The Lost Victory: British Dreams and British Realities 1945-50 by Correlli Barnett (1995)

What a devastating indictment of British character, government and industry! What an unforgiving expose of our failings as a nation, an economy, a political class and a culture!

Nine years separated publication of Barnett’s ferocious assault on Britain’s self-satisfied myth about its glorious efforts in the Second World War, The Audit of War (1986) and this sequel describing how the Attlee government threw away a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to modernise Britain’s creaking infrastructure and industry – The Lost Victory: British Dreams and British Realities, 1945-50.

I imagine Barnett and the publishers assumed most readers would have forgotten the detail of the earlier book and that this explains why some sections of this volume repeat The Audit of War’s argument pretty much word for word, down to the same phrases and jokes.

And these set the tone and aim which is to extend the brutal dissection of Britain’s wartime industrial failings on beyond victory in the Second World War, and to show how the same old industrial and economic mistakes were made at every level of British government and industry – but now how the ruling class not only ignored Britain’s bankruptcy and ruin during the war but consciously chose not to take the opportunity to consolidate and invest in Britain’s scattered industries, her creaking infrastructure, and draw up plans for long-term industrial rejuvenation (unlike the defeated nations Japan and Germany) but instead piled onto the smoking rubble of the British economy all the costs of the grandiose ‘New Jerusalem’ i.e. setting up a national health service and welfare state that a war-ruined Britain (in Barnett’s view) quite simply could not afford.

The unaffordable British Empire

One big new element in the story is consideration of the British Empire. The British Empire was conspicuous by its absence from The Audit of War, partly, it seems, because Barnett had dealt with it at length in the first book of this series, The Collapse of British Power which addressed the geopolitical failings of greater Britain during the interwar period, partly because Audit was focused solely on assessing Britain’s wartime economic and industrial performance.

Anyone familiar with Barnett’s withering scorn for the British ruling class, the British working class and British industry will not be surprised to learn that Barnett also considers the empire an expensive, bombastic waste of space.

It was the most beguiling, persistent and dangerous of British dreams that the Empire constituted a buttress of United Kingdom strength, when it actually represented a net drain on United Kingdom military resources and a potentially perilous strategic entanglement. (p.7)

It was, in sum:

one of the most remarkable examples of strategic over-extension in history (p.8)

The empire a liability Barnett makes the simple but stunningly obvious point that the British Empire was not a strategically coherent entity nor an economically rational organisation (it possessed ‘no economic coherence at all’, p.113). Instead he gives the far more persuasive opinion that the empire amounted to a ragbag of territories accumulated during the course of a succession of wars and colonising competitions (climaxing with the notorious Scramble for Africa at the end of the 19th century) whose rationale was often now long forgotten. It was, as he puts it, ‘the detritus of successive episodes of history, p.106.

For example, why, in 1945, was Britain spending money it could barely afford, administering the Bahamas, Barbados, Guiana, British Honduras, Jamaica, the Turks and Caicos Islands, Trinidad and Tobago, the Windward Islands, and the Leeward Islands? They didn’t bring in any money. They were a drain, pure and simple, on the British Treasury i.e. the British taxpayer.

India too expensive Everyone knows that India was ‘the jewel in the crown’ of the Empire, but Britain had ceased making a trading surplus with India by the end of the 19th century. Now it was a drain on resources which required the stationing and payment of a garrison of some 50,000 British soldiers. It was having to ‘defend’ India by fighting the Japanese in Burma and beyond which had helped bankrupt Britain during the war. Barnett is scathing of the British ruling class which, he thinks, we should have ‘dumped’ India on its own politicians to govern and defend back in the mid-1930s when the Congress Party and the Muslim League had started to make really vehement requests for independence. Would have saved a lot of British money and lives.

Ditto the long string of entanglements and ‘mandates’ and ‘protectorates’ which we’d acquired along the extended sea route to India i.e. Gibraltar, Malta, Cyprus and Egypt with its Suez Canal. None of these generated any income. All were a drain on the public purse, all required the building of expensive military bases and the indefinite prolongation of National Service to fill them up with discontented squaddies who, as the 40s turned into the 50s, found themselves fighting with increasingly discontented locals demanding independence.

So why carry on paying for this expensive empire?

For psychological reasons. Politicians and public alike though the Empire (morphing into the Commonwealth) was what made Britain Great.

Pomp and circumstance Barnett explains how the trappings of Empire were mostly created in the late Victorian period in order to unite public opinion across the dominions and colonies but also to impress the home audience. These gaudy ceremonies and medals and regalia and titles were then carried on via elaborate coronation ceremonies (George V 1910, George VI 1936, Elizabeth II 1952), via pomp and circumstance music, the Last Night of the Proms, the annual honours list and all the rest of it, the grandiose 1924 Empire exhibition – all conveying a lofty, high-minded sense that we, the British public, had some kind of ‘duty’ to protect, to raise these dusky peoples to a higher level of civilisation and now, in some mystical way, Kikuyu tribesmen and Australian miners and Canadian businessmen all made up some kind of happy family.

In every way he can, Barnett shows this to be untrue. A lot of these peoples didn’t want to be protected by us any more (India, granted independence 15 August 1947; Israel declared independence 14 May 1948) and we would soon find ourselves involved in bitter little wars against independence and guerrilla fighters in Malaya, Cyprus and Kenya to name just the obvious ones.

Empire fantasists But the central point Barnett reverts to again and again is the way what he calls the ’empire-fantasists’ insisted that the British Empire (morphing into the British Commonwealth as it was in these years) somehow, magically, mystically:

  • made Britain stronger
  • gave Britain ‘prestige’
  • made Britain a Great Power
  • thus entitling Britain to sit at the Big Boys table with America and Russia

He shows how all these claims were untrue. Successive governments had fooled themselves that it was somehow an asset when in fact it was a disastrous liability in three ways:

  1. Britain made no economic advantage out of any part of the empire (with the one exception of Malaya which brought in profits in rubber and tin). Even in the 1930s Britain did more trade with South America than with any of the colonies.
  2. Most of the Empire cost a fortune to police and maintain e.g. India. We not only had to pay for the nominal defence of these colonies, but also had to pay the cost of their internal police and justice systems.
  3. The Empire was absurdly widely spaced. There was no way the British Navy could police the North Sea, the Mediterranean and protect Australia and New Zealand from Japanese aggression.

The end of naval dominance Barnett shows that, as early as 1904, the British Navy had decided to concentrate its forces in home waters to counter the growing German threat, with the result that even before the Great War Britain was in the paradoxical position of not being able to defend the Empire which was supposed to be the prop of its status as a World Power.

