Commentary Magazine

Little England

A generation ago, not even the most rabid of Briton-baiters would have called the British an introspective people. Egotistical we were, no doubt, but in the smug, comfortable way of folk who have money in the bank and an unshaken confidence in the police. John Bull had become somewhat less expansive, and he was already a little jealous of his rich American cousins. Nevertheless he was still pretty certain that Pax Britannica represented an unmitigated blessing to the world. At home, there were rumors of class war, but the failure of the General Strike in 1926 and Stanley Baldwin’s work of reconciliation had taken social revolution off the agenda before the “revolutionary” 30’s began. And those writers of the 30’s—Auden, Spender, Orwell, Kingsley Martin, Harold Laski, John Strachey—made astonishingly little impact on English society at the time. It is safe to say that the average Englishman knew very little of the doings of the Left Book Club, and cared less. As long as Germany and Russia were weak, and America isolationist, Britain could lord it over India, the Middle East, and half of Africa, without fear of contradiction. And the basis of her power was still what it had been in the 18th century: Britannia ruled the waves.

The Cuban crisis has brought one thing home to the British very forcibly: Britannia rules the waves no more. To the outside observer, of course, this has been clear for some time—since, say, the Battle of Midway in 1942. That was the moment when America assumed the mantle of those world-wide maritime responsibilities which all too plainly were beyond Britain’s strength. What is really surprising—and highly significant—is that the British should have taken so long to recognize that the basis of their power had disappeared. The suddenness of the disappearance goes some way toward explaining British slowness: only three years divided their apparently unchallenged supremacy of 1939 from the Singapore disaster of 1942. But national power is one thing and national psychology another. The British did not realize in 1942 and, in an important sense, do not fully realize now, that a collapse of national power has taken place comparable to the collapse of Haps-burg power during the First World War.

The loss of power suffered by the nations of Europe as a result of World War II has been roughly equal to Britain’s, but the Continent’s reactions to that loss have been different. European national psychology has on the whole accepted the new facts of power, and this acceptance has led to a recognition of the need for unity which has been expressed in the creation of such institutions as the European Parliament at Strasbourg, the Coal and Steel Community at Luxemburg, the ill-starred European Defense Community project of 1954, and—most successful of all—the Common Market. It is because Britain for so long resisted the new facts of power, and was therefore out of step with these aspirations toward unity, that her entry into Europe has now become so laborious and painful.



Before going further into this theme, let us look briefly at the relation of Britain to America. At the risk of oversimplification, it can be said that since the 1930’s Britain and the U.S. have adopted one another’s abandoned political-psychological postures. The isolationism that determined American policy between the wars must now seem a gross failure of political imagination and responsibility. World War I had given ample evidence that the Western democracies were not able to stand alone against a hostile (reactionary or revolutionary) land power in Europe. America, then, is almost as much to blame for Munich as Britain and France; for her sloughing off of the responsibilities assumed in 1917 contributed to the demoralization of the Western democracies. Pearl Harbor, as we know, compelled a radically different posture. But one cannot help thinking that America’s postwar impatience with neutralism springs partly from an uneasy conscience about her own pre-war isolationism.

