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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 the guardians of culture contrasted rural simplicity with the false sophistication of London and the loathsome values of getting and gaining. British intellectuals, and the old ruling class itself, relished contrasting their ideal of the civilized life with the crude, vulgar, money-obsessed culture of America. They feel the same distaste today for Margaret Thatcher’s entrepreneurial society.

If the object in life was to become a gentleman, the purpose of education was to guarantee that one did so. In Victorian times that meant learning Latin and Greek and knowing the Bible. In the 1860s Herbert Spencer pointed out that this curriculum left out almost everything that concerned the business of life. He was disregarded as a notorious bore. In 1880 T. H. Huxley failed to persuade either John Stuart Mill or Matthew Arnold that science was a necessity for industrialists and as good a mental discipline as the classics. But no: useful subjects were suspect. John Stuart Mill admitted that engineering and other vocational subjects should be taught in “establishments other than those devoted to education properly so called.” Newman admitted that without the “mechanical arts” life could not go on. But both considered there was no place for these subjects in a liberal education for the elite.

Worse was to come. For if this liberal education was alone suitable for gentlemen, why should the aspiring ranks in society be denied it? The civil servants and educators who were establishing in the first half of this century a system of national education for the Players were so mesmerized by Arnold’s and Newman’s spell that they imposed the curriculum then thought fit for a gentleman upon the children of all classes. The secondary schools were modeled on the old grammar schools, which in turn were proud to compete with the upper-class public schools. Despite pleas from time to time that technical schools and technological universities should be established, British education for long remained a temple for the humanities. Progressives were as adamant as conservatives in their conviction that to segregate children in schools that were geared to vocations was to deprive them of their birthright. Why should the children of the poor be treated as helots and given an education different from those of the rich? As a result Britain entered the Second World War with a work force that lacked technical skills and an industrial management that was often either ignorant of technology or blinkered by the techniques of the past.

As it entered, so did it exit. It was characteristic of Britain that when R.A. Butler persuaded Churchill and his Cabinet colleagues during the war that a new education act was needed, Butler had to employ his time and his political gifts not on the organization of the schools, still less on their curriculum, but on the churches. He had to reconcile the Church of England (which owned many schools) with the nonconformist communions (which were jealous of the Anglican Establishment). The shape of education was left to three senior civil servants. The civil servant responsible for secondary education, and the one responsible for primary education, were both powerful and persuasive; and they struck a deal. The third who was responsible for technical education was neither powerful nor persuasive. As a result virtually no technical schools were set up. In the postwar years 70 percent of children in Britain left school at fifteen and until the 1960s there were few opportunities for them to get technical training.

This account of Britain’s economic decline began to take shape in the Sixties and it became the stock article for publicists and intellectual journalists to write. Anthony Sampson began his series of studies, Anatomy of Britain. A year later, in July 1963, Encounter ran a series of articles in which Goronwy Rees lashed the incompetent amateurism of the board room and Michael Shanks observed how the effortless superiority of the British that had so irritated foreigners had been replaced by effortless inferiority. Martin Green (until he met Harold Acton) attributed Britain’s decline to the “Children of the Sun,” and it was left to Martin Wiener in 1981 to lay open with his scalpel the putrifying corpse of British culture in his book English Culture and the Decline of the Industrial Spirit: 1850—1980.1 Among those contributors to Encounter only Henry Fairlie dissented. He praised the culture that questioned whether efficiency was the main goal in life. He thought that “state of England” writers were too much given to exploding in anger over trivial diseconomies. He singled out one writer in particular as being willing, in order to make British industry and institutions more efficient, to throw humanism, liberalism, and parliamentarianism into the trash can, regarding them as “luxuries possible only to a world empire with a huge navy, a vast bank account and no rivals”: which Britain was not. The writer was Correlli Barnett.


Correlli Barnett is the Jeremiah of British historians. For him the British have sinned irrevocably and in Jeremiah’s words they will be visited by serpents and cocatrices who will not be charmed. For him there is never any balm in Gilead. If the British economy collapses after North Sea oil runs out the mass exodus of disgruntled Britons will carry him off as the Jews abducted Jeremiah when a group of them fled to Egypt after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians. Disagreeable as it is to be cursed by the prophet, it is as well to have someone around in direct touch with God.

Barnett thinks the British comfort themselves with myths that turn out to be moths eating their way through their clothes so that in the end they will be left in tatters. As a young man he caught and pinned down the Monty moth and argued that the field marshal had created a myth about himself: in fact not Montgomery but Auchinleck had turned the tide in North Africa. Subsequent research has not made the charge stick, but Montgomery himself would not have disagreed with Barnett’s second contention, namely that the incompetence of the British generals in the desert was in part the result of their gentlemanly upbringing. As cavalrymen they treated their tanks as chargers, imagining that they were galloping in the cavalry brigade under Lord Uxbridge’s command at the battle of Waterloo.

The first myth that Barnett exposes is that Britain won the war, and won it because they had organized their manpower and industry on the home front so efficiently. This myth had gained credence because immediately after the war a ubiquitous American research team (of which W.H. Auden was a member) descended on Germany to estimate what effect the Allied bombing offensive had had on German production. They unearthed story after story of divided counsels, conflicting goals, and wasteful use of resources. So far from the Nazis organizing their war effort with maximum efficiency, the civilian population was not mobilized as effectively as the British. Rival bosses fought each other over the allocation of raw materials, and not until Speer took command was a coherent system for industrial production established. The research team published the United States Strategic Bombing Survey, and in reading it the British contrasted their own disciplined collective war effort with pride. Had they not been willing to sacrifice everything and sink their differences? So far from Britain having to become a fascist state to defeat fascism, Britain had become more democratic in lowering class barriers, and more efficient in organizing industry than Nazi Germany.

Barnett will have none of this. He compares the tale told by the USSBS with the official British war histories of the home front and a host of other unpublished documents. His detail is stunning. The British had conveniently forgotten how dependent they were on lend-lease: on American supplies of tanks, lorries, steel, radar, and machine tools. They managed to produce a total of 740,000 machine tools: the Germans had over two million and despite the bombing continued to equip their armies. Even the aircraft industry, which produced the famous Spit-fire and Hurricaine fighters, was far behind the Germans and Americans in output per man-day. American conventional armaments were as superior in design and performance to the British as German armaments were to both. The war created an atypical situation in which there was no competition and no need to capture markets for export. The secret memoranda circulating in Whitehall during the war showed how ineffective British industry was—from shipbuilding to carpet weaving. They also showed how incapable it would be to meet foreign competition after the war.

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    Cambridge University Press.

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