In fact, he makes the blinding point that the entire layout of the Empire was based on the idea of the sea: of a merchant navy carrying goods and services from farflung colonies protected, if necessary, by a powerful navy. But during the 1930s, and then during the war, it became obvious that the key new technology was air power. For centuries up to 1945 if you wanted to threaten some small developing country, you sent a gunboat, as Britain so often did. But from 1945 onwards this entire model was archaic. Now you threatened to send your airforce to bomb it flat or, after the dropping of the atom bombs, to drop just one bomb. No navy required.

An Empire based on naval domination of the globe became redundant once the very idea of naval domination became outdated, superseded. Instead of an economic or military asset, by the end of the Second World War it had clearly become an expensive liability.

The hold of empire fantasy And yet… not just Churchill, but the vehement socialists who replaced him after their landslide general election victory in August 1945, just could not psychologically break the chain. Their duty to the Queen-Empress, all their upbringings, whether on a council estate or at Harrow, all the trappings of the British state, rested on the myth of the empire.

The delusion of being a Great Power Added to this was the delusion that the existence of a British Empire somehow entitled them to a place at the top table next to Russia and America. Churchill had, of course, taken part in the Great Alliance with Roosevelt and Stalin which made enormous sweeping decisions about the future of the whole world at Yalta and Potsdam and so on.

Looking back across 70 years it is difficult to recapture how all the participants thought, but there was clear unanimity on the British side that they genuinely represented a quarter of the world’s land surface and a quarter of its population.

Ernest Bevin What surprises is that it was a Labour politician, Ernest Bevin, who became Foreign Secretary in 1945, who felt most strongly about this. Barnett, in his typically brusque way, calls Bevin the worst Foreign Secretary of the 20th century because of his unflinching commitment to maintaining military defence of the British Empire at its widest and most expensive extent. He repeatedly quotes Bevin and others like him invoking another defence of this hodge-podge of expensive liabilities, namely that the British Empire provided some kind of ‘moral’ leadership to the world. They thought of it as an enormous stretch of land and peoples who would benefit from British justice and fair play, a kind of safe space between gung-ho American commercialism on the one hand, and the menace of Stalinist communism on the other.

And yet Barnett quotes the U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson as getting fed up with Britain’s clamorous calls to be involved in all the high level discussions between America and Russia, calls which would increasingly be ignored as the years went by and which were brutally snapped down during the Suez Crisis of 1956, when America refused to back Britain’s invasion of Egypt and Britain had to back down and walk away with its tail between its legs.

Salami slicing On the specific issue of imperial defence Barnett shows in considerable detail – using minutes and memoranda from the relevant cabinet meetings – that the Attlee government’s inability to decide what to do about defending the farflung Commonwealth set the pattern for all future British administrations by trying to maintain an army and navy presence in all sectors of the Empire (Caribbean, Far East, Middle East) but ‘salami slicing’ away at the individual forces, paring them back to the bone until… they became in fact too small to maintain serious defence in any one place. For the first few decades we had an impressive military and naval force but a) to diffused in scores of locations around the globe to be effective in any one place b) always a fraction of the forces the Americans and the Soviets could afford to maintain.

Empire instead of investment

Stepping back from the endless agonising discussions about the future of the Empire, Barnett emphasises two deeper truths:

1. The 1946 loan The British were only able to hand on to their empire because the Americans were paying for it – first with Lend-Lease during the war, which kept a bankrupt Britain economically afloat, then with the enormous post-war loan of $3.5 billion (the Anglo-American Loan Agreement signed on 15 July 1946). This was negotiated by the great economist John Maynard Keynes:

Keynes had noted that a failure to pass the loan agreement would cause Britain to abandon its military outposts in the Middle Eastern, Asian and Mediterranean regions, as the alternative of reducing British standards of living was politically unfeasible.

A debt that was only paid off in 2006.

2. Marshall Aid While Barnett shows us (in numbing detail) successive British governments squabbling about whether to spend 8% or 7% or 6% of GDP on the military budget required to ‘defend’ Malaya and Borneo and Bermuda and Kenya and Tanganyika – their most direct commercial rivals, Germany and Japan, were spending precisely 0% on defence.

I was surprised to learn that (on top of the special loan) Britain received more Marshall Aid money than either France or Germany but – and here is the core of Barnett’s beef – while both those countries presented the American lenders with comprehensive plans explaining their intentions to undertake comprehensive and sweeping investment in industry, retooling and rebuilding their economies to conquer the postwar world, Britain didn’t.

This was the once-in-a-generation opportunity which Britain also had to sweep away the detritus of ruined British industry, and invest in new technical schools, better training for workers and management, new plant and equipment built in more appropriate locations and linked by a modern road and rail infrastructure.

Instead Britain, in Barnett’s view, squandered the money it borrowed from America (the only thing keeping it afloat during the entire period of the Attlee government) on 1. the grandiose welfare state with its free care from cradle to grave and 2. propping up an ‘Empire’ which had become a grotesque liability and should have been cut loose to make its own way in the world.

Empire instead of Europe

Britain’s enthralment to delusions of empire is highlighted towards the end of the period (1945-50) when Barnett describes its sniffy attitude towards the first moves by West European nations to join economic forces. The first glimmers of European Union were signalled by the Schuman Declaration of 9 May 1950 which proposed the creation of a European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC), the basis of the EU as we know it today.

Typically, the British government commissioned several committees of mandarins to ponder our response, which turned out to be one of interest but reluctance to actually join – with the result that a pan-European coal and steel market was forged and we were left out of it.

The episode starkly demonstrated that five years after Victory-in-Europe Day Britain still remained lost in the illusion of a continuing destiny as a world and imperial power – an illusion which was costing her so dear in terms of economic and military overstretch. (p.120)

The following month (June 1950) North Korea invaded South Korea and Britain immediately pledged its support to America in repelling the invasion. The Korean War ended up lasting three years (until an armistice on 27 July 1953). Britain committed over 100,000 troops to what those who served bitterly called ‘the forgotten war’, of whom 1,078 were killed in action, 2,674 wounded and 1,060 missing, in defence of a nation 5,500 miles away – a military deployment which cost a fortune.

New Jerusalem

This prolonged demolition of the whole idea of the British Empire comes before Barnett even turns his guns on the main target of the book – the British government’s misguided decision not to invest in a comprehensive renovation of the British economy, and instead to devote its best minds, energies and money to the creation of the welfare state and the National Health Service.

