Pride and Fall

‘Number one: stay close to the Americans’, said Boris Johnson in his last Commons address as prime minister, echoing Churchill’s verdict on the wreckage of UK statecraft in the Suez Crisis. Anatol Lieven at the Quincy Institute thought Johnson’s advice to his successor superfluous, given the strength of the Atlanticist consensus at Westminster. The Washington Examiner, on the other hand, detected a dig at leadership contender Rishi Sunak for being ‘soft’ on China.

Stay close to the Americans: but at the same time, know your place. ‘Truss learns the hard way that Britain isn’t America’, reads a Financial Times headline after the market turmoil prompted by Kwasi Kwarteng’s unofficial budget last Friday. ‘Britain is in trouble because its elite is so engrossed with the US as to confuse it for their own nation’, argues FT associate editor Janan Ganesh, who goes on to point out the positional differences: sterling isn’t a major reserve currency anymore; UK producers don’t have simple access to a continental market since Brexit; gilts aren’t Treasuries. In these circumstances, Kwarteng’s back-of-an-envelope, rolling programme of debt-financed tax cuts – ‘Reaganism without the dollar’, Ganesh calls it – presumes too much.

The week’s events bring to mind the historian Correlli Barnett’s trenchant commentaries on British decline and lingering great-power reflexes. Tory Britain in the 1950s was an American satellite ‘posturing as an equal’, he argued in The Verdict of Peace (2001). It was a characteristically sharp turn of phrase from Barnett, who died recently at the age of 95. Few public intellectuals in Britain have questioned national shibboleths so trenchantly and doggedly as he did, from a conservative perspective, over a long career of book-publishing and commentary. His obituary in the Guardian described him as controversial – nothing worse than that – while The Times was puzzled by the ferocity of his attacks on the Establishment, since ‘it was not as if life had dealt him a poor hand.’

He was born near Croydon, on the south-eastern approach to London, in 1927. His father, who worked for an American bank, named him after the Baroque composer. Croydon was an early Luftwaffe target in 1940 on account of its aerodrome and Barnett recalled as a schoolboy listening to the drone of enemy bombers, the barrage of anti-aircraft fire, ‘the whistle and crash of nearby bombs that rocked the house’. He took a second in modern history at Oxford, his special subject the theory of war. National Service was spent with the Intelligence Corps in British-mandate Palestine as it conducted sweeps for underground Zionist paramilitaries. There he witnessed the bloody aftermath of the bombing of the British Officers’ Club in Jerusalem (‘the corpses lying on slabs in the morgue, spittle still bubbling out of their mouths’) by the Irgun group of future Likud prime minister Menachem Begin.

Civilian life in the fifties proved anti-climactic: a graduate traineeship at the North Thames Gas Board, then a job in public relations. He recalled ‘stretching a little effort over a long day’, pouring his energies into a novel instead, The Hump Organisation (1957), which charted the progress of an Oxford graduate at a sleepy industrial conglomerate in the Cheshire countryside, in the manner of a Boulting brothers farce. But his true métier became apparent with The Desert Generals (1960), a history of the North African theatre in the Second World War – ‘war in its purest form’, across the arid plains. Barnett took aim at outsize British veneration of Montgomery, hero of Alamein. Strong sales enabled him to quit his desk job for freelance writing, topped up with consultancy work for the BBC.

A second war book, The Swordbearers (1963), sympathetically narrated the experience of four First World War commanders-in-chief – von Moltke, Jellicoe, Pétain and Ludendorff – as they grappled with high command in an era of mass mobilisation. ‘War is the great auditor of institutions’, Barnett observed, a theme to which he would return. In Britain and Her Army (1970) meanwhile, he mounted a ‘hazardously long march’ from Tudor abolition of private armies of retainers to the Wilson government’s 1967 white paper liquidating British deployments east of Suez. ‘A history of the institution that the British have always been reluctant to accept that they needed’, Britain and Her Army regarded colonial retrenchment as imperative but complained that Whitehall appeared to regard troops stationed in western Europe as just ‘a plate-glass window’ to trigger the nuclear alarm, should the Russians attempt to break in. Greater strategic flexibility was called for.

Then came The Collapse of British Power (1972), the opening instalment of his Pride and Fall quartet, a sweeping historical polemic of twentieth-century British decline. Barnett reached back to the post-Napoleonic era to trace Britain’s long descent into a ‘bankrupt American pensioner’ under Lend-Lease in 1941–42. Imperial overstretch and a liberal national culture had blocked the concerted programme of industrial renewal needed to counter Germany’s rise after 1871. Conventional balance-of-power considerations reasserted themselves in 1914 but a laissez-faire governing elite afterwards allowed economic modernisation to lapse, as moralising internationalism reached new heights in the ‘pseudo-religion’ of the League of Nations. England at last recovered the flinty resolve of its best mercantilist days when the Second World War was upon it, but Churchill failed to plan beyond victory, mortgaging the future to a rising American superpower that didn’t reciprocate his misty-eyed infatuation. US loans papered over the dilapidated state of the country’s heavy-industrial base, flattering to deceive about its wartime record, argued volume two, The Audit of War (1986). The UK was ‘not so much a victor in her own right’ in 1945 ‘as simply on the winning side’.

