Still gloomy after all these years

The Verdict of Peace: Britain between her yesterday and the future

Correlli Barnett <em>Macmillan,

It was in 1972 that the military historian Correlli Barnett wrote The Collapse of British Power, an excoriating polemic that blamed the public schools, bumbling amateur gentlemen, bolshie workers and an effete, all-inclusive liberalism for the country's decline and fall. The book made quite an impact at the time, appealing to a self-denigration common among the British over their apparent failure to remain a top nation in the 20th century. Barnett's message made a deep impression at the time on Margaret Thatcher. "Correlli's book" became one of her set texts for the regeneration of Britain.

But here we are, nearly 30 years later, and Barnett has completed the fourth and final volume in what he calls the "Pride and Fall Sequence". This volume runs from the final months of the first postwar Labour government and the start of the Korean war through the Conservative Churchill and Eden administrations to the Suez debacle, with backward-looking sections on education and training. Barnett makes selective use of the public records of the time, but he has a useful chapter on the Treasury's proposal, in 1952, to float the pound under Operation Robot, as a way to resolve the country's increasingly insuperable economic problems.

However, so much of Barnett's diatribe seems strangely outmoded. He remains a bucolic, often hysterical critic of Britain's performance over the past century. His prejudices seem stronger than ever. His case for the prosecution blames the failure on the entire British people. Apparently, in peacetime they were not "hard" enough in either "mind or will". Their famed tolerance was corrupted into a vice. Incompetence, muddle and slovenliness were accepted. The poor, wretched British lacked the dynamism of the Americans and the postwar German "obsession with achievement". In short, we were "too nice" for this world.

Is much of this credible? Barnett - Trinity School, Croydon, and Exeter College, Oxford - is acute and sensible in his devastating critique of our education and training system, which has remained one of the worst in the western world since the first industrial revolution. His argument for Britain's non-involvement in the Korean war may not be entirely convincing, but it does point to the persistent problem of "overstretch coupled with underperformance" that has bedevilled successive governments up to Tony Blair's in their efforts to prove that Britain is still a great world power.

The real trouble is that Barnett grossly overstates his case. His language is often coarse, more suited to a brawl in a raucous bar than to a serious history. His open contempt for manual workers as prone to sloth and ignorance is simply vulgar abuse. More worryingly, Barnett seems unaware of the recent wealth of important literature on British decline that has destroyed many of his simplistic, unchanging arguments. The works of economic historians - for example, Alan Booth, Nick Crafts, Stephen Broadberry and Jim Tomlinson - are ignored.

The time has come for more comparative analysis of Britain's relative decline. Barnett is curiously insular and unwilling to examine international data that would give some badly needed context to his thesis. After all, it was Britain, rather than France, that was more successful in extricating itself from the incubus of empire. We suffered no defeat like Dien Bien Phu or trauma like the Algerian war.

Barnett regrets that Britain never went for Prussian-style modernisation, with a Bismarckian state based on authoritarian values that would have poured taxpayers' money into restructuring the railways and manufacturing, rather than building up a welfare state and pursuing policies designed to ensure full employment in the delusion of creating a New Jerusalem. He seems to have conveniently forgotten how it was Germany, under Bismarck, that first invented the welfare state, believing generous pensions and benefits would buy off the working classes. To this day, the German welfare state remains more lavish and generous than our own, as our sick will soon discover when they head off to German hospitals.

The truth is, this kind of polemical and nationalistic history ought to have had its day. Yes, we need to avoid complacency and self-congratulation in our understanding of modern Britain. But it is still worth recalling that the British were the only people in the world to fight through the last century's two world wars from beginning to end without abandoning their basic values of decency, humanity and tolerance under the rule of law and democratic government. Barnett may sneer at liberalism in its widest sense, but that is what made this country such an inspiration to the world in 1940 and beyond.

Robert Taylor is writing a one-volume biography of Ernest Bevin

This article first appeared in the 17 September 2001 issue of the New Statesman, The end of the open society?