they feared that once the US regained a substantial advantage it would attack. The answer was to develop an automated system to predict when this might happen and what the key indicators were.

Model the whole problem as a system of interconnected linear programming problems. They said. Load up the data. They said. Comrades, let’s optimise. They said.

In all, the RYAN model used some 40,000 data points, most of which were collected by greatly increased KGB and Joint GRU field activity. It generated a numerical score between 0 and 100. Higher was better – above 70 peace was probable, whereas below 60 it was time to worry. The problem was the weighting applied to each of those parameters. Clearly, they had to train the model against some existing data set, and the one they chose was Nazi Germany in the run-up to Operation BARBAROSSA.

Who needs theory? They said. We’ve got the data. They said. A simple matter of programming. They said.

As Sean Gallagher at Ars wisely points out, this is a case of the problem described here, that gave us those amazing computer dream pictures. The neural network that classifies cat photos must by definition contain enough information to make a random collection of pixels catlike, although uncannily not quite right. Similarly, RYAN picked up a lot of unrelated data and invariably made it vaguely Hitler-y.

The score went through 60 as early as 1981. The Soviets responded by going on higher alert and sending more agents to posts in the West to get more data. Meanwhile, in the West, John Lehman’s maritime strategy was being put into effect, causing the US Navy and its allies to operate progressively closer to the Soviet periphery, which only made things worse. In the autumn of 1983, the score may have fallen below 40, around the time Stanislas Petrov did his thing.

At this point, Communist Party local cadres were being called in to be briefed on the coming war and their duty to prepare the population. Tactical nuclear weapons were released to local control and moved about by helicopter. The Soviet military was on a higher state of alert than even during the Cuban missile crisis. Fortunately, at this crucial juncture, Yuri Andropov resolved the situation by dying and therefore denying the Big Algo that crucial parameter: patronage.

So, when I was reading all that SF as a kid, I had actually narrowly escaped being vaporised with nuclear space rockets by an evil computer that had convinced itself I was Hitler! I had no idea!

Less flippantly, one of the major themes in Red Plenty is the tension between Kantorovich’s vision of a decentralised, instantly responsive socialist economy, and the Party’s discretionary power – between communism and the Communists, if you like. The RYAN story flips this on its head. This time, it wasn’t the bureaucrats’ insistence on clinging to power that was the problem. It was the solution. The computer said “War”; only fundamentally political, human discretion could say “Peace”. As Joseph Weizenbaum put it, a computer can decide but it cannot choose.

Another thing from Red Plenty that comes up here is that the same unvarying forces of Soviet politics worked the same way, computers or no computers. In the end, everything was personal, and settled through the backstairs gift-economy of favours and influence. Only the loss of its patron could stop the machine.

Also, another theme in the book is the future role the actors in it will play in the perestroika years. We have the cadre down in Novocherkassk who refuses to get used to violence. We have the cadre and programmer who may be turning into an embarrassing trendy dad, but has been enduringly influenced by the Czech experience of 1968. We have the economist who has learned the lesson that the system will have to change dramatically, even if this gets put off 20 years. When they reach the peak of their careers, something is going to change.

And of course they were arriving there just in time to “sudo killall -9 ryand” before ryand killed us all.

Monopoly is Bad. Competition is Good for All

Here’s something from Municipal Dreams on the Dover House estate, Putney. Quote of note:

This was a new working class whose living conditions and relative affluence combined with a self-conscious ‘respectability’ to create a more domesticated and private life-style, one that knowingly and happily distanced itself from the old intimacies of slum living. We saw this in the Wythenshawe Estate, Manchester, too. And as at Wythenshawe, gardening was a key indicator of the new way of life.

Yeah, I recognise my Basildon pioneer relatives there. Then, there’s this incredible not-even-faking poster.


Monopoly is bad. Competition is good for all! I’ve recently been reading Richard Overy’s The Morbid Age: Britain and the Crisis of Civilisation, 1919 – 1939, which is a sort of history of middlebrow ideas in interwar Britain. Quite by design, it doesn’t have sections on the great 20th-century narratives like communism, fascism, technology, feminism, etc – instead it covers things like the League of Nations association, popularised psychoanalysis, eugenics, and “planning”.

