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?

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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis