Koestler’s England

Suicide of A Nation? An Inquiry into the State of Britain Today

edited by Arthur Koestler
Macmillan, 253 pp., $4.95

” ‘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 …

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