Here Barnett deploys all the tactics he used in The Audit of War:

  • he lumps together these two projects, along with the broader aims of the Beveridge Report (massive rehousing, full employment) under the pejorative heading ‘New Jerusalem’ and deliberately mocks all its proponents as ‘New Jerusalemers’ (Beveridge himself described as ‘the very personification of the liberal Establishment’, possessing the righteousness and ‘authoritartian arrogance and skill in manipulating the press which made him the Field Marshall Montgomery of social welfare’, p.129)
  • he goes to great lengths to show how the entire New Jerusalem project was the misguidedly high-minded result of the culture of Victorian idealism, the earnest religious revival of the early and mid-Victorian period as brought to perfection in the public service ethos of the public schools and which he scornfully calls ‘the “enlightened” Establishment’ – meeting and marrying the ‘respectable’ working class tradition of non-conformism and moral improvement, particularly strong in Wales which produced, among many other Labour politicians, the father of the NHS, Aneurin Bevan
  • and how this enormous tide of high-minded paternalistic concern for the squalor and ill health of Britain’s industrial proletariat led throughout the war to a co-ordinated campaign across the media, in magazines and newspapers – led by public school and Oxbridge-educated members ‘the “enlightened” Establishment’, editors, writers, broadcasters – which used all means at its disposal to seize the public imagination

The result of this great tidal wave of high minded altruism was that by 1945 both Tories and Labour were committed to its implementation, the implementing the Beveridge Report of 1942 which called for the creation of a welfare state, for the creation of a national health service free at the point of delivery, and for Beveridge’s other two recommendations – for a vast building plan to erect over 4 million new houses in the next decade, as well as a manifesto pledge to maintain ‘full employment’.

Barnett quotes at length from the great torrent of public and elite opinion which made these policy decisions almost unavoidable – but also emphasises how none of these great projects was ever properly costed (the actual cost of the NHS tripled within two years, far exceeding expectations); and how the warnings of financial ‘realists’ like the successive Chancellors of the Exchequer (Sir Kingsley Wood, Sir John Anderson, Hugh Dalton, Sir Stafford Cripps and Hugh Gaitskell) that Britain simply couldn’t afford them, were rejected by the barnstorming rhetoric of the impetuous and passionate Bevan, who established a pattern of making grandstanding speeches about the poor and needy to his cabinet colleagues, before threatening to resign (page. 150) (Bevan did eventually resign, in 1951, in protest at Chancellor Gaitskell introducing prescription charges for false teeth and glasses).

Case studies and proof

As in The Audit of War these general chapters about the New Jerusalemites, the pointlessness of the empire, the arts and humanities education of both politicians and civil servants, and the lamentable anti-efficiency practices of the trade unions, are all just preliminaries for a long sequence of chapters and sections in which Barnett examines in mind-boggling detail how the Attlee government’s wrong-headed priorities and policies hampered and blocked any kind of industrial recovery across a wide range of industries which had already been struggling even before the war started, and now became fossilised in postures of bureaucracy and incompetence.

It is an absolutely devastating indictment of how restrictive government policies, short-sighted and stupid management, and the incredibly restrictive practices of an embittered and alienated working class all combined to create the ‘British disease’ which had brought Britain to its knees by the 1970s. Some quotes give a feel:

The catastrophically cold winter of 1946 to 1947 forced the shutdown of large swathes of industry.

In 1947 the price of food imports, many of them from the dollar area, rose to nearly a third higher than in 1945. As a consequence of this double misfortune [loss of exports due to shutdown factories, huge rise in cost of food imports] plus the continued £140 million direct dead-weight cost of the world role, Britain was no longer gaining ground in the struggle to close the balance of payments gap, but losing it. In the first six months of 1947 more than half the original 1945 loan of $3.75 billion was poured away to buy the dollar goods and foodstuffs that Britain could not itself afford. (p.199)

In fact, there is evidence that it was the failure of the ‘centrally planned’ economy under Labour to supply enough coal to keep the power stations running, and the general collapse of the economy, which did a lot to undermine faith in their competence.

It is striking that in this great age of plans and planners, it turned out that Labour did not, in fact, have a fully costed and worked out plan for either the costs of the welfare state and NHS, and even less so for what it wanted to do with the country’s economy and industry. The only plan was to nationalise key industries in the vague hope that bringing them into public ownership would make management and workers work harder, with a greater spirit of public unity. But nationalisation did the opposite. Because no new money was poured in to modernise plant and equipment, men kept working in crappy workplaces at hard jobs and insisted on their pay differentials. Instead of directing resources to the most profitable coalmines or steel plants, the Labour government nationalised these industries in such a way that the most inefficient were subsidised by the most efficient, and workers across all factories and mines were paid the same wages – thus at a stroke, killing any incentive for management to be more efficient or workers to work harder. The effect was to fossilise the generally poor level of management and incredibly inefficient working practices, at the lowest possible level.

From the start the various Boards and committees and regional Executives set up to run these ramshackle congeries of exhausted industry regarded their job as to tend and succour, not to inspire and modernise, dominated

by a model of a ‘steady-state’ public utility to be ‘administered’ rather than dynamically managed.

But it’s the fact that, after all these years of articles and speeches and radio broadcasts and meetings and papers and research and books, there were no worked-out plans which takes my breath away.

The Labour government renounced the one advantage of a command economy – direct intervention in the cause of remaking Britain as an industrial society. Except in the fields of defence, nuclear power and civil aircraft manufacture, there were still to be no imposed plans of development – even in regard to industries where the need had long been apparent, such as shipbuilding, steel and textiles. (p.204)

As to these knackered old industries:

It was a mark of how profoundly twentieth century industrial Britain had remained stuck in an early-nineteenth century rut that even in 1937 exports of cotton (despite having collapsed by three-quarters since 1913) still remained a third more valuable than exports of machinery and two-and-a-half times more than exports of chemicals. (p.209)

A Board of Trade report stated that between 60 and 70% of its buildings had been put up before 1900. Whereas 95% of looms in America were automatic, only 5% of looms in Britain were. Most of the machinery was 40 years old, some as much as 80 years old. Barnett then describes the various make-do-and-mend policies of the government which had spent its money on defence and the welfare state and so had none left to undertake the sweeping modernisation of the industry which it required.

Same goes for coal, steel, shipbuilding, aircraft and car manufacturing, each of them suffering from creaking equipment, cautious management, mind-bogglingly restrictive trade union practices, poor design, absurd fragmentation.

The chapter on Britain’s pathetic attempts to design and build commercial airliners is one of humiliation, bad design, government interference, delay and failure (the Tudor I and II, the enormous Brabazon). While politicians interfered and designers blundered and parts arrived late because of lack of capacity in steel works themselves working at sub-optimal capacity because of failures in coal supply (due, more often than not, to strikes and go-slows) the Americans designed and built the Boeing and Lockheed models which went on to dominate commercial air flight.

While the French committed themselves to an ambitious plan to build the most modern railway network in the world, high speed trains running along electrified track, the British government – having spent the money on propping up the empire, building useless airplanes and paying for cradle to grave healthcare, was left to prop up the Victorian network of

slow, late, dirty and overcrowded passenger trains, freight trains still made up of individually hand-braked four-wheeled wagons, and of antique local good-yards and crumbling engine sheds and stations. (p.262)

The Germans had already built their motorways in the 1930s. Now they rebuilt them wider and better to connect their regions of industrial production, as did the French. The British bumbled along with roads often only 60 feet wide, many reflecting pre-industrial tracks and paths. The first 8 mile stretch of British motorway wasn’t opened until 1958.

