In the course of her closing speech at the Conservative Party Conference in 1984 Mrs Thatcher held high a copy of the 1944 White Paper on employment policy and triumphantly revealed that it carried on its cover the name of Margaret H. Roberts.footnote1 While it may be intriguing to speculate if the eighteen-year-old future Prime Minister was indeed one of the few who had purchased a copy or whether the entire episode was fabricated by an inventive, brighteyed party underling, there was a supposedly philosophic purpose to this exercise. Her argument, based on the unlikely premise ‘Of course we care’, was that the counter-inflationary priority of her government established her as the true inheritor of Keynesianism and the principles of the White Paper. This tawdry theatrical deception did little to impress, though at the time commentators failed to see the significance of this new extension of Thatcher speak punctually making its appearance in 1984. Yet the argument itself was not new. It had first been aired some ten years earlier by Sir Keith Joseph in a highly dramatic speech entitled ‘Inflation Is Caused by Governments’.footnote2

It was the waywardness of this intervention that first prompted colleagues to question Sir Keith’s judgement and the stability of his character; the second instalment delivered the following month at Edgbaston speedily eliminated him from the leadership struggle. Thus it is ironic that the views which robbed Joseph of command of the Conservative Party should have become so forcefully espoused by the contender who was to take his place, Mrs Thatcher, and when reproduced a decade later with her full authority as party leader were barely noticed, causing no more than a resigned ennui from those long inured to such banal mendacity.

If little else this episode reveals the potential in contemporary times for reinventing the White Paper, however specious the grounds, and for hawking whatever may emerge in the political market. As the first public, state document to give expression to the objective of full employment, and to outline the associated techniques for economic management, it became a central symbol within political discourse for what has retrospectively been termed the postwar settlement, representing the expanded range of social rights institutionalized in British society in the 1940s. Like many such publicly acclaimed, forward-looking documents it is in fact a timid, conservative affair. Few on the Left at the time could have imagined that more than forty years later it would still be an object of political dispute, as the response of Nye Bevan, for one, made clear. The reason is simply that in their determination to force back the ‘ratchet of socialism’ the Thatcherites have projected a golden age which predates even 1914 and writes out the 1940s as a catastrophic deviation, the ultimate cause of the present crisis.

These explicitly strategic readings of the 1940s with which we have been long familiar have now begun to register in the historiography, a continuation by other means of the endeavour by the Right to establish intellectual legitimation for current strategies. The most notable example to date has been Correlli Barnett’s The Audit of War, a spirited denunciation of British economic policy during the Second World War.footnote3 This is a book which has been paraded through the pages of the literary reviews to great acclaim (inciting just the right degree of controversy to make it a touch risqué) and little wonder, for it argues with a wealth of empirical backing the fashionable thesis that the entire programme of forties’ social reformism was a catastrophic, gross error which terminated for at least a generation any possibility of reversing the decline in Britain’s economic fortunes. Barnett elaborates the orthodox Right view that the whole postwar welfare system was constructed on too weak an economic basis, resulting in a welfare state which (as we now hear incessantly) the nation could not afford, and chides the intellectual compromises made by those who claim that the critical effects of this arose only in the late 1960s or 1970s—citing in this instance Bacon and Eltis, polemicists who hitherto had appeared far from timid.footnote4 His thesis is not new, for it merely rewrites more trenchantly and with greater clarity of focus the arguments of his much earlier work, The Collapse of British Power, which concluded that in the Second World War Britain was transformed into an ‘American satellite warrior-state dependent for its existence on the flow of supplies across the Atlantic’.footnote5 However, the interest of this argument is that it establishes the causes of the nation’s current economic crises less in the adoption of collectivism and heightened state intervention (as the down-the-line Thatcherites like to think) than in the almost complete absence of a coherent, macroindustrial strategy of any sort at all.footnote6 As Colin Leys indicated in his discussion of The Audit of War in nlr 160, the politics which derive from this analysis oscillate between admiration for the shock tactics of instant decontrols, on the Erhard model, and a centralized command strategy which would enforce modernization of the industrial base. (As a historian trained in military affairs, Barnett is particularly fond of military metaphors: doubtless, too, he would find attractive the idea which once occurred to Gaitskell that Mountbatten or Montgomery could take control of the National Coal Board.) But analytically the emphasis he gives to the historic weakness of the industrial bourgeoisie in the nation’s representative political institutions, the dominance of the state–City matrices and Britain’s long experience in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as a ‘maritime colonial’ power excessively dependent on the world economy are all themes which, over a number of years, have received forceful expression in these pages.footnote7

Correlli Barnett is currently riding high in the limelight. Despite the rather calculated irreverence of the book, however, it is a serious intervention in the historiography of contemporary politics and is no mere modish contrivance got up by the literary editors of the weeklies. It will be necessary to return to his arguments in a moment. But my central concern here is with the work of another conservative historian of the contemporary period, Keith Middlemas, whose current project involves a full-scale inquiry into the forms of economic management dominant in Britain since 1940.

Middlemas is a Conservative in the way that leading Italian film directors of the late sixties and early seventies were Communists, imbibing a national political philosophy within an impeccably conventional intellectual tradition, gaining in the process a party card which somehow gets lost in the jumble of daily life—thus preventing affiliation at any moment from being fixed with certainty—and then at a later date acquiring a dazzling, eclectic range of competing philosophies which all but conceal the initial stance.

In early adult life he worked as a functionary in the House of Commons (his years coinciding with Robert Rhodes James, currently Conservative mp, historian and foremost apologist for Eden), but he has little time for the mindless constitutionalist ideologies of parliamentary sovereignty which beguile those both in his profession and in political life. As a historian of the Right, he shares with Correlli Barnett the capacity to remain rational in his assessment of the limits of British power and has written incisively of the inhibitions encountered by the English dominant classes in their imperial and post-imperial quest for cultural renewal. He has authored books on an astonishingly wide range of subjects, refusing the petty provincialism of his peers and on occasion eliciting in response a measure of prickly distrust from a profession eager to take issue with matters of detail in blithe disregard of any more challenging thesis. But most of all, without adapting historical scholarship to the contingent fluctuations of strategic requirement, Middlemas is an unusually serious-minded political historian. His practice is distinct from that impelled by the ethos of the Senior Common Room (or its correlate, the clubland culture of the Palace of Westminster) which organizes the prevailing conceptual world of the Conservative historian, yet none the less the content of his historiography claims an undeniable, if particular, conservative provenance.