- Paperback: 643 pages
- Publisher: Faber & Faber; Main edition (Aug. 18 2011)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0571281699
- ISBN-13: 978-0571281695
- Product Dimensions: 14 x 3.7 x 21.6 cm
- Shipping Weight: 780 g
- Average Customer Review: Be the first to review this item
- Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #2,954,910 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
The Collapse of British Power Paperback – Aug 18 2011
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About the Author
"Correlli Barnett" is a world-renowned historian with particular prowess in military, naval, economic and social subjects. Faber Finds are reissuing his four volume "The Pride and Fall" sequence: "The Collapse of British Power," "The Audit of War," "The Lost Victory," "The Verdict of Peace," as well as "The Swordbearers," "Britain and her Army, 1509-1970" (winner of the Royal Society of Literature Heinemann Award) and "Engage the Enemy More Closely" (winner of the Yorkshire Post Book of the Year Award).
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How could such a great nation experience such a rapid and catastrophic decline? There are, of course many reasons, ranging from ignorance to stupidity to malice. Barnett provides what is perhaps the most balanced and wide-ranging general appraisal of the whole sad process. In his analysis, he differentiates between proximate and profound causes, those which paved the way for Britain's decline and those that finally broke the lion's back. In identifying them, his vision is both broad and perceptive, carrying on a bird's-eye general narrative while still highlighting a wealth of interesting and illuminating details.
One profound cause he discusses in some detail is the stagnation (and to some extent, regression) in British education. In the 19th century, of course, Britain, the capital of the Industrial Revolution, was the world leader in science and engineering. But with a school and college system that primarily promoted humanistic and esthetic subjects, at the expense of science, this lead was rapidly overtaken by Germany's modern universities (and the United States, which copied them). This in turn lead, first, to a loss of innovation, and then, increasingly, to the dismantling of industry, as sufficiently skilled personnel became rare and prohibitively expensive.
At the same time, the liberal British governments of the late 19th century disastrously promoted the ideology of "free" trade, earnestly believing the dogma that global trade enriches all. Perhaps this is so in some theoretical world of utopian ideals; but in reality, of course, every *other* significant industrial power in the world imposed hard limits on their trade, keeping British goods out of their markets with stiff tariffs while selling their own to British citizens and corporations, sometimes even at subsidized prices. The result, predictably, thus became the further erosion of Britain's industrial base, and by 1914, both Germany and the US had surpassed her in production. This downfall of manufacturing was masked for some time by the financial gains of the stockmarkets of the City of London; but of course, this hollow wealth gave no real benefits to the country as a whole.
We now come to the proximate causes: Namely, unnecessary wars. In the very year 1914, Britain blundered into World War I, history's most expensive war until that date. There was no good reason for her to do so; then again, the same was true for all European nations, though some foolish politicians (mostly in France) believed otherwise. The terrifying costs of this tragic error, as measured in wealth and human life, left Britain both virtually broke and profoundly demoralized, unable to afford any longer the military defense of her Asian colonies. It is also against this background that one must understand the later much-maligned "Appeasement" policy of Neville Chamberlain: He and his generals were well aware that Britain simply did not have the resources to fight Germany, and if she tried, it would mean the end of her Empire.
Unfortunately for Britain, she was nevertheless still pushed into starting World War II - the most expensive war of all time, until World War III comes along - by going to war with Germany in 1939, supposedly over the independence of Poland. (Although the end result of this intervention was Poland's complete subjugation by the totalitarian Soviet Union; much like certain more recent American wars, this one accomplished almost exactly the opposite of what it was notionally intended to carry out.) Since she had no money left to fund the war, it was run on credits, largely American such; and when the Shylocks called in the loans, she had to sell most of her colonies, industrial patents, domestic markets and other resources to pay. The result was ruin, dismay and the take-over of a Socialist government that punitively taxed its own citizens and liberally promoted immigration and foreign aid. "Victory" in World War II surely seems a less than great occasion for celebration by the dispossessed masses of Britons. The victory as such, of course, was real enough in purely military terms, and a source of some national pride; but it was of a truly Pyrrhic quality, the last gasp of a Great Power that will now most likely never again amount to anything in world history. Politically and economically, V-Day in 1945 was in truth Britain's greatest-ever *defeat* in history, a disaster from which she has never recovered.