One of the things that sticks out is the enormous capability of civic culture at the time – a group of associations could just put on a national referendum like that, almost certainly because they called on the same volunteers who organised general elections although Overy doesn’t discuss logistics. Another thing that sticks out, though, is how much time and energy always goes into being wrong. Which leads me back to that poster; imagine a society that finds it necessary to politicise a flower show. What’s wrong with these people? That mid-century Vereinsleben, now much venerated, was deeply ambiguous.

Sheepy Howe and the oil

Says Chakrabortty, where did all the North Sea oil money go? Says Thatcher Foundation, well, Fatty Soames wanted to use it for investment, like Tony Benn according to the Civil Service note on the file, and Geoffrey “Dead Sheep” Howe nixed it on the grounds that spending it on investments must needs crowd-out other investments and we’d be no better off. This is a rare example of crowding out applied to not borrowing money. Actually, Howe seems to have been wobbly and all over the place on this, there’s a surprise. So there’s your money.

the index

The catalogue of the Foreign Office’s secret archive at Hanslope Park is available on and it is as cool as you may have hoped. Literally every mark in here exudes history. It also reminded me of the J.G. Ballard short story The Index, a novella that only exists as its own index. I mean, the very first item is a:

substantial eclectic collection comprising primarily of geographic maps typically with political, economic or strategic emphasis that are mostly printed on translucent paper from A4 up to approximately A0+ in paper size, with diagrams and building floor plans

Maps. Maps. Maps! Quite a bit of it seems to relate to Hanslope Park’s primary function, the centre of the FCO’s world-wide radio network, as originally built for SOE and the distribution of ULTRA decrypts during WW2. Like so:

3 acetate maps depicting FCO local communications – world disposition of HFSSB radio telephone terminal equipment in Africa, Southern Europe, Central Asia, South Asia, South America and the Caribbean (drawing number EC 200/1)

Others are just special:

A small collection of files returned from posts on a variety of subjects LIVE OAK; zonal executive instruction No.68 detention of dangerous persons; control of Berlin population in an emergency; Rhodesia secret negotiations; Cyprus Sovereign Base Areas; UK and Ireland security liaison; IRA Cease fire; Dhofar Rebellion; implementation of Allied Control Authority Law No 43 in Berlin production of implements of war; reporting on armed forces; development of nuclear weapons by additional countries up to 1980; flights into the Berlin Control Zone; British intelligence and security exchanges with the German authorities; JIC Germany meetings, papers and correspondence; air operations Operation Nylon; Operation Manoeuvre; UK Defence Policy; Defence review

Really, is there anything in that list that isn’t potentially fascinating? And it gets better.

7; Bethhel and Greenhill and Gladwyn – Russia Committee

Presumably Gladwyn Jebb, wartime SOE official, postwar diplomat and Labour MP?

11. disclosure of information by Col Harrison re WWII ops in Iran;

Speaks for itself.

38. Subhas Chandra Bose; 24. Hess; 25. Australian War Crimes; 26. Nazi War Criminals in Britain; 27. Minister and Massacres – papers relating to the repatriation of Cossacks

You’ve got my full attention.

14. Atomic Blanket


What about this little fella? This one’s a floppy disk. A floppy disk!

Lonhro; loose papers relating to visits abroad; sensitivity reviewers’ contracts; Robert Maxwell; Iraq and the Gulf; Olympics Bid; Lord Alerdice.

Iraq. The Gulf. Maxwell. Tiny Rowland. The Olympics. All in 720KB. (Presumably that’s the NI good-bloke politician, Alderdice.)

Migration and Visa Department file GV 15022T on the Menacham Begin, former leader of the Jewish Irgun terrorist organisation

Begin’s immigration file.

Drawers contains a few unestablished and established British staff employed by Control Commission of Germany..Marked “Control Commission Index”, believed to be an index of staff employed by the Allied Control Commission (Germany); index cards include names and years of birth, first drawer contains similar but crossed out (deceased?)

