‘The outstanding feature of the British situation since the Second World War has been unreality . . . On balance the wonder is that the system has remained afloat and changed course to the extent that it has. So far the repeated lesson of history that the loss of great empire leads to the economic degradation of the parent nation has been defied. But it has been defied as yet for only a decade, which is but a fraction of time in the lag and lead pattern of historical cause and effect . . . The greatest danger to Britain comes from the amount of progress that seems to have been made. In reality all that has been done so far is to paper over the cracks that have appeared in the first decade of discontinuity following five hundred years of development of a pattern which has now been totally shattered.’

B. R. Cant, Britain’s Economic Problem in Historical Perspective

(Manchester Business School 1972)

In Great Britain ‘crisis’ has long been a permanent state of affairs which, inexplicably, never seems to change anything.footnote The word has associations with the sick-room, or even the death-bed: an aura certainly responsible for its evergreen appeal. But here we are dealing with an invalid who constantly resurfaces from his ordeals, orders a large breakfast, and with exasperating complacency tells the would-be mourners that there was never really anything to worry about. It will all be different from now on, he adds. This cheerful prediction is as regularly mistaken as the doom-laden prophecies he indulges in when the thermometer shoots up and he feels ‘it’ overcoming him once more. There must be a temptation to dismiss him as a hypochondriac, of course. The United Kingdom would then have a foreseeable future of such minor crises, more imaginary than real, with small effect on the patient’s underlying rude health. The great collapse feared for so long will never happen, or is so far away there is no point dwelling upon it now.

An alternative diagnosis, to which I subscribe, is that there are two levels of ‘crisis’ built into Britain’s recent history (by which I mean the history of the last century), the enduring or chronic disorder of imperial decline and the temporary eruptions or fevers to which that disorder has made Britain susceptible. British society recovers from the latter, true enough: one need only think back to the winter before last, or the election of February 1974. Episodes like those might have led more vulnerable polities straight to the morgue, yet were quickly forgotten in Britain. However, such recovery does not mean there is really nothing wrong. All it means is that a continuously worsening disease is still accompanied by great though diminishing reserves of political strength. This politico—cultural fortitude reasserts itself against the bouts of obvious sickness, and so disappoints the facile prophets of an English apocalypse. But it does nothing whatever to cure the underlying ailment. This is because it is itself organically linked to the pathological conditions. The same imperial history and the same conservative State have bred both the illness and certain characteristic home-made remedies, or rather palliatives, which come automatically into action if a collapse is threatened. Thus actual dissolution is averted. The cohesion of the body is resoundingly reaffirmed, to the delight of functionalists and other votaries of tradition; the snag is that it can only be resurrected in the old, flawed form. And this structure is charged with the germs of the next overt ‘crisis’. Where are we now, in this century-old history? And what will happen when the patient finally discovers that, this time, he lacks even the strength to stage his recovery-act? These are the questions I want to consider in this essay.

My original brief was to attempt a historical overview of the notion of the Great British Crisis. ‘From Matthew Arnold to Tony Benn’, as it were, through the well-known and depressingly numerous stages: Great Depression, New Imperialism, the National Efficiency campaigns, Lloyd George, the effects of World War I, the non-crisis of 1926 Second Great Depression, National Governments, effects of World War II, the non-revolution of 1945, 1947, the new cycle of sterling crises, stop-go, Harold Wilson’s non-revolution from above, Edward Heath’s non-counter-revolution from above, 1974, Third Great Depression, the imf saga, and the current anxious speculations about whether or not another General Election can be held before the next visit to the sick-bay. The topic is monumental, and ghoulish. Since 1910 at least it has all been ‘crisis’, save for those few years in the fifties when we had it so good (a slogan invented, characteristically, just when it had become plain that the post-war uk boom was over and we would soon be back to crisis as usual). These perennial difficulties have created a vast, insanely repetitious literature of self-censure and prophecy. There never was a time, either, when uk governments were not inundated with stern reproofs, sermons on foreign virtue, warnings of calamity, thunderous Reports about scientific education, and urgent advice—much of it sound—about the need to change our ways. As regularly, these tracts have settled into the instant oblivion of archive and library shelf. Apart from a few suitably patrician and timely reformers like Keynes, Beveridge and Kilbrandon, has any society ever produced so much dramatic good counsel, or esteemed it so little? Rather than plod through this jungle, I thought it better—and certainly more entertaining—to prospect the future. What can be said about Britain’s propensity to crisis from the angle of political futurism? This is what one always wants to know, talking about crises. So why not address the problem directly? It goes without saying that in doing so one must employ reference-points from what is known of the long past history of the malady.

‘In the grey starlight which had succeeded the total blackness of the cataclysm, it was just possible to make out the jagged peaks and narrow ravines of what had once been Hampstead and Primrose Hill . . . Thirsk and Harcourt strode along at a good speed. “We’re in luck”, Thirsk remarked, “if you look at the situation objectively. This is just the kind of traumatic shock this society needs to jolt it out of its complacency.”

“Which stems from repressed violence”, Harcourt put in almost before he had finished. “From the rebirth we should really have something to build on . . .”

“The death-rattle of capitalism”, Thirsk commented as he pulled up his robes and clambered over the debris. “We’d better make for St. James’s, I suppose.” ’

Emma Tennant, The Crack (1973)