Suicide of A Nation? An Inquiry into the State of Britain Today
” ‘State of England’ pieces…are preoccupied with England, with decline and with crisis,” observes Henry Fairlie (who is against them) in the first essay of this curious book. He is right. Until the international decline of Britain became so evident that not even the highly developed national faculty for voluntary blindness could conceal it—around the time of Suez—literate Englishmen were remarkably incurious about their country, though occasionally venturing into explorations of the lives of the poor. They took it for granted. (For obvious reasons literate Scotsmen and Welshmen have behaved differently.) Since the middle 1950s we have begun to take the national pulse and make the national diagnosis with a zeal which may shortly bring us to within close distance of literate Americans. Social reporting (notably in the arts), amateur and professional sociological enquiries, realistic descriptions of how British institutions actually work, best-sellers called Anatomy of Britain, have multiplied. And so have think-pieces about Britain’s crisis and Britain’s future, of which the present book is an unfavorable specimen.
There have been, broadly speaking, two major trends of thought about the situation in Britain. The first—at least chronologically—has been that of the neo-left. Its chief domestic targets have been social or any other inequality, poverty, modern commercialized mass culture and the oligarchic “Establishment”; its chief contribution to international politics has been the remarkably influential British anti-nuclear movement. Its political hopes have rested—with some misgivings—on the Labour Party for want of anything more radical. The second trend can best be described as that of the technocrats. Their chief worry has been the sluggish growth of the obsolescent and inefficient British economy, though they have also been exercised by the increasing irrationality and conservatism of the “Establishment.” Internationally they thought they had discovered a congenial solution in the European Common Market, which would, they hoped, bankrupt inefficient management, wreck conservative unions, and impose a sense of reality on politics. In fact, General de Gaulle has made this solution academic. Politically they were and are uncommitted, though the bankruptcy of the Conservatives, the lack of prospects of the Liberals, and the technocratic noises made by Mr. Harold Wilson probably give most of them at present a lukewarm preference for Labour.
To label the technocrats “right” against the neo-Left is to oversimplify as much as to attach each to one of C.P. Snow’s two cultures. Indeed, very often elements of the two are combined, at all events in such samples of public opinion as that of the young professional classes quoted in the most useful part of Suicide of a Nation?, an appendix taken from the weekly New Society, which happens itself to be a very typical product of the new vogue for national introspection. Yet there are significant emotional divergencies between the two. The neo-Left often goes with theater, films, cultural criticism of the Scrutiny type, passion, and sociology; technocracy goes with economics, political studies, and (probably) the run-of-the-mill natural sciences. The typical technocratic reflex to labor unions is to blame them for insisting on fighting the boss at a time when they ought to take a responsible part in formulating the national economic policy; the typical neo-Left reflex is to admire in them the class-consciousness of a traditionally rooted working-class culture, while gently deploring their very obvious deficiencies. The essential technocratic slogan is “modernization,” that of the neo-Left, “a society fit for humans to live in.” Both share a lack of interest in the existing parties, and a hostility to the “Establishment,” probably because both find their main spokesmen among the rising new stratum of professional workers from families outside the old élites. In fact, the technocrats, being fairly closely involved with politics, government, and large institutions, are probably less distant from the Establishment than they think.
Insofar as Suicide of a Nation? leans to one of these two sides, it is the technocratic. Its most solid chapters—though even they are lightweight—deal with the deficiencies of British productivity. Only one of its contributors, John Vaizey, seems much concerned with social injustice, though two paragraphs in another essay may be said to be reasonably aware of working-class squalor and frustration. Its reactions to trade unionism are exasperated. Its criticism of our rulers is that they are amateurs rather than that they are gentlemen. However, two other elements complicate the picture.
The first; which has nothing whatever to with the crisis of Britain, is the sort of anti-Communism which used to be more fashionable in Britain ten years ago than it is today. Those contributors who call for union with “Europe,” as they call for the maintenance of the Western alliance, do so not so much because it would help revive the British economy but for political reasons. (We may note in passing that neither the neo-left nor the pure technocrats, nor the mixture between the two represented by the New Society enquiry, have any commitment to the Western alliance or consider Communism an urgent issue in Britain.) The second element consists of certain views about life in Britain which bear only a faint relation to the 1960s, though they may well represent the experience of their authors’ formative years. Cyril Connolly thinks that life in Britain is joyless, Arthur Koestler suggests that “there is an explosion of creativity all over the Continent, of which only muted echoes reach our island,” Alan McGlashan paints a picture of the British adolescent which is quite startlingly beside the point. These two elements deprive this volume even of the value of being representative in its reactions.
It might nevertheless still have been worth reading as a serious contribution to analysis or to our knowledge of the facts of life in Britain. Unfortunately it is neither. The quality of its thought is, in spite of several sensible observations, not outstanding and lowered by provincialism. If “gerontocracy” is the cause of British troubles, then why has it had less effect on the dynamism of Italian industry? If the French economic revival of the 1950s is due so largely to the practice of training civil servants in the grandes écoles, then why was France until the 1950s a byword for economic sluggishness? If the restrictive practices of labor unions are really such an obstacle to economic growth, then how did all those U.S. skyscrapers get built or movies made?
Again, the reader will look in vain for hard information. Since Mr. Koestler’s team lacks the leftwing interest in social enquiry, there is little about the conditions and problems of the people. Only John Vaizey quotes one of the major landmarks in the recent exploration of Britain, the great survey of the progress of 5000 children through life which has been going on since 1946. The economist contributors refrain from giving facts, perhaps because, as Michael Shanks argues, they “are now so well known that it would be tedious to repeat them,” perhaps because, as the editor suggests, they would bore or confuse the readers. The latter hypothesis seems more plausible.
Indeed, the firmest impression left by Suicide of a Nation? is that of a book written for a public of disoriented amateurs, ill-informed about their country’s domestic situation and problems, and at the same time reluctant to admit their ignorance. This probably accounts for the thinness of contributions by in some cases extremely able and competent writers. It reflects a sense of something deeply wrong, a regret for lost greatness (whatever that may be), a sense of inadequacy. It is not, as the editor points out, intended to provide therapy. But neither is it, as he claims, anything that can be seriously called diagnosis. Perhaps the most interesting and depressing thing about it is the belief, which someone must hold, that a book of this kind is likely to make a serious contribution to our understanding of the crisis of Britain.