Now I demand more noir set in the Attlee-era occupation of Germany. Don’t you? Or do you prefer more sunshine in your cynicism?

Finding aides relating to correspondence and files used by BE Beirut and papers relating to the construction of the Karatchou to Tartus oil pipeline. Some documents in Arabic. Includes a FCO confidential Print titled `a collection of oil agreements and connected documents relating to the Persian Gulf Sheikdoms and the Sultanate of Muscat and Oman’.

This one, included in “Admin Indexes”, makes you snap bolt upright:

papers relating to the kidnapping used in connection with a request under the Code of Practice on Access to Information.

And who could resist:

Colonial photographs including: Cyprus, Suva, Freetown, Mauritius, Sabah, Malaysia, Zanzibar, Gold Coast, East Africa, Gambia, Nigeria, Hong Kong, Australia, Fiji, Jamaica, Southern Cameroons, Peking and Hamburg (approx. 70 photographs); Arctic Expedition by Soviet Union (approx. 30 photographs)

They’ve got the land registry of Port-Royal, Jamaica, as it was before the earthquake. Just in case.

Index of Real Estate Transactions before 1692 earthquake, City of Port Royal Jamaica

There is a lot on Germany.

Papers returned by the last British Governor of Spandau Prison after the death of Rudolph Hess and closure of the Prison. Includes documents held as evidence in the Hess theft case and returned by the Prosecutor’s Office in Russian, French and German, photographs of the scene of Hess’s suicide.


The German Holdings of the International Telephone and Telegraph Corporation, New York (including non German holdings held through German subsidiaries, by FO (1945)

Now you’re talking. Weirdly, one item seems to be a substantial library of good German literature.

Plus, the full runs up to 1968 of security intelligence reporting on the remaining colonies, the investigation into the Kenyan foreign minister’s murder, poignant registers of British marriages and deaths in odd ports in South America where nobody goes any more. And this is just what’s in the first 100 records.

It’s not all gems, though.

Papers relating to the annual Regional Learning and Development Conference, the Springboard Women’s Development Programme and related budget and expenditure matters.


Material from Mr Hoon’s Private Office: letter float of outgoing letters and minutes

I happen to have the book here.

Erik Lund blogs about the P-51 Mustang and wonders why the British bought so many aircraft from US West Coast companies. Well, he should read back through his own blog and remember that the Liberator worked when Curtiss-San Diego built it and the problems began when Ford tried. But anyway. Lund:

It is a little hard to divine Harry Self’s intent here. March of 1940 was an exceedingly loose time; the British had a preference for making planes in California, for whatever reason. Most importantly, probably, North American was already one of the Air Ministry’s preferred customers, thanks to their Harvard order. The Air Ministry was thoroughly “inside” North American, having intervened to introduce a retractile undercarriage. I am not seeing any sign of an RAF engineer officer’s memoir entitled I Spent World War II in LA Liaising With the Aviation Industry And Getting A Really Good Tan, but there probably wouldn’t be.

Well, I don’t know about the memoir but I can identify the man. About the end of the second week of July 1942, Frank Whittle was somewhere in the LA area after five weeks of technical consultations from GE Schenectady to Curtiss, and the stress is sending him up the walls. It was probably telling a US Navy-sponsored turboprop project at an unnamed plant in the area that they were doing it wrong that brought about a crisis. Whittle is advised to take a couple of weeks’ leave, and heads for a hotel in Santa Monica for “sun, rest, etc.”

Being the chippy autodidact/engineer/test pilot he was, Whittle gets bored and anxious and stir crazy and decides to crack on with more engine development. Enter Group Captain Adams RAF, described as “in charge of the Beverly Hills office of the British Air Commission”, who asks for 24 hours and sends him to a party at the home of one Edward Hillman, Jr, who greets Whittle in his swimming trunks, presses chicken noodle soup on him, encourages him to relax, and spends the rest of the party on the phone. At least some of the phoning is to his wife, June, described as a British dancer, who needs some persuading to show up. Whittle notes that he seemed to be surrounded by film stars, and gets chucked into the swimming pool around 3 am. I read between the lines that June eventually did rock up and she had something to do with it. He stuck around for the next 10 days without remembering much, or at least much that he wanted to put in his memoir. At any rate he cheered up.