These, in brief, are the main points of an excellent work of scholarship, briefly and rather inadequately summarized. There are many more that could be mentioned, especially cultural ones, from the demoralization of the British armed forces through political hamstringing to the degeneration of the Church of England from self-confident, muscular Christianity to mere sentimentalism and humanitarianism. But it will not do to reproduce the whole work, here; rather, read the book, and support the author, who seems of late (and perhaps not altogether surprisingly) to have come under fire from the "usual suspects" for his "politically incorrect" brand of historical truthfulness. And for similarly enlightening analyses, see also, for example, the somewhat more cautious works of Peter Clarke and, especially, John Charmley (who, however, concentrate exclusively on the political dimension, at the expense of the cultural background to it which Barnett so expertly elucidates).
What should intrigue, and perhaps worry, the American reader is that everything Barnett describes appears also to be happening in the present-day United States. Here, too, we see a widespread gutting of the country's manufacturing base through "free" trade; schools falling victim to Common Core; a transformation of the universities away from centers of science and learning into "Safe Spaces" and "[Insert-Minority] Studies" departments; and one expensive foreign war after another, gouging literally trillions out of the shrinking tax-paying middle class - All with the political and media elites clamoring for more of the same. If anything, things seem rather worse in America in 2016 than in Britain in 1939. Will the final result be equally catastrophic, here? This is obviously not the place to discuss such matters; but they certainly ought to be discussed by thoughtful citizens, or else Britannia's daughter may soon follow her into oblivion.
What Britain didn't do (and isn't doing today either) is to continue its industrial innovation which made it the dominant world power from 1815 through 1914. The author recognizes that this started to occur in the 1880s onward. He characterizes this as Britain's continued reliance on the "practical man" vs. the technically educated men starting to populate Germany and the USA. He is right. From the start, both the USA and Germany placed a high importance on technical education (think MIT in the USA, Gottingen etc. in Germany). Only Cambridge and Imperial were scientific/technical schools of prominence in Britain, and the emphasis there was "science" not practical technical knowledge like "industrial engineering". Consequently, the USA and Germany charged on with technical innovation which led to industrial expansion. Meanwhile, Britain stagnated doing the same old Victorian stuff.
A personal note. I first visited Britain in 1961 and was invited at a London Youth Hostel by a Mr. McAlpine (a British factory inspector) to visit him in Manchester if I ever got up that way. Since I was studying the Industrial Revolution (really the "British" Industrial Revolution), I was eager to see the insides of British factories. I made a point to get up to Manchester, and Mr. McAlpine took me through 4 factories. I couldn't believe it. It was like going back to the time of Dickens. The factories were unbelievably antiquated. The machines in the factories were actually driven by leather belt drives which were hooked to a spinning shaft near the ceiling. Just unbelievable. All American machines were driven by electricity. The only place in the USA where I have ever seen leather belt driven machinery is the textile "museum" in Waltham, Massachusetts. Did the British miss out on investing in new factory equipment? Wow, that is the understatement of the century. Therefore I think the author is right on in citing this as one of the critical aspects of British decline.
The period of history that Mr. Barnett focuses on in this book is 1918-1939. While he does cover the educational/business investment shortcomings of Britain, he appropriately puts most of his attention on the period of appeasement. He goes into great detail on the leaders (Liberal, Labor and Conservative) who had a utopian view of the League of Nations (all words, no teeth). This book is really good in detailing the appeasers and their supporting forces. I never knew about the Peace Ballot until this book. The only leaders with any intelligence, realism and spine were Churchill and Duff Cooper. The rest of the Liberal-Labor-Conservative leadership was just a bunch of wishful thinkers who wouldn't fight under any circumstances. No one wanted to believe the truth about Hitler. He could have been easily stopped in 1936 and European history would have been very different and far more prosperous. This volume (he has written 4 books on British decline) focuses on the political failure as well as the educational/business investment failure.
One aspect of this book that I found particularly interesting was his foray into grand strategy. The British-Japanese alliance worked to Britain's advantage through WWI. Then the British COS seemed to have been totally in a quandary as what to do between Europe and the Pacific. If what he says is correct (and he had access to the cabinet notes), I think the British COS made a serious mistake with regard to allocating resources against Japan. The USA never would have allowed Japan to invade Australia or New Zealand. In fact, FDR put an oil embargo on Japan when they took over French IndoChina. Thus, the British COS did not concentrate on Europe wholeheartedly when they should have. Probably one of the major strategic mistakes of the 20th century.
I think one of the very strongest things to recommend this book is Mr. Barnett's examination of so many cabinet notes. Additionally, he has a very strong bibliography.