An inventory of post-war pessimism

BOOK REVIEW; THE LOST VICTORY Correlli Barnett Macmillan, pounds 20
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The Independent Online
Correlli Barnett's The Lost Victory is the successor to The Audit of War, his celebrated root-and-branch criticism of Britain's performance in the Second World War. The Lost Victory carries the story further but adds little to the earlier argument. What distinguishes that argument is its pessimism, its refusal to see a flicker of hope. Mr Barnett argues that Britain was a defeated nation, like Germany and France, and should have behaved like one. It did not do so and frittered away its opportunities because its people, all of them, clung to the illusions of imperial greatness.

The guiltiest party was the country's elite; a "liberal establishment" committed to the New Jerusalem (that is, the welfare state), softened by a century of public school education and almost wholly divorced from industry and business. They were an amateurish and archaic ruling class who governed an inert and unambitious people content with security and a modest comfort: which is what the "New Jerusalemers" gave them.

What should we make of the argument? Most historians would accept at least some of it. Like Mr Barnett, I believe that the British state, far from being too strong (the current view), has historically been too weak, that our free-trade tradition has been far from beneficent, that much post-war planning was muddled and ineffective, that much of British industry was poorly managed and that we cherished national grandeur long after its reality had vanished. But his argument is seriously unbalanced. There was no single "British elite" or, if there were, its members were anything but agreed on post-war policy.

Thus Keynes, who would, I suppose, typify Mr Barnett's idea of the elite, was in fact very critical of the Attlee government's failure to realise how ungreat Britain now was. Furthermore, he overestimates just how much freedom of manoeuvre the 1945 Labour government actually had. It is, for example, fantasy to think (as he seems to) that it could have cancelled the public debt - bold though that would certainly have been.

Mr Barnett has also persisted in arguing that money spent on the welfare state and full employment was diverted from necessary investment in the national infrastructure. But the Attlee government was not responsible for full employment: that was a characteristic of the Western economy for the quarter-century after 1945. No doubt higher levels of public expenditure everywhere were partly responsible for this - but governments were otherwise passive. And the notion that full employment must be antithetical to high levels of investment is plainly untrue.

Nor was the British welfare state a drain on investment: it was cheap by European standards. In any case, what makes the welfare state expensive is high unemployment, which is what Britain did not have between 1945 and 1950.

Mr Barnett criticises the Labour government's housing programme on the same grounds. But that programme was never fulfilled precisely because the government was not prepared to find the money or the material; and that, in turn, was why the Conservative promise of 300,000 houses a year was so attractive.

Mr Barnett admits no successes. The motorcar and aircraft industries, which he considers in some detail, are therefore uniformly disasters. But this is very one-sided. I can, for example, find no reference in The Lost Victory to the Land Rover, a remarkable vehicle, in its own way as remarkable as the VW, designed after the war to replace the Jeep in those parts of the world with dollar shortages, which was most of the world. Indeed, in many middling-sized Australian wheat-sheep farms of the Fifties, the Land Rover and British-built Ferguson tractors (known piquantly as "Fergies", and as outstanding as the Land Rover) constituted almost all their equipment.

Mr Barnett is equally critical of the aircraft industry, where advanced technology, he argues, was misapplied and wasted. He notes the squandering of resources on the Bristol Brabazon and the SR-45 flying boat, implying that this was characteristic of the industry. They were certainly white elephants, but it was perfectly defensible for Britain to attempt to exploit its advanced technology: it was, after all, one of the few things the nation had in 1945.

Aside from a casual quotation, however, Mr Barnett does not mention the Vickers Viscount, possibly the most successful civil aircraft of the Fifties. That success caught the American aviation industry on the hop, as it did those airlines which were unlucky enough to have ordered piston- driven American aircraft instead. Nor does he acknowledge the predominance of British jet and turbo-prop engines in the Fifties; yet that also was a product of the late Forties.

Finally, Mr Barnett underestimates the extent to which the Labour government attempted to modernise British industry. In 1945 it was as much concerned with that as with the welfare state - if anything, Labour exaggerated the dereliction of British industry and its heavy investment programmes and restrictions on domestic consumption became, pace Mr Barnett, very unpopular, which is why some had to be abandoned.

I suspect he would have provided a fairer account had he been aware of the work of Nick Tiratsoo and Jim Tomlinson, which presents a different picture, though not wholly different, of the Labour government's industrial policies.

Mr Barnett's deep hostility to the Attlee government is puzzling: for all its errors, one might have thought it the one modern British government he would find sympathetic, and we can only surmise why that is not so. It might be due to the way he has presented his own argument. Its strong version (and that is the one he makes) is probably untenable; but the weak version everyone accepts. This is a familiar problem for a historian and, to some degree, Mr Barnett has paid the price. Furthermore, he is not primarily an economic and social historian or a historian of the Labour Party, and is consequently often unsure in his judgements.

At bottom, however, it seems more than this. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Mr Barnett is so contemptuous of the British elites not because they foolishly clung to power, but because they lost it.

The writer is tutor in modern history at St John's College, Oxford.