Hillman? Well, that’s less obvious than you might think. This guy, who Wikipedia considers interesting because he married Marian Nixon, who then left him for her director in We’re Rich Again. Apparently he picked a father who owned a department store in Chicago, a good decision.

Perhaps June might have left more of a trace? Ah. Hitchcock Wiki tells us she did two movies with Alfred Hitchcock, 13 years apart, and married this bloke before she took up with Hillman.

As well as having inherited the controlling stake in the Cunard Line, Inverclyde had himself married a retail heiress, Olivia Sainsbury, before he met her. It certainly puts a special light on the title of We’re Rich Again. His Wikigloss says he left Cunard to the professionals because he had no business sense. Tu parles.

He also got shot with the Scots Guards during the first world war and got gangrene, recovered, and survived the German air strike on the Lancastrian during the second British evacuation from France in 1940. He sounds more interesting than Hillman, a cipher except for his wives, but I reckon June Tripp probably tells us he was also an epic pain.

Which leaves us with the question – who was this Group Captain Adams?

And the book? Well, I have this Pan Giant copy of Whittle’s memoir I basically stole from a backpacker hostel in Christchurch, New Zealand, years ago. They’ve still got my hat, if the earthquake didn’t get them, so we’re quits.

A bit more Chertok

A bit more Chertok. How often do you read a Soviet account of the Cuban missile crisis?

In October 1962, Boris Chertok was, as very often, down at Baikonur site 1 frantically preparing spaceships. Very often, the spacecraft and the launcher would arrive at the vehicle integration facility (MIK) in a semifinished state and the processes of check-out and of just finishing the job were not really separate. They had just had a failed launch, Korolev had gone back to OKB-1, while Chertok stayed on to prepare the next lot of rockets. Launches in the Mars-Venus scientific programme, the Voskhod manned programme, the flight development tests of the R-9 rocket, and the Zenit reconnaissance programme were on the agenda.

Chertok and colleagues were aware of the installation of the R-12 and R-14 IRBMs and the SA-2 air defence system in Cuba; unlike a lot of Korolevians, Chertok had worked on projects outside OKB-1 and knew the people involved.

Ironically, while he was mostly working on the Zenit recce satellite, he had to endure sarcasm from the military personnel at Baikonur who claimed that Wrangel’s design bureau was working for them, delivering the IRBMs, while OKB-1 just worked for TASS by shooting dogs and men into orbit and flags at the Moon. Although the very first Zenit had already been such a success that the Joint GRU intelligence analysts insisted on more flights even before the tests were finished, the Zenits were far too secret to talk about.

Chertok and his colleagues saw them as a personal triumph – once the optical parameters were set by the mass and dimensional limits of the rocket, the quality of the photographic film being a given, the image resolution was directly determined by the pointing accuracy and stability of the control system, which also had to point the solar panels at the Sun and the radio antenna at the Soviet Union.

Censorship meant that not much got out about the developing crisis. Chertok wasn’t important enough to have access to White TASS, the uncensored, classified translations of Western news coverage circulated to VIPs. So, one day in October he drove to the MIK and found that rather than being waved through the gate by the usual policeman who long since recognised him, he was subject to an aggressive vehicle search by armed KGB personnel.

Inside the test site, things got worse. Although the R-7A version of the Semyorka was now an operational ICBM, very few launch sites existed and Baikonur Site 1 was one of them. However, this doesn’t seem to have been taken all that seriously. In practice, this meant that an R-7A stack was parked in the MIK under wraps, next to whatever they were working on, and generally ignored. Chertok doesn’t say whether its 2.4 megaton nuclear warhead was mounted or whether this had to come from a storage site.