But the seven devils of isolationism, which Pearl Harbor expelled from the American body politic, would appear to have entered into that of her transatlantic ally. Officially, Britain has been since 1941, and is today, America’s close and devoted friend. The reality, however, is somewhat different. Resentment against U.S. “usurpation” of British power goes very deep. It lies behind the attitudes of both extreme Left and extreme Right, and in moments of crisis (as recently over Cuba) seems to spread centripetally through the main stream of public opinion. In this sense the nuclear disarmers and the Beaverbrook press—both of which it is fashionable to dismiss as lacking real political influence—are merely two caps of the same iceberg. Moreover, a cross-connection between the two groups exists: many of the left-wing Tribune’s best-known writers have over the years come to be associated with the Express newspapers. I am not sure what impression the American public has been given of British reaction to the Cuba crisis, but the greater part of British opinion—and certainly its most articulate and liberal section—was not behind the President’s action. The nuclear disarmers demonstrated vigorously—outside the U.S., not the Soviet, Embassy. Again, the young left-wingers who have been shouting “Hands Off Cuba” this past fall were not to be found shouting “Hands Off Berlin” during a similar period of crisis a year earlier. One could multiply examples. But sentiments to the effect that “Britain ought to play a mediating role in the cold war” are probably shared by a majority of the British people : Mr. Macmillan’s rather humiliating 1959 trip to Moscow was an election-winner. Now there obviously are occasions when Britain might successfully mediate between America and Russia and serve the cause of peace. But only a hair’s breadth divides the will to mediate from a position of ideological neutrality between the two blocs.

There is, of course, one fundamental difference between America’s former complacency and that of present-day Britain. America in her isolationist period was a young, self-confident, and expanding power, not yet acquainted with the facts of life; Britain today is a country well past the peak of its national power. The new complacency is correspondingly recessive, defensive, inward-looking; it puts on a good show, but is not really confident. The British have become—at first shamefacedly, but now with disconcerting relish—an introspective people.

To illustrate the point, one might refer to such phenomena as John Osborne’s play Look Back in Anger; Kingsley Amis’s novel I Like It Here; the “New Left” literary sociology of Richard Hoggart and Raymond Williams; the highly inbred social novels of Angus Wilson, Anthony Powell, or C. P. Snow. Leaving the question of merit to one side, these works have in common an obsession with the trappings of English society—class distinctions, accents, party manners, private jokes—that will soon make British writing suitable only for home consumption. It is true that some of the names I have listed are known as rebels against the “Establishment,” but they are not the less involved in the Establishment for that. And perhaps the most striking thing about this new literature is that criticisms of Britain are never made with reference to conditions obtaining elsewhere in the world. “I like it here” has taken the place of “They order this matter better in France.” Our rebels, in short, are caught up in the same insularity for which they criticize our Establishment.

A good example, taken more or less at random, can be found in one of last fall’s best-sellers—a book by Mr. Anthony Sampson entitled An Anatomy of Britain.1 Ostensibly it presented itself—like many similar books over the past four or five years—as an assault on Britain’s Establishment and her antiquated class structure. But the book is in fact an analysis, undertaken with loving care, of the curious workings of the Civil Service, of the City, of the Peerage, of that mystifying hierarchy of privilege represented by Eton and Winchester, Oxford and Cambridge, the Guards, the Treasury, the Athenaeum. Nor does Mr. Sampson seek to rationalize these mysteries—which would necessarily imply some criticism of the assumptions on which they rest; he compounds them by accepting the assumptions without question. And it is this combination of self-critical purpose and complacent acceptance that seems to me to make An Anatomy of Britain typical.

An uneasiness about Britain’s position in the world and an awareness that Britain, once the pacemaker of the first industrial revolution, now lags behind in her social development, run through most of the “protest” literature from Right and Left that has appeared since (to take an arbitrary date) the runaway success of Look Back in Anger on the West End stage in 1956. That it is an almost neurotic unease, not genuine rebellion, we have to deal with here is plain from the euphoric self-congratulation into which many of the protesters relapse. Take Mr. John Osborne, for instance. A year ago, at the height of the Berlin crisis, he wrote a somewhat hysterical open letter to the weekly Tribune, in which he declared his “hatred” of England, the English, and their demented rulers. (As the press unkindly pointed out, the letter had been penned and posted on a Riviera holiday.) This year the performance was repeated with a further Osborne letter to the Tribune, in which Adenauer and de Gaulle were presented as no different from the European dictators of twenty years ago—the implication being this time that only Britain could stand as a bulwark against them.



