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).