This day was different from all other days. The standby nuke was half out of the building, the first time anyone had seen it move. The hunt was on for anyone who could help dismantle the Mars probe on the launch pad and roll out the nuke.

Chertok met the military head of the launch site. The conversation is too good to spoil, although it hinged on the combination of exploring Mars and destroying civilisation; he learned the details, helped out in the panic process of dismantling the Semyorka on the pad and preparing its evil twin, and then joined his colleagues at Korolev’s cottage for their bomb party. He got to prepare the zakuski, joining late as he did.

Due to the German-inspired combination of LOX, alcohol, and kerosene, the maximum holdover time for an R-7A was only a few hours, and it took hours to fuel them. Had the RAF Vulcans hurtled in from the north, Baikonur was toast. This was very much a use-it-or-lose-it system.

After a while, much vodka, contradictory radio broadcasts, eventually someone drove up in a giant cloud of dust and brought the news that the end of the world had been postponed.

Hating Britain, Orwell edition

Indeed; I remembered Orwell being very harsh about British complacency, or what looked like it, early in the Second World War or just before it, in terms that were close to the young Ralph Miliband’s. I thought this was in one of the Essays, possibly Socialism and the English Genius, but I couldn’t find it.

This was because it’s actually at the finish of Homage to Catalonia. Orwell, having been thrown out of Barcelona by his own side’s secret police, is heading back to the UK.

And then England – southern England, probably the sleekest landscape in the world. It is difficult when you pass this way, especially when you are peacefully recovering from seasickness with the plush cushions of a boat-train carriage underneath you, to believe that anything is really happening anywhere. Earthquakes in Japan, famines in China, revolutions in Mexico? Don’t worry, the milk will be on the doorstep tomorrow morning, the New Statesman will come out on Friday. The industrial towns were far away, a smudge of smoke and misery hidden by the curve of the earth’s surface. Down here it was still the England I had known in my childhood: the railway-cuttings smothered in wild flowers, the deep meadows where the great shining horses browse and meditate, the slow-moving streams bordered by willows, the green bosoms of the elms, the larkspurs in the cottage gardens; and then the huge peaceful wilderness of outer London, the barges on the miry river, the familiar streets, the posters telling of cricket matches and Royal weddings, the men in bowler hats, the pigeons in Trafalgar Square, the red buses, the blue policemen — all sleeping the deep, deep sleep of England, from which I sometimes fear that we shall never wake till we are jerked out of it by the roar of bombs.

He sounds like he’s going to throw up.

I had in my mind an image of someone feeling much the same, looking down from an aircraft, and I realise I’d conflated Orwell’s text with a Battle of Britain memoir (quoted in Richard Hough’s book) in which an RAF pilot evacuated to the UK from France recalled his astonishment at the apparent peace, complacency, and arrogance he saw back in the UK, a few weeks before the bombs. The emotion was probably quite common.

…and give reasons in writing

Cold War nuts should follow Mike Kenner’s Twitter feed if they’re not already. His key shtick is getting interesting documents under FOIA and tweeting them bit by bit. This week, he’s got the national war instructions for the police, from 1977, codenamed POLWIN.

This is some pretty bleak stuff, obviously; I can’t imagine instructions on the administration of justice after a nuclear attack issuing from the Regional Commissioner’s office holding out much hope of justice, or indeed being issued in the first place.

But the really interesting thing is how much of the police mobilisation plan in the event of an ultimate existential crisis eventually got implemented.

For example, the familiar PSU (Police Support Unit) serials are a war-book measure in the 1977 instructions, and the to-do list in Section 8 of the instructions includes activating your coach hire contracts and earmarking the vans to move the PSUs out, and this is mentioned in the context of the police mutual-aid plan.

That’s just tactics, but Section 7.4 deals with what was to be done with people whose loyalty was suspected. Once the emergency defence regulations went into force, the Secretary of State would make Restriction Orders on named individuals which would permit him (in 1977 it was Merlyn Rees) to lock them up, assign them to a place of residence, place limits on what possessions they could have, and what employment they might take up.