Whatever else they may signify, such sudden switches from self-contempt to chauvinistic exaltation are not gestures of self-confidence. They are oddly reminiscent of the neurotic self-questioning common in Europe shortly after the war: those convolutions of German intellectuals on the subject of war guilt; that almost sado-masochistic relation to America (and to Germany) evident in the attitudes of Sartre and his circle. And a similar latent hysteria can be traced in a good many British political attitudes since the middle 50’s.

Perhaps the most striking is the attitude toward the nuclear deterrent. It was the Labor government of 1945—51 that first committed Britain to building a nuclear arsenal independent of the United States. The basic motive was simple: sovereignty, in the nuclear age, was thought to depend on the possession of nuclear capability. The government evidently felt that there were circumstances in which the interests of the United States and Britain might not coincide; a separate deterrent would then guarantee an independent foreign policy. The decision to build a nuclear force logically contained an anti-American component, for if America could be wholly trusted, a separate deterrent would be unnecessary. This argument, after Cuba and Nassau, has by no means lost its relevance: it underlies General de Gaulle’s plans for the Europe of the future. It would be a mistake to impute this position to de Gaulle alone: a great many other people in Europe are also convinced that Europe, with an economic potential as great as America’s, must eventually rely on herself for her own defense. But what concerns us here is not so much the merit of these aspirations (though I should add parenthetically that given the growing confidence of the nations of continental Europe the aspirations seem to me both inevitable and justified) as the contrast between the current French, or European, posture and that seemingly dominant in Britain.

Britain is to have Polaris. But can a deterrent be both “fully independent” and simultaneously “fully integrated” with U.S. or NATO forces? How the government will sort this out is still quite uncertain—perhaps a horse-trade with the French, exchanging Britain’s nuclear know-how for better terms of entry into the Common Market, is still in the cards. But the ambiguity of its stand fairly reflects public confusion on the issue. If the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament has lost a good deal of ground recently (having failed to capture the Labor party in the years 1958—1961, it is now without much direct political influence), that is partly because its arguments have come to be generally accepted. Most informed liberal opinion seems now to be against Britain’s having a nuclear striking force. The issue no longer seems to turn on whether, but on how and when, to let the deterrent lapse. To do so, of course, would be to put Britain entirely under American nuclear protection. There may be good reasons for doing this. But the presupposition would appear to be that Britain’s trust in America’s intentions has grown so greatly since the 1940’s that the Attlee government’s suspicions have now become groundless. Yet, as we have seen, the British public’s reaction to the Cuban crisis does not at all suggest implicit faith in U.S. intentions. The gap between the British public’s feelings about the cold war and the American public’s has steadily grown since the years of the Berlin airlift and the Korean War. Government pronouncements notwithstanding, it is now a very wide gap indeed. Thus we have the spectacle of a virulently anti-American Left putting forward a policy which paradoxically would seem to involve complete submission to American interests.



Yet what is really implied in all this—though seldom openly declared, even on the extreme Left—is something rather different: a deep longing for neutrality. But there is, after all, a neutralism à la de Gaulle, which implies a strong, self-reliant Third Force, and a neutralism à la Nkrumah, which assumes an equal balance of power in the world, and hopes to profit from the conflict between the great powers. In the 1940’s Britain may be said to have had the former in mind—and could perhaps have lent Europe some of her self-confidence. Now, and not by any means only on the extreme Left, it is rather the second possibility that many people seem to have in mind.