When it came to telecommunications, there was a vast backlog of telephones because no British factories could produce vital components which had to be (expensively) imported from America or Germany. Result: in 1948 Britain was a backwards country, with 8.5 phones per 100 of the population, compared to 22 in the US, 19 in Sweden, 15.5 in New Zealand and 14 in Denmark (p.265). Some 450,000 people were on a waiting list of up to eighteen months meaning that for most of the 100,000 business waiting for a phone to be installed, making any kind of communication involved popping out to the nearest call box with a handful of shillings and pence and an umbrella (p.267).

Barnett details the same kind of failings as applied to the entire system of British ports: too small, built in the wrong places without space to expand, harbour entrances too narrow, docks too shallow, cranes and other equipment too small and out of date – then throw in the immensely obstructive attitude of British dockers who were divided into a colourful miscellany of crafts and specialism, any of whom could at any moment decide to strike and so starve the country of supplies.

I was particularly struck by the section about the British car industry. it contained far too companies – some 60 in all- each of whom produced too many models which were badly designed and unroadworthy, made with inferior steel from knackered British steelworks and required a mind-boggling array of unstandardised parts. Barnett tells the story of Lucas the spark plug manufacturers who put on a display of the 68 different types of distributor, 133 types of headlamp and 98 different types of windscreen wiper demanded of them by the absurd over-variety of British cars e.g. Austin producing the A40, the Sheerline and the princess, Rootes brothers making the Sunbeam-Talbot, the Hillman Minx, and three types of Humber, and many more manufacturers churning out unreliable and badly designed cars with small chassis and weak engines.

Barnett contrasts this chaos with the picture across the Channel where governments helped a handful of firms invest in new plant designed to turn out a small number of models clearly focused on particular markets: Renault, Citroen and Peugeot in France, Mercedes and Volkswagen in Germany, Fiat in Italy. It wasn’t just the superiority of design, it was subtler elements like the continentals’ willingness to tailor models to the requirements and tastes of foreign markets, and to develop well-organised foreign sales teams. The British refused to do either (actually refused; Barnett quotes the correspondence).

On and on it goes, a litany of incompetence, bad management and appalling industrial relations, all covered over with smug superiority derived from the fact that we won the war and we had an empire.

It makes you want to weep tears of embarrassment and humiliation. More important – it explains what came next. More than any other writer I’ve ever read, Barnett explains why the Britain I was born into in the 1960s and grew up in during the 1970s was the way it was, i.e. exhausted, crap and rundown on so many levels.

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Related reviews

The Audit of War by Correlli Barnett (1986)

‘The time and energy and thought which we are all giving to the Brave New World is wildly disproportionate to what is being given to the Cruel New World.’ (British economist J.M. Keynes, quoted page 40)

The full title of this book is The Audit of War: The Illusion and Reality of Britain as a Great Nation, which very accurately states its aim and its Manichaean structure. It is not your average leisurely, rather reassuring history book but a fierce and forcefully argued polemic which, if you’re British, is intellectually and emotionally devastating.

The basic premise is this: When Barnett wrote the book, received opinion tended to think that Britain fell behind its industrial competitors (America, Germany and Japan) and prey to the so-called ‘British disease’ of abysmal industrial performance, in the decades after the end of the Second World War. During the war itself, the nation had pulled together and demonstrated wonders of industrial production, showing what you can achieve if your economy is planned and centrally controlled towards one great aim i.e. fighting for survival. Celebration of the scientific, industrial and manufacturing triumphs of central planning – radar, the Spitfire, countless ships – helped to justify the 1945 Labour government’s policy of nationalising ‘the commanding heights’ of the economy – namely the coal and steel industries, gas, railways, and so on – in order to continue that spirit of wartime unity and success. It was only in the decades that followed that timid management and obstructive unions undermined the crowning achievement of the war years in the 1950s and 60s. Thus received opinion.

Barnett is at pains to show that this entire narrative is completely untrue, a myth, the product of wartime propaganda which those in charge knew at the time was profoundly misleading.

Barnett ‘drew on a mass of once secret and hitherto unpublished Whitehall and Cabinet-committee files’ which had only just become available in the early 1980s, as well as published reports, surveys and data, to show in excruciating detail that far from being a shining beacon of industrial success, the war years in fact represented the shambolic climax of over a century of mismanagement, short-sightedness, governmental and business failure at all levels.

In other words, it was during the war itself that the worst aspects of British economic mismanagement came to a head and set the tone for the post-war decline. These included:

  • the shameful lack of technical schools and colleges, resulting in chronic shortages of decently educated let alone skilled workmen, supervisors and management
  • the fragmentation of all Britain’s industries into small, scattered, often family-run companies overseen by narrow-minded and jealously protective sons and grandsons of the founders
  • the dominance of what Barnett calls ‘the practical man’, the man who pulled himself up by his bootstraps and learned on the job and worked things out by rule of thumb – a pitiful contrast to the regiments of highly trained, superbly educated engineers found in America and Germany
  • the ruinous, lazy, jobsworth attitude of the workers in every industry who generally a) hated the management b) rejected any changes or improvements or suggestions for greater efficiency c) clung on to petty privileges through d) the mechanism of scores of petty-minded trade unions and their stroppy shop stewards who used almost any excuse to stage a sudden wildcat strike, or walkout, or go-slow

Chapters three to nine depict in excruciating detail – really mind-blowing, life-altering detail – the deep-rooted and profound failings of Britain’s core industries – coal mining, steel-making, shipbuilding, tank and truck manufacture – and then goes on to highlight the failings of the ‘new’ technologies like radar and radio.

Reading in such detail about the bad design, the failure to co-ordinate design and manufacture, the failure to invest in the right plant and factories, the refusal of trade unions to accept new technologies or working methods, the excruciating delays, and then the crappiness of the end products (Britain’s tanks and lorries being good examples) is more than depressing, it is devastating.

All the more so because Barnett polemically opened the book with a portrait of the high-minded, bien-pensant, liberal elite of left-leaning politicians, ethical thinkers, art directors, liberal columnists and so forth who focused all their thinking and powerful rhetoric NOT on how the British economy needed to be rescued from its parlous state and comprehensively overhauled, but on how society needed to be changed and improved after the war.

He is excoriatingly, blisteringly critical of what he calls ‘the “enlightened” Establishment’ which produced numerous books, articles and pamphlets calling for the end of the war to be followed by the creation of a welfare state, the building of a ‘New Jerusalem’, a national health service free to all, millions of new houses – he shows in detail how these purely social and reformist aims became the top priority of politicians from all parties – rather than retooling British industry to compete in a harsher economic world.