MI5 would make recommendations to the minister, with the odd exception of IRA suspects, who would be suggested to the minister by the Met Commissioner. The police would put this in effect on the ground, and the instructions provide for very detailed arrangements including five copies (one spare) of an arrest form, specimen blank provided. Suspects placed under arrest would be conveyed to HM Prison, the specific prison to be notified to the Chief Constable with the list of suspects. There, they would be booked in, and provided by the Prison Governor with a copy of the Restriction Order giving reasons for their detention.

I think it is very noticeable that today, in nothing like the circumstances foreseen in POLWIN, we are doing most of this…but we don’t always tell the suspect why! Post-liberal future, how are ya.

On the other hand, even in the Ultimate Crisis, British police would still have gone largely unarmed.

Anyway, if you want to dig into the document, the index pages are here and here. (Kenner is also a serious FOIA-ninja; although, in principle, the document had been declassified, police forces had also been told to dispose of their copy rather than send it to the National Archives. Dorset plod apparently forgot.)

How the Scottish Labour party got telecoms policy right in 1895

Via someone on twatter, Parliament debates telecoms regulation, in 1895. The superficial bit:

there was a great distinction between telephones and such subjects as gas and water. Gas and water were necessaries for every inhabitant of the country; telephones were not and never would be. It was no use trying to persuade themselves that the use of telephones could be enjoyed by the large masses of the people in their daily life. [An hon. MEMBER: “America.”]

He did not think his hon. Friend was aware of the fact that in the large towns of America subscribers had to pay £40 to £50 for the service which a subscriber in London obtained for from £10 to £20. He went further and said that in a town like London, or Glasgow, or Belfast, an effective telephone service would be practically impossible if the large majority of the houses were furnished with telephones, so great would be the confusion caused by the increased number of exchanges. He was not stating his own opinion, but that of experts.

You’ve got to love the appeal to nameless experts there, and the general 640K-ness. But there’s more, and as this evening’s unstated theme is turning out to be “blog about why things everybody agrees on don’t get on the ballot”, it’s worth reading on.

For a start, they’re debating the question of whether cities ought to be allowed to run their own networks, a topic which is just as fresh today as it was then. Everyone agrees that a private-sector monopoly is undesirable, but is the answer muni-fibre (well, muni-copper), regulation and a universal-service fund, a nationalised industry, or something else? The minister, Arnold Morley, argues that it’s mostly a national-level or even supranational (he says imperial) infrastructure issue. Glasgow Labour MP A. C. Corbett makes a vigorous case for municipal socialism in telephony as in everything else. Sir J.E. Gorst sketches out the situation, which is almost as much of a mess as UK telecoms policy is now. A good row is fought out about who is responsible.

A. D. Provand, yet another Glasgow MP, invents settlement-free peering 100 years early and points up the difference between peering and termination:

The terminals would operate in this way: If, for example, London had a telephone licence, it could not send a message to Brighton unless Brighton had also an exchange, which would deliver the message free, otherwise the London message would he delivered through the present Company at Brighton, which would charge a terminal for doing so, The effect of that would lie to double the rate between London and Brighton.

And A.C. Corbett basically hits on the solution everybody who’s seriously thought about it prefers: open access to shared civil infrastructure! But why put up with the open access bit when the town hall can run the whole thing?

It had been suggested that where underground telephones were necessary, and where it was impossible for the municipality to entrust the control of the streets to any private corporation working for profit, that the municipality should lay these underground wires and take all the care of them. If the municipality was to lay the wires and take all the care of maintenance, there was no possible reason why the municipality should not take over all the undertaking and derive all the profit to be got from it.

Then again, once you’ve got the rights-of-way and the ducts in the public hand, you can do both, like Singapore’s NBN.

Well, at least we were spared the private sector monopoly…until we got it anyway. It is pretty astonishing, though, when you think of some of the places that have got 150Mbps FTTH networks and some of the places that have already sorted out LTE spectrum, and then of the UK. Agenda-setting is a powerful force.

