Gentlemen vs. Players

The Pride and the Fall: The Dream and Illusion of Britain as a Great Nation

by Correlli Barnett
Free Press, 359 pp., $22.95

From 1806 and until 1962 every summer there was a fixture at Lords Cricket Ground called Gentlemen and Players. Both sides were chosen from those who played regularly for their county teams. The Gentlemen were amateurs, well-to-do rentiers, or more often young employees whose firms gave them leave during the season to play cricket in the hope that they would make profitable business contacts. The Players were working-class professionals whom the county cricket clubs paid to play. The Gentlemen ambled down the steps of the pavilion onto the pitch; the Players emerged from a side-gate.

For some years now critics of Britain have attributed the decline of British industry to this division within it. But the causes of the decline are now said to have even deeper roots. They are said to lie in the education and culture that generations of intellectuals have foisted on the nation—a culture that is said to be antagonistic to entrepreneurs in general and industry in particular. This fable is now used by Margaret Thatcher’s government to justify its punitive policies toward the universities and the life of the mind.

The thesis runs like this. British industry has been managed by boards of directors from the upper classes. Their ambition was not primarily to make profits. It was to make sufficient profit to enable them to do what English gentlemen traditionally did: own country houses, preserve partridges, and invite their neighbors to shoot them; at any rate, to live a life in which leisure and enjoyment were the reward for the harsh business of running an industry. Some industrialists who rose to the top were self-made men. But the industrialist who was a Player had all the more need to make himself respectable by following these pursuits. Gentlemen did not hustle, gentlemen distrusted management techniques as a misguided attempt to professionalize their activities, gentlemen tried to eliminate competition because it meant hustling; so, as far as possible, competition inside Britain was reduced by mergers. When the great oil companies Royal Dutch and Shell merged, Royal Dutch took control because its president, Henri Deterding, was single-minded in his pursuit of profit whereas Marcus Samuel had other ambitions. He wanted to be Lord Mayor of London and devote himself to public service.

The British ethos, the thesis continues, was hostile to management and industry. Even though most people lived in towns, poets and writers painted an icon of an England of hedges and dells, of rolling hills and plowland. One could hardly rise to the office of prime minister without genuflecting before the icon. Stanley Baldwin, the son of an industrialist, posed as a country squire. Neville Chamberlain warmed the hearts of his supporters when he softened his image as a Birmingham businessman by revealing he was a bird watcher. Harold Wilson and James Callaghan, town-bred boys, both bought farms. The disdain of the upper classes for the provinciality of town life became a positive hatred among the intelligentsia. From Cobbett to F.R. Leavis …

This article is available to Online Edition and Print Premium subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.