The extent to which this incipient neutralism has permeated popular thinking, and generated political inertia of its own, is not easy to judge. The most concrete evidence of its political strength was the public reaction to the British government’s initiatives after the Berlin crisis of November 1958. There can be no doubt that this policy of “mediation” (as its friends call it) or of “appeasement” (as its critics insist) was almost universally popular in Britain—and correspondingly unpopular in France and Germany. The British had come a long way in the cold war from where they had been ten years earlier. At the time of the airlift, public opinion was almost unanimously behind a policy of firmness in Berlin. In the Korean crisis too, British opinion was solidly behind American policy. By 1958, however, the British government seemed to be moving toward a half-way acceptance of Soviet proposals on Berlin (de facto recognition of East Germany, “disengagement” in Central Europe, etc.). And public opinion was now acting as a spur to every further concession and conciliation. Of the determination to defend Berlin’s freedom shown by British opinion in 1948, little remained to face the Berlin wall. Anti-German and anti-American feeling had enormously increased; anger at Russia’s resumption of nuclear testing was as nothing compared to the indignation at America’s decision to follow suit. The wheel appeared to have come full circle. The follies of appeasement in the 30’s were to be recapitulated in the 60’s. Ominously, it was now not only the ex-Bevanite and fellow-traveling Left, and the isolationist Beaver-brook Right, who clamored for an accommodation with Russia at the expense of the hated Germans: the liberal Guardian and Observer, even the moderate conservative Sunday Times, were moving in that direction too.

A straw showed the way the wind was blowing: that summer, within weeks of Khrushchev’s Vienna ultimatum and after he had taken a British ambassador aside at the Bolshoi Theatre and assured him that five bombs would be sufficient to wipe his country from the map, Yuri Gagarin arrived in London and was given—to the initial embarrassment of the government, let it be said—a reception so hysterical as to reawaken echoes of those luncheons Lady Astor gave Herr von Ribbentrop a generation before. Then as now it was public opinion—not Vansittart’s or Home’s Foreign Office—that was the pacemaker of appeasement.

Nevertheless, to future historians it may appear that the year 1961 marked the turning of this tide of neutralism and isolationism. For in July of that year the British government announced its willingness to join the Common Market. This decision had slowly matured during the respite between the collapse of the 1960 Paris Summit (and therein of Macmillan’s policy of mediation) and President Kennedy’s Vienna meeting with Khrushchev. In the course of that year, two facts had emerged with alarming clarity: first, the success of the Common Market was no longer in doubt; secondly, President Kennedy was seeking no further service from Mr. Macmillan as a mediator in the cold war. The consequences of British indifference to Europe were now coming home to roost. Equally, the logic of “mediation” was now seen for what it was: a contradictory attempt to be detached and committed at one and the same time. What internal debates preceded this momentous decision to join Europe we do not yet know. Pressure from industry was certainly important—though the government’s initial emphasis on the economic aspects was rather a tactical device to distract public attention from the profound political implications. The Kennedy administration’s obvious wish to see Britain in Europe also played its part, but the decision, as is now increasingly clear, was one freely taken, after elaborate preparation and consultation; and it was always at bottom dictated by political and not economic considerations. Though I am a supporter of the Labor party, this decision seems to me the most important and courageous one that a British government has made since Dunkirk.



If this picture of events is correct—and it would be disputed in Britain by many on both the Right and the Left—it should follow that entry into the Common Market will put an end to the state of affairs I have described. Naturally there is no guarantee that it will. It is equally possible that the unreadiness of public opinion (despite the not unfavorable opinion polls), combined with the effects of sharp continental competition, may give rise to new outbursts of anti-German and anti-American feeling, and encourage a further retreat into isolationist complacency. National psychology is a delicate and unpredictable thing. What will have to happen, taking the optimistic view, is something of this sort: Britain will have to recapitulate, in a comparatively short space of time, the postwar experiences of her continental neighbors. Unless she does so, unless she comes to see her postwar history in roughly the same perspective as the European Six see theirs, she is likely to remain out of phase with the experiences that have made the European revival possible.