This opening chapter is flagellates what Barnett satirically calls ‘New Jerusalemism’, the anti-science, anti-industrial mindset cultivated by hundreds of posh public schools which taught their pupils Horace, cricket and little else – an education in high-minded uselessness which melded with the parallel, non-conformist religious tradition which lies behind the Labour Party – to create a high-minded, loftily ‘moral’ concern for welfare and social security – without giving any thought to who would pay for it.

(In this, Barnett echoes the conclusions of the American academic Martin J. Wiener in his 1981 book English Culture and the Decline of the Industrial Spirit, which was, to quote Wikipedia:

a concerted attack on the British elite for its indifference to and wariness of industrialism and commercialism. Although the commercial and industrial revolutions originated in England, Wiener blamed a persistent strain in British culture, characterised by wariness of capitalist expansion and yearning for an arcadian rural society, which had prevented England – and Britain as a whole – from fully exploiting the benefits of what it had created. He was particularly scathing about the self-made industrial capitalists of the 19th century who, from the middle of that century onwards, increasingly sent their children to public schools where ‘the sons of businessmen were looked down upon and science was barely taught’.)

Chapter two investigates in more detail the precise policies of the ‘New Jerusalemers’ – that Britain must be rebuilt whatever the cost as embodied in the famous Beveridge Report of November 1942, which is generally seen as setting out the framework for the post-war Welfare State, guaranteeing every citizen a decent standard of living, good housing and free education. Barnett shows how Beveridge very successfully publicised his report, through the press and via the army’s influential Army Bureau of Current Affairs (ABCA), and how allies recruited powerful liberals in the media such as the owner of the best-selling weekly magazine Picture Post, along with scores of other opinion formers, creating an unstoppable momentum. All this had far more impact than the cautious, sometimes very pessimistic, reports about the economy commissioned by the Treasury under Chancellor Kingsley Wood. Barnett shows that even Labour figures like Clement Attlee were aware of the economic plight; but chose to ignore it in order to fulfil what they thought of as higher, moral and political obligations.

In chapter three Barnett examines more closely the state of the economy which all the New Jerusalem zealots were assuming would steam ahead in the post-war period, providing the money for the new welfare state and the promised massive rebuilding programme. It makes very bleak reading, key points being:

  • Barnett’s previous book, The Decline of British Power, had anatomised the failure of British industry to invest, modernise and compete between the wars. Instead it was able to rest on its laurels and export sub-standard products to the captive markets of the colonies.
  • This helps explain why Britain’s economy and industries only survived the war because of American money. The Lend-Lease scheme provided the tooling machines, raw materials and food which kept Britain afloat. Lend-Lease was cancelled almost immediately the war ended, leaving Britain to fend for itself and facing certain bankruptcy.
  • American money allowed the British ruling and industrial class for six long years to completely drop all thoughts of competitive exporting i.e. being a commercial success, in order to entirely focus on producing war munitions and goods.
  • Barnett quotes a riveting report produced by the Board of Trade which extensively surveyed the likely post-war effectiveness of individual British industries: out of 53 sectors, only two evinced unqualified optimism (cosmetics and sewage systems)
  • He shows how British goods produced during the war (guns, trucks, tanks) were consistently poorer in design and performance than those produced by the Americans or Germans. I was brought up to think the world-famous Spitfire fighter plane outclassed the German Messerschmitt: but it takes Barnett to point out that it took nearly double the man hours to produce a Spitfire as to produce a Messerschmitt. This is one example from hundreds which he provides in devastating detail demonstrating over and over again the uncompetitive, low productivity, bad design, go-slow trade unions and incompetent management which, once the war ended and industry returned to having to sell things abroad, produced worse products at higher prices than their European and American competitors.

Just reading the contents page of the book gives you the main message:

Part 1 Dreams and Illusions
1. The Dream of new Jerusalem
2. the Illusion of Limitless Possibility

Part II – The Industrial Machine
3. ‘The prospect is bleak’: 1943-45
4. An Industrial Worst Case: Coal
5. ‘In Great Need of Modernisation’: Steel
6. ‘The Fossilisation of Inefficiency’: Shipbuilding
7. A Mass Industry Improvised: Aircraft 1936-39
8. New technology and Old Failings: Aircraft 1939-44
9. The Dependence on America: Radar and Much Else

Part III Reality – Human Resources
10. The Legacy of the Industrial Revolution
11. Education for Industrial Decline

Part IV The Limits of the Possible
12. New Jerusalem or Economic Miracle
13. Tinkering as Industrial Strategy
14. The Lost Victory

The guilt of ‘the practical man’

Each chapter in part two is a brutally critical analysis of the failure of a key British industry. Since virtually all energy was provided by coal (coal playing the central role in the economy now taken by oil), Barnett makes you want to weep tears of frustration and grief at the complete failure of the coalmine owners, managers, workers or government to devise any workable plans to modernise the industry and bring it up to the levels of efficiency and productivity achieved by mines in America, Germany, France and Belgium.

One vast theme which emerges is the fragmentation of these industries which stretches right back to the origins of the industrial revolution when any landowner who discovered coal on their land set up their own mine, run their own way, with their own quirky systems, layout, technology and ad hoc railways lines.

In coal and steel it was this fragmentation which dragged down productivity, with the promise made by the national government during the second World War to guarantee wages and prices, merely delaying the howling need to close down unproductive pits and consolidate profitable ones and invest in more modern (i.e. German) equipment.

But Barnett also has it in for the type of management which ran so many of these small to medium size operations. Early on he starts calling this figure ‘the practical man’, and uses the same rhetorical device of scornful repetition to castigate this bogeyman as he used with his mocking repetition of ‘New Jerusalemites’ in the opening chapters.

‘The practical man’ is an amateur, who has learned on the job, is proud of his practical experience and uses rule of thumb and intuition to make decisions. All this is contrasted with Germany, in particular, which by the mid-1800s, yes, a century before the Second World War, had already set up a network of technical schools and colleges, and – as Barnett shows – were consistently turning out ten times as many skilled workers with useful apprenticeships, as well as trained industrial chemists, physicists, scientists of all kinds.

Barnett lays out side by side the systematic way in which the German state set about creating an education system which guaranteed a highly educated general population, from which it then selected the best and brightest to go on to world-leading technical schools, colleges and universities, next to the shambolic, uncentralised, ad hoc way the British relied on individual cities, local councils and even parishes, or the occasional philanthropist to rig up a ramshackle unco-ordinated mosaic of half-cocked and inefficient schools and colleges. The result was the ‘deep ignorance’, the illiteracy and lack of education of the vast bulk of the British population which appalled visitors during the 1930s.

With, of course, the notable exception of reams of graduates from top public schools and Oxbridge who had been drilled in Classics – that vital requirement for ‘the English gentleman’ – but didn’t know one end of a steam lathe from the other.

