An Identity Crisis
Peter Calvocoressi
THE BRITISH EXPERIENCE 1945-75 by Penguin Books Penguin Books, 1979, 261 pp., £1.25
Mar-Apr-May-June 1980, volume 4, No 3/4/5/6

The Second World War is a great divide in the history of 20th century Britain. It marks the transition of Britain as a world power to a period of post-­imperial identity crisis. The 30 years since the war were difficult years of adjust­ment. A major protagonist was reduced to the role of a participant in the Greek chorus of nations.

But Britain is by no means a minor power. Its economic strength ensures a high ranking in the league table of GNP, and its self-sufficiency in oil is an enviable favour of geological fortune. Its political influence, necessarily diminished, is still respectable. Its arts and letters, although no rival to the first Elizabethan age, still have power to delight and astonish us.

The problem of identity remains. In Donne’s metaphor we can say, ‘No nation is an island.’ But does Britain feel itself part of the main? Which continent? These were the years when Britain behaved like a trapeze artist who leaps to the forward swing but is loth to quit the swing he is poised upon.

This book is a concise, analytical account of Britain coming down in the world. The difficulty of writing recent history is one of focus and selection. The author has done well to avoid the super­imposition of a grand design on the welter of events. He purveys no thesis. He is fair, from a right-of-centre standpoint, and sufficiently distanced from the narra­tion to exclude his personal experience of the times. He is an annalist rather than a historian. He wrote some of the annual volumes of Chatham House’s Survey of International Affairs. The dry touch of the expert summarizer is palpable. The pageant of colourful political figures who flit through these years—Attlee, Bevin, Bevan, Gaitskell, Eden, Macmillan, George Brown, Wilson, Heath—flit through these pages as flat impersonal agents rather than as living people.

The book is divided into five parts. First comes a report of the post-war tasks, the foundations of the welfare state and nationalization. (It is seldom realized that the public sector in Britain is so extensive—post, telecommunications, electricity, gas, coal, railways, airlines (75%), motor (50%), steel (75%) and shipbuilding). There is a thoughtful discussion on prop­erty. ‘Europe has known two distinct and incompatible traditions about private property. The one holds that private property is natural, the other that it is unnatural. The first tradition is rooted in Aristotle, the second is Christian.’ The author raises questions which he finds no room to answer, but they are worth raising.

The second part covers economic topics like industrial growth, export and the pound, inflation and wages. This is factual stuff and heavy going. The author con­cludes that the only way to avoid the alienation of the workers is to involve them in responsibility.

Part III takes up questions like poverty, inequality, housing, education and changes in political structure. Economic growth has not been enough to pay for social reform. ‘Thus a gap opened up between those for whom equality was a consequ­ence of growth and those for whom it was an end in itself.’ He has a contemplative passage on the stalemate in collective bar­gaining. ‘In so far as worker power was taken to mean union power, an oligarchy of moneyed proprietors was not being democratized but was being faced by a rival oligarchy, so that industry would become a forum for contending oligarchies with no necessary or likely gain either in efficiency or democracy.’

The next part deals with Britain’s place in the world. The author does not gloss over Britain’s disappointment with the U.S. which was less than enthusiastic about giving substance to the make-believe of a special relationship. Britain opted for an independent nuclear deterrent when ‘nuclear independence was no longer a reality, since the weapons were American.’ Britain was obliged to turn towards Europe when the Common Market was already going strong. The story of Britain’s entry into the EEC Club after being black­balled by De Gaulle is all too rapidly told in 7 pages. The first-ever national referen­dum held in Britain confirmed the choice in June 1975, when the book ends.

The fifth and final part is reserved for the author’s observations on British charac­ter. What are the two main weaknesses in British society? ‘Excessive inequality and excessive secretiveness’, is his debat­able answer. As for Britain’s strength, he picks out toughness, respect for the law, steadiness, democratic instincts and institu­tions.

Altogether it is a solemn but spotty survey, which leaves out whole areas of British life, whole episodes which added spice to existence: no Profumo scandal, barely a sentence or two on Suez 1956, nothing on the Aldermaston March, no­thing on ‘class’ which is a national obses­sion; no Liberals, no Communists, no National Front; no Beatles, no “Lucky Jim”, no Betjamin, Russell, Ayer, Tynan, Stoppard, Epstein, Hepworth, Priestley; no British sense of humour, no Punch, not even The Times. North Sea oil gets a passing mention. There is a plug for the Open University. Mr. Calvocoressi has neither declared an interest nor troubled to conceal it: the blurb tells us that he is Chairman of Open University Educational Enterprises Ltd.

If the author had listed a select biblio­graphy the book would have been a better ‘guide to modern Britain’ as the pub­lishers claim. One thinks of Crossman’s Diaries. now to be checked against Bar­bara Castle’s diaries, the memoirs of Eden, Macmillan, Wilson, books such as An­thony Sampson’s Anatomy of Britain quite apart from shelves of reports which call for guided consultation.

This book is a competent but incom­plete conspectus of an abidingly interest­ing subject which will be useful to students and general readers.

A.Madhavan is Joint Secretary, Ministry of External Affairs, New Delhi.

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