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Historian of the People

English History: 1914-1945

by A.J.P. Taylor
Oxford, 708 pp., $9.75

Taylor’s volume, covering the period 1914-45 and the fifteenth in the Oxford History of England, is having, as might have been expected, a mixed reception in his own country. Some academic historians have condemned it as a characteristic product of his perversity, brittle cleverness, and intellectual frivolity. It seems to them old-fashioned in concentrating upon the maneuvers of politicians and diplomats and on the clash between interest groups. They deplore what they call his gross lack of discrimination in making judgments and his refusal to examine in depth the changes in the British social and economic structure and to relate these to the events he describes. Other historians have praised the wonderful readability of the book, the pace at which it moves, his mastery of the art of critical narrative, and his knowledge of the voluminous sources, which is so immense that even his most provocative judgments rest on an ability to disentangle a mass of evidence which few of his contemporaries can match. What other historian, they ask, could have written an account of political events with such authority when working under the iniquitous British Treasury rule whereby the archives of a period are closed to scholars until fifty years have elapsed?

What caused the row? The short answer is Taylor’s judgments. There is no historian who more enjoys coming to sharp, shocking conclusions, and quotation alone gives the flavor. In 1914 “the English State and the English people merged for the first time.” Asquith’s “initiative, if he ever had any, was sapped by years of good living in high society.” Gallipoli was “a romantic campaign.” Trenchard in 1917 “insisted that victory by air power alone was the oretically possible…probably the most permanent, certainly the most disastrous, legacy of the first world war.” Honors such as peerages went “to the conformist who saw nothing but good in the British way of life.” Homosexuality in the Twenties became “for a brief period normal.” The years between the wars were “the best time mankind, or at any rate Englishmen, had known.” On the declining birth rate: “the nursery gave place to the garage.” The Rev. Harold Davidson, a clergyman who liked chorus girls, was defrocked as a priest, and was devoured by a lion, “attracted more attention than Cosmo Lang, Archbishop of Canterbury. Which man deserves a greater place in the history books?” “The Labour Party entered the war against Hitler locked in conflict with his most vocal opponents.” In August 1940 “it was perhaps fortunate that British patriotism was not put to the supreme test.” “So far as air strategy was concerned the British outdid German frightfulness first in theory, later in practice…”

But the judgments are part not only of the man but of his method. What were Taylor’s aims when he wrote, and what sort of an historian is he? He intended first to de-mythologize the era. The myth, created in part by the journalists of the Left, pictured Britain as a country whose incompetent generals having slaughtered her youth in Flanders allowed herself to be ruled for most of the next twenty years by the hard-faced men who had done well out of the war. The Labour Party, first muzzled and then betrayed by Ramsay MacDonald, was impotent to stop them. They mismanaged the peace, were indifferent to unemployment, and in their fear and hatred of Russia were willing to endure almost any national humiliation in the name of appeasement until the dark days of 1940 when under Churchill’s inspired leadership Britain recovered her soul and emerged with honor, though through her dishonor between the wars she had forfeited her place as a Great Power.

Taylor is a man of the Left but he disposes of the myth. He sees England as a country still governed in 1914 by the upper-class Establishment who mismanaged affairs until Max Aitken and Carson were able to oust Asquith and install Lloyd George, the man of the people and “the greatest prime minister of the century.” But in breaking the Liberal Party Lloyd George destroyed the roots of his own power. In the end “he had no friends and did not deserve any”; and his dynamic and sordid rule was superseded by that of “the best entrenched governing class of the century.” To this there was no effective opposition. The Labour Party was the prisoner of its own ideological dilemmas. It relied on the support of syndicalist trade unions unwilling to negotiate over wages with capitalists, yet MacDonald remained subservient to the orthodox deflationary financiers of the City. Nor was their failure to solve economic problems surprising since practically the only politician to propose the kind of economic reforms which might have cured unemployment was Mosley, the man who, after being expelled from the Labour Party, became the leading British Fascist. Baldwin and Chamberlain were able to rule because both were adept in organizing political power and because Churchill, their only challenger in the Tory Party, had discredited himself by a series of political miscalculations. Neither the British people nor their leaders could remedy their situation because they held simultaneously a dozen contradictory principles on foreign and economic affairs so that a phrase such as “collective security” lost all significance because it carried so many meanings for people who simultaneously wanted to resist Hitler and also redress the Versailles injustice to Germany, supported the League, and inclined to pacifism. But in 1940 their understanding cleared. The British, who had volunteered in astonishing numbers in 1914-18 for what was conspicuously not a people’s war, again rose and organized themselves with great efficiency for what conspicuously was one. Churchill was indeed then the savior of his people, but subsequently his war strategy, which was personal and owed nothing to his War Cabinet, was wrong on almost every count. The victory was won but history rendered an account to the victors. In the economic crisis of 1931 American bankers had compelled a British government to cut welfare services as a condition for a loan to save the pound. In the Second World War the United States first bled Britain white, then stifled her export industries, and a few weeks after peace was declared cancelled Lend-Lease and forced her to sue for a loan on disastrous terms. This was the last of a series of skillful humiliations by which the United States swept away Britain’s last pretensions to being a Great Power and reduced her to the status of a client state. In this there was nothing surprising or wicked. It reflected the eternal truths of political power on which all politics rests.