What are these experiences? The three most important were wartime occupation, loss of imperial positions, and direct confrontation with Soviet power. The significance of the first is often overlooked. It is assumed that the natural bond is between the victors in war, but such an assumption overlooks the fact that each European country was, during the course of the war, both vanquished and victor. France helped to defeat Germany, but only after Germany had defeated France. Italy shared Germany’s early victories, yet was conclusively beaten before the end. The Benelux countries shared the Allies’ final triumph, but had already learned the full bitterness of foreign conquest and occupation. Indeed, of the belligerents in the Second World War, only the British and Americans did not to some extent undergo this experience. In this they were fortunate. But for Britain at least, the long-term consequences have been less happy. For it was largely Britain’s contempt for the “weakness” of her European neighbors, and an unrealistic estimate of her own strength, that led her to cold-shoulder European aspirations toward unity. Seldom has a nation fallen victim to its own capacity for myth-making so disastrously as Britain in her exaltation of the “Dunkirk spirit” and her Churchillian “finest hour.” It was a clear understanding of their new weakness, on the other hand, that convinced the Europeans of the need to unite.

This new European awareness had a further aspect. The war was hardly over when the European countries faced a new test of power in their colonial empires. The story does not need to be told in detail; it is enough to point out that in the years between 1942 and 1962 every country of Common Market Europe was compelled to abandon its claim to empire. These countries discovered, some earlier than others, that there was no alternative to the appeasement of Asian and African nationalism but increasing, and apparently endless, violence. But they also discovered—and this eased the transition—that the economic arguments for empire had disappeared. How, then, did this experience differ from Britain’s? The answer is paradoxical. Britain, the man in the street will tell you, managed the transition more skillfully and humanely than her continental neighbors. That is perfectly true. The British record—even allowing for Kenya, Cyprus, and the Rhodesias—is quite certainly better than continental Europe’s. But the effect on Britain herself has been very different and, as with our war-time experience, ultimately damaging. For the emotional pro-Commonwealth outbursts of the past few months are all too clearly the result of a failure to see that Britain has lost imperial authority as finally as have France, Holland, or Italy. It seems that the very non-violence of the transition has persuaded the British people that they can have their imperial cake and eat it too.



The third postwar experience which the continental European countries shared, but Britain had no part in, was the confrontation with militant Communism. Again, this has taken different forms in different countries. The Germans have experienced Communism, first as a conquering army, then as a hostile, separatist state within their own frontiers. Not surprisingly, they are now the most violently anti-Communist people in Europe. Likewise, the pattern of French and Italian postwar politics makes sense only when the existence of a large, intransigently hostile minority group is taken into account. The Italian Democrazia Christiana is to be understood as a response to this internal threat; and Gaullism began its postwar life as a rally against what de Gaulle called “les separatistes.” But, despite the hard, and ultimately successful war she fought in Malaya, Britain has not experienced Communist power as a direct military or political threat to herself since the Korean War, which, moreover, had far less impact here than in America.

It is clear that the postwar evolution of Britain and Europe is rich in irony. Under one aspect, it is a tale of national hubris and humiliation; pride has ridden for a fall, the meek have inherited the earth. Yet this is not wholly fair. For even Britain’s virtues—her moderation, her fair-mindedness, her instinct for continuity—have contributed to her plight. Fair-mindedness has prevented her people from seeing the beam in the Russian eye; moderation has shielded them from the truth about their lost imperial position; instinct for continuity has encouraged the illusion that nothing important has really changed. No man in his senses would argue that violent change is desirable for its own sake. Yet the greater suffering of the European peoples has not gone unrewarded—even in material terms. If their class structures have largely broken down, their social mobility and efficiency increased, that is due to the violence of the upheavals of 1944—45. These things have been going on in Britain too, but the new energies set free by the “social revolution” of the postwar Labor government are as nothing compared with the energies set free in Europe by the war and its aftermath. The fact is, nevertheless, that Britain has shared rather more of the general experience of Europe since 1945 than her people imagine. It is only the interpretation that has differed. If the shock of the Common Market causes the British to reinterpret their postwar experience in “European” terms, the British malaise of the late 50’s and early 60’s may come to seem no more than a temporary and localized infection.




1 Published in the United States by Harper & Row (662 pp., $6.95).

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