Big ideas

Britain only survived the war because of American funding Britain was bankrupt by 1941. It was given a loan of gold by the Belgian government which would have tided it over for another year at most, but was rescued from complete collapse by the signing of the Lend-Lease arrangement with America which prevented Britain actually going bankrupt. Britain was only able to fight the Second World War because of American money, materials and equipment.

Britain’s good luck on stumbling across industrial production was also its doom Britain was lucky to stumble into the Industrial Revolution but the seeds of its later failure were sown by the very thing which made it the pioneer. This was the lucky confluence of iron, coal and water in a number of places – Lancashire, South Wales, some parts of the north-east – which tended to be far from centres of population.

It was the convenient proximity of these raw materials which enabled the industrial revolution to take place in Britain first – but it had the fatal effect of fragmenting the companies and industries which were set up to exploit it. It led to a huge number of disparate enterprises scattered all over the UK.

It also created a tradition of strong independent founders of each individual mine and factory, ‘masters’, practical men, with little or no education or training. It entrenched in their minds and the minds of their descendants the notion that profitability stemmed from long hours and hard wages, not from fancy new technological innovations. We’ll be ‘avin’ none of your fancy new university ideas, Obadiah.

It led the great industrial towns to grow like mushrooms from little villages, with no urban planning at all, little more than barracks with no water or sewage for the new armies of the proletariat who were worked, literally, to death by their masters.

And it was this, the untrammeled brutality and naked exploitation of the Georgian Industrial Revolution (i.e. up to about 1837) which led the British working class to become a race apart, living in slum work camps, working seven hours a day, filled with anger and resentment, and determined to cling on to every scrap of privilege and entitlement, resolutely set against any kind of change to long-established practices.

It led to the smouldering war between employers and employees which even a sympathetic witness, like Harold Wilson, noted in his 1945 study of the British coalmining industry. And which continued down to the catastrophic 1970s, when I grew up, and burst into flames during the great miners strike of 1984-5.

Barnett shows in unrelenting detail how all these ills derived directly from the unique conditions pertaining at the birth of the industrial revolution in the 1770s, and then never went away. In 1945 people were still living in damp, filthy slum terraces with no running water and no sewage facilities which had been built in 1800.

Thus was born the tradition of the British muddling through, while the Germans planned A Frenchman touring British industry between the wars noted that because of this lucky confluence of coal, iron and running water in key parts of Britain, from the start, an enterprising ‘master’ who could raise a little capital could just build a factory or works close to coal and iron deposits and on the nearest river to start making money.

Whereas in Germany and France, where iron, coal and water were not so conveniently placed together, potential industrialists had to carefully plan how to transport the raw materials they needed and how to process them to make the maximum profit from a more elaborate operation.

From the very start of their industrial revolutions, the French and Germans were forced to think and plan more carefully than the British, and so were motivated to set up technical and managerial colleges and courses to teach the skills of production management and planning – something which the British didn’t think of doing until generations later.

The workers the most reactionary force in society Reading Barnett’s innumerable accounts of the workers’ and trade unions’ stubborn resistance to any kind of change, to any kind of technological development or improvement in working practices, reading about their fierce opposition to women doing any work in the factories – all this forces on the reader the conclusion that – diametrically opposite to what Marx and all his followers down to E.P. Thompson claimed – the ‘working class’, far from being the spearhead, the avant-garde of society, was in fact the most conservative, small-minded, narrow and reactionary part of society.

This insight sheds new light on the entire kitchen sink, working class school of literature which grew up in the late 1950s / early 1960s and which I’ve been reading about in David Kynaston’s sequence of post-war histories. All the protagonists of those ‘new’ novels about working class life – in the Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner or Saturday Night, Sunday Morning or Billy Liar – want to escape not just the poverty of their slums, but much more so the narrowness of expectation and the poverty of imagination, the profoundly repressive conservatism of the culture they’ve grown up in.

Reading Barnett gives you a whole new appreciation of the depth and scale of working class ignorance and fear of any change or innovation. From very early on, from the time of the Luddites, the appallingly mistreated workers in the cotton areas of Lancashire or coal minders learned to associate the introduction of any new machinery with layoffs and outright starvation. No wonder they resisted change. Change meant unemployment and inconceivable misery. Resistance to any kind of change became bred in the bone, an attitude which lasted for nearly 200 years (1770 to 1970).

Some doubts

1. Critical rhetoric

The impression given by the opening chapters which lampoon and satirise the high-minded feelings of a bien-pensant liberal elite gives the impression that the wish to create a welfare state, a national health service, and build decent housing was a vast conspiracy by the ruling class to foist feelgood social welfare on the nation.

It is rammed home by his strategy of repeating his ironic references to ‘the “enlightened” Establishment’ and ‘New Jerusalemism’, and highlighting the exceptional privilege of the key opinion formers by emphasising how they all, from the Archbishop of Canterbury on down, went to jolly good private schools where they had imbibed what Barnett takes to be a fatal combination of high-minded Christian principles and profound ignorance of industry or trade.

In fact, all his facts and figures may well make an excoriating case, but I also noted his rhetorical devices, deploying a powerfully sarcastic vocabulary when describing the New Jerusalem do-gooders who are always described as ‘prophets’, zealous, they ‘proselytise’ with ‘quenchless fervour’, they conduct ‘New Jerusalem evangelism’ and have ‘visions’ of a Brave New World, in fact they act ‘on the best romantic principle that sense must bend to feeling, and facts to faith’ (p.37). It is a sustained rhetorical attack which helps to give the book its powerful emotional charge, much more so than is usual in a history book.

Sometimes his language becomes virulent and intemperate:

The message that it was no longer politically possible openly to try to block or stall New Jerusalem was thrust down Conservative throats by the results of six by-elections held that February, all held in Conservative seats. (p.31)

‘Thrust down Conservative throats’ is obviously emotive and loaded language. It sounds like the Gestapo have taken over. More temperate phrasing might have been to say that in six by-elections in February 1943 the Conservative vote dropped by 8% or so, which told party leaders that the national mood was moving in favour of Labour and its support of the Beveridge Plan. There need not be any ‘thrusting down throats’. It is symptomatic of the barely concealed anger and contempt which fuel the book and make it such a thrilling read.

2. Brings into question the nature of democracy

Barnett describes how the 1942 Beveridge Report was greeted with enthusiasm not only by the working class newspapers, the Daily Mirror and Herald, but by the Times and the Telegraph too i.e. by all shades of political opinion. He claims that those newspapers, along with the influential magazine Picture Post, the BBC, the ABCA, and a host of other organisations, have all been ‘captured’ by the ‘romantic delusions’ of the ‘New Jerusalemites’. In other words, at various points, he gives the impression that there was a kind of conspiracy to foist the new Jerusalem, the welfare state and the NHS on an unsuspecting public.