Power is for Taylor the key to history. Who took the decisions? Why did a politician do this rather than that? Was he capable of taking a different decision? And did in fact the decision he took matter? The answer to this last question according to Taylor is sometimes laughable. Political decisions sometimes produce results totally different from what a minister intends: they also are often taken in direct opposition to the policy and principles which the minister holds. The change from a free to a managed economy, for example, was effected not in 1940 but in 1931 by Conservatives who had always opposed such a change. For Taylor history is never process but always contingency. He likes to make the unforseen connection: the sole result of a “mutiny” in the Navy against pay cuts was to benefit school teachers. Or he will conclude: “It is hard to decide whether Baldwin or MacDonald did more to fit Labour into constitutional life.” He delights in the paradox that the age of unemployment and of tawdry episodes such as the Abdication was also an age of growing comfort for the employed: prices remained low and the rich learned to be ashamed of their idleness. He enjoys rescuing Baldwin, and even Chamberlain, from the obloquy of past years by showing that whatever their incompetence no one showed any signs of being more competent; or, after outlining the effect of the automobile on urban and rural life, throwing out as an aside that the existence of trucks rendered a General Strike obsolete as a weapon. At times this sense of contingency leads him astray. He argues for instance that plans to revive agriculture, which sprang from a sentimental attachment to the countryside, failed because the labor force fell and “the people of England voted against the plans of their own government by running away.” But the size of an industry’s manpower is not an index of its efficiency. In fact though they are still “running away,” today, agriculture, moribund in the Twenties, has become the British industry with the best postwar record of growth and of higher productivity and achieved by a greatly reduced labor force. Taylor’s treatment of history as contingency is at its most provocative in his account of the events which led to the Second World War, in which he repeats, though more moderately, his well-known thesis which he has defended at length in a brilliant Introduction to the paperback edition of his Origins of the Second World War. But one sighs when he concludes the immediate cause of the war to be the determination of “the House of Commons to force war on a reluctant British government and that government dragged an even more reluctant French government in their train.” The immediate cause was Hitler’s invasion of Poland because Hitler was the sole statesman willing to take the initial step of moving his troops across a hostile frontier defended by specific guarantees. He thereby risked a European war. No elaborations of the reasons for his miscalculation affect the main issue. He was willing to take the risk. No one else was.

Absorbed though he is by the way politicians exercise power, Taylor is in no way dazzled by them. They visibly diminish under his cold eye. The clue to what is vital to his historical sense is to be found curiously enough at the end of his list of acknowledgements in the Preface. There he concludes by thanking Sir George Clark, who invited him to “write this book and sustained me when I was slighted in my profession,” and to “one other historian who gave me inspiration and guidance…Max Aitken, Lord Beaverbrook, my beloved friend.” The clue tells us not merely that Taylor writes a kind of history which his academic colleagues detest, but also what his own peculiar stance is. He is in fact a figure wellknown in America, but rare in England—a Populist.

Taylor believes that the people are not just equal with their rulers but better than them. People want happiness and justice, and define these in their own terms. The pretensions of any elite, whether of wealth or birth or intellect, to define them differently and give the people something other than what they want is insufferable. The best politicians are those who identify with the people, and the people’s enemies are civil servants, sophisticated intellectuals and business men who all rely on constitutionalism, traditions, and institutions to defeat the ideal of popular control. Taylor is therefore profoundly at odds with the culture of his country. Britain is a place where custom, convention, and the rule of law are notoriously powerful and in which most positions of importance in institutional life are filled by members of the Establishment or by those who quickly learn to accept its code. Even its intelligentsia is extraordinarily conformist. The brash, the deviant, the paently unscrupulous, and the demagogues who try to appeal over the heads of the Establishment to the people, are kept at arm’s length. Beaverbrook was such a demagogue, the scourge of the Establishment, and a sizable demon in the eschatology of the intelligentsia. It is nothing to Taylor that Beaverbrook’s conception of personal relationships was to find the quickest way to exercise power over a person, usually by probing for his weakness and then exploiting it; that he would betray his friends and rage that they had betrayed him; or that he brought character assassination in his newspapers to a fine art. For him Beaverbrook is the hammer of the Establishment, the champion of the little man, the generous warm hearted employer, the opponent of the gray moralist, the champion of popular taste (for people enjoy seeing the feet of clay of the well-known exposed), the man who got the Spitfires into production in 1940 by turning the bureaucrats and brass hats upside down. Some of Taylor’s judgments, e.g., on the Rev. Harold Davidson, are simply Beaverbrook’s philosophy of life translated into history. Lloyd George and Beaverbrook are Taylor’s heroes because they were for the people and against the Establishment.