From bad to worse: against the decline narrative

So I’ve been reading books. Books! One of them being David Edgerton’s Britain’s War Machine, his industrial history of the British Empire in the second world war. This is fascinating, in terms of hardware (especially ships), politics, and also national mythology. Edgerton is very hard on the decline historians, especially and specifically Corelli Barnett, and argues that far from going into the war with a plastic fork, a few Spitfires, and the best of British, the UK was actually by far the richest and strongest combatant and the best prepared for a war that everyone expected would be defined by production, blockade, and air warfare. He is interesting on the surge of industrialisation around the empire, the weirdness of British statistics (did you know that government cargo, i.e. absolutely anything shipped to or from the armed forces, was simply not counted in the import and export numbers?), the challenge of optimising the entire economy to save shipping space, and especially on the politics of expertise. How, for example, did we come to believe that the UK didn’t really do science until, in desperation, it turned to left-wing experts, when the Churchill government probably contained more scientists and engineers than any other before or since and most of them were Tories?

But it left me wanting a book that’s not been written yet. That book is Decline – From Bad to Worse, the History of a Cliche. It strikes me that British politics, especially, is always obsessed by decline, and in ways that show up interesting partisan divides. Show me your narrative of decline, and I’ll show you the inside of your head.

For example, a very common one is that British industry basically sucks and started doing so at some time in the late 19th century because it wasn’t enough like the Germans, and as a result things got gradually worse until the Germans beat us with science, or rather, engineering, in 1940. At this point, there’s a divergence.

There is a narrative of the Left in which the Labour Party enters the government and forces them to reorganise the country on scientific lines, bringing in the experts to fix industry and invent the computer, setting up a welfare state and a public sector bank like the one the Germans had, and deploying state-of-the-art IS/LM diagrams to manage the economy. Depending on which kind of lefty you are, you then argue that sadly, this was never fully put into effect due to Tories, the City, or perhaps the unions, or else you argue that it was fundamentally flawed due to either the Empire or the Americans or some combination of both.

There is an alternative version of this, popularised by Corelli Barnett, that keeps the content and reverses the sign – we need and needed to be more like the Germans, but the obstruction is stupid Tories and then Labour spending all the money on Keynes Plans. I’ve never quite been able to reconcile how Barnett wanted more technical training, R&D and big science, and workplace mitbestimmung, and still loathed Clement Attlee quite so much, but then partisanship is a powerful force.

This has an extreme variant, popular at Cambridge in the 1980s, in which the point is carried further. Not only did we need to be more like the Germans, we needed to be more like the Nazis and indeed to have been their allies. Unsurprisingly this isn’t very popular, but it exists and you wonder about some people. (Fill them in here, in this empty space: )

There is a logical problem with all these, which is that they’re talking about “relative decline” and trying to draw practical or moral consequences for our own behaviour. But the main cause of relative decline is that someone else industrialised, and there’s no way in which being more like the Germans would stop the Germans from being like the Germans.

There is a Tory narrative of decline in which we’ve thrown it all away through moral corruption, of one kind or another. This could be inflation, or socialism, or modernist buildings, or really anything. Skilled practitioners, like Roger Scruton or many successive leader writers in the Times, can detect this in absolutely any field of human action and on absolutely any evidence and come up with the same policy prescriptions.

This one is important because it taps right into the core narrative of decline running through Western culture. Anywhere you go in Europe or anywhere it has ever influenced, you’ll find someone on the right of politics who thinks Things Are Not What They Were. Decline: From Bad to Worse would really be about this.

There is another narrative, which can be on either side of politics, in which decline is pervasive and also just. Rather than simply succumbing to tragic cultural entropy, as above, we are declining because the past was a falsehood, a pyrites age. This is fairly common on the Left with regard to the empire, and on the Right with regard to the era, five minutes before they last got elected, when the streets weren’t full of beggars. Either way, it’s punishment and we deserve it. It’s possible that this represents a Protestant form of decline and the one before a Catholic one.

In practice, decline can be either a reason why We Can’t Have Nice Things, a justification for change (in the hope of reversing it), or a justification for repression (to stop it getting any worse).