But, at some point, I think almost any reader will step back from Barnett’s virulent rhetoric, and be tempted to think – well, everything you say about the absolutely dire performance of British industry and the British economy is obviously correct; and everything you say about the entire war effort only existing because of huge American subsidies is true; and everything you say about a huge cross-section of society – from the Archbishop of Canterbury to communist coalminers – refusing to face these economic facts, and instead agreeing that a new society must be built after the war, is also true, but…

But that is what the people wanted. The people had fought for six long years. Hundreds of thousands died and lost their homes, the entire nation suffered from the blackout and rationing and the prolonged psychological impact of war. It was not altogether irrational of them to want all this sacrifice to have been for something. And those old enough to remember it emphatically did not want a repetition of the last war when the politicians promised a land fit for heroes and a few years later there was a great slump, unemployment and the slums stayed as wretched as ever.

Barnett’s interpretation may be 100% correct and the decision to spend on a welfare state may have been, from the purely economic point of view, a disastrous choice and waste of resources when the rational thing would have been to invest in a comprehensive overhaul of every aspect of Britain’s creaking infrastructure and lamentable industrial base.

But I can see at least three objections to his thesis:

  1. It was what the overwhelming majority of the population wanted and in a democracy, like it or not, you have to do what the majority vote for. To have resisted the calls for reform which swept over all aspects of British society in 1945 would have required a dictatorship.
  2. If it had not been done then, when would it have been done? If successive governments had embarked on the plan for complete economic overhaul which Barnett advocates, does he think the social and economic conditions which allowed the creation of a welfare state would have ever come again? It’s one thing to say you have to earn the money before you can spend it, any child can grasp that message. But in the enormously complicated running of a huge country, does he imagine that one year, five years, ten years later on, the same unity and determination to create a centralised welfare state and national health system would have still existed? I doubt it.
  3. Lastly, the very power of his case undermines itself. What I mean is that Barnett shows in harrowing detail how economic fragmentation, bad management, terrible industrial relations and an appalling education system had placed Britain fifty years behind America or Germany by 1939 and were far more profoundly and deeply rooted in every aspect of British culture than is usually thought. In which case: what makes him think that a mere five years of economic investment, directed by the same old Oxbridge-educated mandarins who had presided over the previous hundred years of decline, would have made very much difference? If the problem was really as deep-rooted as he very persuasively shows it to be, who knows whether even ten years, or fifteen years, of systematic retooling and investment would have been enough. Would anything have been enough to cure the British disease, short of asking the Germans to come and run our entire society for us?

Agree or disagree, this is one of the most thought-provoking books I’ve ever read.

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Austerity Britain: Smoke in the Valley, 1948–51 by David Kynaston (2007)

David Kynaston (b.1951) has written about 16 history books on broadly three topics: cricket, the City of London, and Britain after the Second World War. His post-war histories have been published as three volumes, each of which – rather confusingly – contained two books:

This is a review, or notes on, book two of volume one, Austerity Britain: Smoke in The Valley, which covers the years 1948 to 1951 i.e. from the inauguration of the National Health Service on 5 July 1948 to Labour’s defeat in the October 1951 general election.

In 1940 Somerset Maugham published a collection of short stories titled The Mixture As BeforeSmoke in the Valley continues with the mixture exactly as before, carrying right on with exactly the same approach as its predecessor, mixing daily diary entries from the core of housewives, teachers and minor civil servants which he used in the first book, along with notes and memoirs of more senior political figures involved in the big issues of the day, and the third element is the reports and findings of ‘experts’ – the observers of Mass Observation, and reports and papers by economists and sociologists.

The book continues seamlessly on from its predecessor, with no preface or introduction, the opening paragraphs leaping straight in to describe the opening ceremony of the first Olympic Games held after the war, in London. This took place on Thursday 29 July 1948, only three weeks after the National Health Service came into operation – a celebration of health following straight on from a recognition of the nation’s massive unhealth.

The few pages about the Olympics lead onto a description of that year’s Bank Holiday weekend with trippers heading to the warm seaside, then onto the way the holiday was marked by some of the earliest race riots in England, starting in Liverpool white gangs attacked an Indian restaurant and then groups of blacks in the street. Then Kynaston describes Don Bradman playing his last Test match at the Oval on 14 August, then we’re on to Nella Last, housewife in Barrow, queueing for rationed food and grumbling, and then a consideration of that evening’s wireless programmes on the BBC Light Programme and then onto the first professional win, a few weeks later, by the 12-year-old Wunderkind jockey, Lester Piggott.

Thus the opening pages declare that it will follow A World to Build in being a social history of the period, which follows the people’s priorities i.e. sport and food, and that the dominating note is the people’s experience of austerity, dinginess and impoverishment, mental and physical. As Gladys Langford, a schoolteacher in North London, complains:

Streets are deserted, lighting is dim, people’s clothes are shabby, and their tables are bare,

But as winter 1948 turned to spring 1949 rationing, for the first time, began to ease off. All consumer goods were still expensive, but there was a ‘bonfire of restrictions,’ supervised by the young and canny Harold Wilson, President of the Board of Trade, who knew how much good that catchphrase and the public ending of some ration restrictions would do his own political career. In April 1949, after seven years, sweets came off the ration (though there was such a burst of demand, that they went back on in August).

Domestically, a major ideological struggle opened up within the Labour Party between the ‘consolidators’ who thought most of its work had been done by 1948, and the ‘continuers’, led by Nye Bevan, who thought there was much left to do, though they were a little short on the details of what.

Iron and steel nationalisation proved the last and most difficult of the nationalisations to carry out, but the book powerfully conveys the sense, even among its own activists and think tank wonks, that the Labour government had run out of steam and ideas.

I learned that the NHS almost immediately went over budget, revealing the previously unsuspected depths of poverty and ill health throughout Britain.

The Cold War deepened with the establishment, in April 1949, of NATO as an explicitly anti-Soviet alliance.

The fundamental economic weakness of Britain was exposed by the Devaluation crisis when the pound sterling was devalued from $4.03 to $2.80 in 19 September 1949. Britain had to negotiate a loan from the U.S. which we were still paying off at the beginning of this (the 21st) century.

Kynaston paints a vivid picture of how it felt to be living in Britain during these years, though – in terms of history – I could have done with a clearer explanation of why – really clearly laying out the economic fundamentals of the weakness of sterling and the need for all products to be chanelled into an export drive which left pitifully little left for domestic consumers. I deduced this from the book, but it was nowhere really explained.