Taylor shocks his academic colleagues because he put his ideas into practice. He is a superb performer on television and an uninhibited columnist in the popular press. (It is said that London University offered him a full professorship on condition that he would no longer write for the press: he refused; and has never been offered promotion there or at Cambridge or at his own Oxford, from which he has now resigned.) He is a champion of commercial television and despises the BBC, which “like all cultural dictatorships was more important for what it silenced than for what it achieved.” If opera at Covent Garden cannot survive without State subsidy, then it had better expire: why should the people pay for what they don’t want? Popularity appears to be synonymous with genius. Charlie Chaplin “was England’s gift to the world in this age, likely to be remembered when her writers, statesmen and scientists are forgotten, as timeless as Shakespeare and as great.” The novels of Virginia Woolf are “irrelevant to the historian.”

Such Populism could produce a fascinating reappraisal of British culture. But it doesn’t. It is true that avantgarde art replaced the “popular” art of Dickens, Tennyson, and Landseer. But why did the artists revolt against middle-class art? What were the processes which transformed Victorian workingclass culture to the mass culture of today? What changes took place in middlebrow culture? Even if Taylor were right in dismissing the art of the time as the plaything of coteries, he ought to account for such an astonishing decline. Art is often the one tangible memorial of a vanished age: since when can an historian neglect it even when it is debased? Again, he is severely critical of the universities—not without justice: but this was the heroic age of British physics and of remarkable triumphs in biology. He might of course argue that big science has as little effect in its discoveries upon “the people” as the most arid studies of philologists; but it is astonishing not even to mention the name of Alexander Fleming and the effect of antibiotics upon public health. There is practically no acknowledgement of technological advances in medicine, food production, synthetic fabrics, engine design, or a dozen other fields which affected the lives of vast numbers.

The name of one intellectual appears with some regularity in Taylor’s pages—that of Keynes. He is not unjust in his references to Keynes, but one reference betrays the weakness of his position. Keynes “misses the multiplier,” states the index, and the text refers to the fact that in the Twenties he had not yet worked out fully his analysis of the causes and cure for unemployment. The multiplier was in fact invented by Kahn in 1931. But why should it matter? According to Taylor’s premises Keynes’s abstruse theory could never have had any effect upon practical politics, and indeed it is odd that he doesn’t argue that the new mercantilism of our own times was the product of the managed economy of the second World War and not of the lucubrations of an intellectual. Perhaps it is asking too much of an historian who has read enormously on the political, military and diplomatic issues to have read the social and cultural sources as thoroughly; but his admirable critical bibliography contains many gaps in this field, partly because Taylor does not appear to have studied sufficiently the work of sociologists such as Glass, Titmuss, and Shils, who often produce more interesting work on this period than modern historians.

Nevertheless his volume is an astonishing tour de force. It not only deserves, like Macaulay’s history, to supersede for a few days the last fashionable novel on the tables of young ladies. It will also be a set book for research students who, as they pounce on misjudgments, will be brought up sharp by the inconvenient contingencies with which Taylor will confound their theories. Turning down the application of an amiable but unoriginal don for the award of the higher degree of Doctor of Letters, an Oxford scholar wrote: “The candidate does not appear to have added to error.” Taylor has added heartily to both error and truth. He is a fearless, not a faceless, historian, and he thinks that history is made by individuals. Well, that is not a despicable view. His Populism is never sentimental. When the French economic historian, François Crouzet, reviewed G. M. Trevelyan’s Social History, he entitled his review “Tout va très bien, Madame Angleterre.” In Taylor’s work there are no musings on the English genius, no heroics. He simply judges that during the period the English people became more civilized and tolerant. But the social and economic causes underlying the decline of Britain as a great power, and the shift of her position both in Europe and the world, are left to the author of the sixteenth volume of the Oxford History.

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