The Lost Victory (1995) homed in on the record of the post-war Attlee government, by and large classical-liberal in outlook, which failed to retool the economy before European and Japanese competitors recovered from wartime devastation. Britain’s large helping of Marshall Aid instead leaked overseas into the Sterling Area and troop deployments as far afield as Burma, Malaya and Hong Kong, while ‘New Jerusalem’ liberals like Beveridge prioritised welfare and housing over the productive economy (a policy of ‘parlours before plant’). The Verdict of Peace (2001), the concluding volume, surveyed the years of resumed Conservative rule between the Korean War and Suez Crisis which cemented a ‘fateful pattern of national overambition coupled with industrial underperformance’. In only four decades since the First World War, the country had blown its position as the most powerful industrial machine in Europe through the hangover of Victorian liberalism, a failure to implement technical educational training, and the pretensions of a world role.

In each volume, the damning judgements flow uninterruptedly for a hundred pages or more without so much as a section break. They rest on realist assumptions about an anarchic state system: ‘small “l” liberalism might be desirable in friend but serves ill as a guide to a nation’s total strategy in a ruthless world of struggle.’ Paul Addison described Barnett in the LRB as ‘probably the only modern British historian whose creed is Bismarckian nationalism’. Barnett certainly benchmarked British inertia against Wilhelmine Germany’s rapid industrialisation, and his anti-liberalism and emphasis on total strategy may have had a Prussian air. All the same, the epithet doesn’t capture the oppositional quality of Barnett’s elite-patriotic politics, for which Gaullist might be a closer fit. He envied France its home-made nuclear deterrent and the greater freedom-of-action this afforded, arguing in The Times in March 1982 against the Thatcher government’s purchase of Trident nuclear missiles from the Pentagon.

The eighties were Barnett’s years of highest public prominence. Keith Joseph and Nigel Lawson, secretaries of state under Thatcher, both cited his various diatribes against welfarism, industrial mismanagement and liberal-arts bias in the state-education system. But the author retained his dissenting cast of mind, deflating Falklands triumphalism with a call to drastically curtail the Royal Navy’s high-seas role and to ‘shed such unprofitable bits of [imperial] pink in good time’. Within the academy, David Edgerton opposed Barnett’s account of industrial archaism within the state-military complex and Jose Harris deflated his claims about the novelty and profligacy of the Beveridge-Attlee welfare state, while the economist-mandarin Sir Alec Cairncross shrugged that bolder government action was unlikely to arrest the spiral of relative economic decline.

A critic of nineties ‘humanitarian interventionism’, Barnett likened Blair to a Victorian proconsul and contrasted his unctuous liberal rhetoric to the worldly self-interest of prime ministers past: Walpole’s policy of non-engagement in the War of the Polish Succession (‘50,000 men slain this year in Europe, and not one Englishman’) and Castlereagh’s scepticism about Holy Alliance plans for carte-blanche counter-revolutionary action. NATO’s 1999 air war against Serbia and semi-permanent occupation of Kosovo was ‘money better spent on our own health service, education and training, and sink housing estates’. The War on Terror which followed exaggerated the threat from ‘a scattering of bedsit plotters with homemade bombs’. Bush and Blair’s grounds for attacking Iraq were obviously spurious and illegal, and their invasion spread death and mutilation far beyond Baathist prisons and execution sites. The US assaults on Fallujah (‘mini-Stalingrads’) were more destructive than Saddam’s 1988 gas attack on Halabja. Like the Afghan occupation, the Iraqi campaign had merely opened up a long Western flank to guerrilla attack. The only thing to be done was withdraw, and avoid further such entanglements with US foreign policy.

Irate at Cameron’s support for Blair’s wars, Barnett demanded in the Tory Spectator magazine in 2006: ‘The Conservatives believe in personal independence, why not national independence in foreign policy?’ The American link had lost its strategic value with the demise of the Soviet Union, he argued, and become ‘potentially dangerous to British interests so long as American policy is run by narrow technocrats with juvenile political understanding like Rumsfeld, and religious zealots like Cheney and Bush who see world affairs as a Manichean conflict between good and evil’. Barnett regarded Russia’s 2008 rout of the Georgian incursion into South Ossetia as a reversion to nineteenth-century Realpolitik rather than a new Cold War, and considered Bush a greater threat to world peace than Putin. What might have been his take on the latter’s invasion of Ukraine – European, but outside NATO? Johnson rushed headlong to sanction Europe’s largest gas exporter without first reopening the UK’s only gas-storage facility, closed in 2017 in blithe assurance of a ready supply on the open market: a penny for your thoughts on that piece of statecraft, Correlli.

British pomp and British realities: the Johnson government announced an ‘Indo-Pacific tilt’ on American lines in the 2021 integrated defence review and despatched the nation’s new aircraft carrier, HMS Queen Elizabeth, to rattle sabres in the South China Sea, causing consternation in some quarters of Washington. Its sister ship, HMS Prince of Wales, is struggling with technical problems at the moment and can’t travel further from port than the Isle of Wight. At what point, asked Barnett apropos the 1953 coronation, is the line crossed from moral reassurance to flattery of prideful illusions?

Read on: Tom Hazeldine, ‘The Family Firm’, NLR 75.