The cast

As well as continuing with the well-known voices from book one such as the housewives Nella Last, Vere Hodgson, Marian Raynham, Judy Haines and the author of a regular ‘Letter to America’, Mollie Panter-Downes, we are introduced to new members of the cast, including:

  • Michael Blakemore, Australian actor
  • Stewart Dalton, grew up on a council estate in Sheffield
  • Ian Dury, catching polio in Southend open air swimming pool aged 7
  • Alec Cairncross, stern adviser to Harold Wilson
  • Valeie Gisborne, 16-year-old employee who goes on a Leicester clothing factory outing
  • Cynthia Gladwyn, diarist
  • Frankie Howerd, up and coming comedian
  • Harold Hamer, President of the Association of Headmasters, Headmistresses, and Matrons of Approved Schools
  • Evelyn S. Kerr of Gidea Park, Essex
  • John Mays, sociologist
  • Paul Vaughan, BBC science broadcaster

among many more.

Culture high and low

One of the joys of the book is the happy acceptance of low or popular culture placed right next to the Big Political Issues. Thus we learn that Noddy Goes To Toyland, the first of the Noddy stories, was published in late 1949. On the third Monday of 1950, at 1.45pm on the Light programme, Listen With Mother began.

Here’s an example of Kynaston’s strategy of interweaving high and low: He starts a section with a summary and brief analysis of the 1949 film The Blue Lamp, which helped to make young Dirk Bogarde a star – before moving on to consider the results of a number of sociological studies carried out at the time into crime rates, and the best form of policing – before naturally segueing into something that was considered then and ever since as a major brake on crime, National Service. Between 1945 and 1960 some 2.5 million men were called up. Why? To police the British Empire, although many of them, when they saw what it amounted to, i.e. repressing native movements for independence, came back as fierce critics.

This gives an idea of how the text flows fluently and easily from one topic to the next, from the ‘trivial’ to the weighty – carrying you effortlessly through brief summaries of the political, economic, social and cultural highlights and issues of the day.

However, the obvious risk is that the whole thing, immensely lengthy and stuffed with anecdote and story though it is, nonetheless comes over as superficial. As mentioned above, despite reading 650 pages of detail I don’t really understand why Britain’s economy remained so weak for so long after the war, or why rationing continued for so long.

Similarly, the little section on National Service is interesting, but there is nothing at all about the massive events of the independence of India/Pakistan (15 August 1947) or Israel (14 May 1948). I appreciate that this is a history of Britain but there must have been some domestic response, from British Jews, say, or the politicians and civil servants involved. But events from the empire are glossed over in almost complete silence.

More social sciencey

Also, having started off in the same vein as its predecessor, I think Smoke in the Valley betrays a noticable shift in content i.e. the nature of the contributors.

In this volume there felt to be more material from and about ‘experts’ than in the first book, from- for example – a steady stream of contemporary economists and, in particular, summaries of more polls and surveys – from his central and abiding source of information about attitudes, Mass-Observation, but also from new polling companies such as Gallup, or Research Services Ltd run by Mark Abrams.

Thus we hear a lot from Ferdynand Zweig, a Polish émigré sociologist, who did extensive fieldwork for a series of books whose findings Kynaston liberally quotes, namely Labour, Life and Poverty (1948), Men in the Pits (1948), The British Worker (1952) and Women’s Life and Labour.

Other sociologists and social scientists quoted and referenced include:

  • Norah M. Davis, University of London psychologist, 1946 study of 400 building workers
  • Allan Flanders, author of The System of Industrial relations in Great Britain
  • Geoffrey Thomas of The Social Survey, author of Incentives in Industry
  • Stanislas Wellisz, industrial sociologist
  • the Acton Society Trust
  • Coal is Our Life (1956) by sociologists Norman Dennis, Fernando Henriques, Clifford Slaughter
  • Hilde Himmelweit’s study of 13 and 14-year-old boys at state schools
  • K.C. Wiggans, author of a 1950 survey of life and living conditions in Wallsend, Newcastle
  • The 1948 sociological study of Coventry carried out by Birmingham University

The main point

Maybe this reflects the way that, if the period 1945-48 was about rebuilding a ruined society, 1948 to 1951 was much more about trying to rebuild a ruined economy.

If the lasting impression of A World to Build is of rationing, austerity and impoverishment, the dominant theme of this volume is the failure of planning and investment. As he introduces this theme Kynaston refers repeatedly to Correlli Barnett’s scathing indictment of the post-war government, The Audit of War: The Illusion and Reality of Britain as a Great Nation, published in 1986.

The general idea is that in every conceivable way the British government muffed the opportunity to rethink and retool Britain for her role in the post-war world. All the senior figures in the Labour Goverment agreed that Britain needed a seat at the top table, needed a nuclear capability, must cling on to her empire. This resulted in the cost of Britain fighting to repress small wars of independence around the globe (Palestine, Cyprus, Malaya, Kenya – though none of these feature in the book) and led to decades of self-delusion.

Economically, in about 1950 Britain had a window of opportunity to systematically invest in its industry and infrastructure, but catastrophically failed. While Germany and Japan rebuilt their manufacturing sector from scratch, while the French embarked on a well-funded programme to make its railways the best in Europe, the Labour government nationalised the ‘commanding heights of the economy’ and then chronically failed to invest – in manufacturing, in railways or roads, in telecommunications or higher education.

The clash between the actual strength of the economy, and politicians’ delusions as to Britain’s role in the world issue, was highlighted when the Korean War broke out.

As soon as the government heard about it, all the Labour ministers lined up as one to immediately support the USA, and what became the UN response, to Korean aggression. The Labour government saw that, in the environment of the worsening Cold War, Britain needed to show unflinching solidarity with America, but also that by leaping in to support South Korea, Britain maintained the impression that it was still a global player with global interests to protect.

But critics at the time and ever since have wondered whether the money that was then redirected into war production (the MoD budget doubled as a result of the Korean War), and for the next three years, came at exactly the wrong time and delayed or derailed the investment which was so badly needed in home infrastructure.

The problems of domestic industry are exemplified in the fascinating little section on Britain’s motor industry which – despite all the bad things I grew up hearing about it in the 1970s – back in the post-war decade was still the largest car exporter in the world. It was fascinating to read about the plants of the different motor manufacturers in Dagenham, Luton, Cowley and so on, the particular brands of cars they made, and the oddities and shortcomings of the various owners and managing directors.

These are indicative of the way the failure of government to invest in new infrastructure went hand in hand with the pitiful amateurism to be found in lots of British industry, which was led by sons or relatives of founders, or chaps who went to the right school, or were members of the right gold club, a tendency raised to a rule in the stuffy and parochial world of the City of London.

Away from the housewives and films and FA Cup Finals, at a deeper level, when he looks at the economy, government, industry and finance, Kynaston paints a grim picture of the start of the Long Decline which lasted well into the 1970s, arguably into the 1980s.


Quite a few writers were quoted in the previous volume. In this one we hear for the first time from:

  • Alan Sillitoe b.1928 – author of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner
  • Hunter Davies b.1936 – author, journalist and broadcaster, grew up in Carlisle
  • Walter Greenwood b.1903 in Salford, famous for Love on the Dole
  • Norman Hunter, author of the hit play Waters of the Moon

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