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.

The story of the wartime work force laboring long hours for few rewards was also a myth. The production of coal, steel, aircrafts, and ships were all interrupted by wildcat strikes the unions were powerless to control. The output per man in the coal industry fell rather than rose and absenteeism was common. Gross inefficiency and overmanning were also common, demarcation disputes between different unions proliferated, restrictive practices were tolerated and canonized. After the war, management and the work force combined to oppose anything that would involve the expense of reequipment and hence of bruising battles over the loss of jobs. Neither wanted to end the cozy regime they both knew how to exploit. Neither management nor labor was an enthusiastic innovator. The British automobile industry turned down the Volkswagen on the grounds that no one would buy such a car. Full employment, celebrated with triumph by Keynesians and successive governments, was another myth: it was a euphemism for overmanning.

Barnett next reminds us that the earliest industrialists who gave Britain its lead did so at a cost to their descendants. Enjoying a limitless supply of cheap labor they fired workers at will and treated them as fit to live in slums. The solidarity that this bred among the workers in their trade unions, and their lasting resentment against their masters, created the worst relations in Europe between management and labor. Every proposal to raise productivity by rationalizing work practices was resisted as another ploy to fire workers. In his role as prophet Barnett does not miss his chance to point out the moral. The sins of the fathers have been visited upon the children unto the eighth and ninth generation.

Above all there was a moral failure in Britain after 1945, says Barnett. The nation after the war erred in whoring after false gods. Britain preferred to build a new Jerusalem and worship at an altar dedicated to William Beveridge, that priest of the welfare state, rather than practice the austerity that produced the German economic miracle. Like a lush reaching for the bottle after a hangover, Britain returned to the life of leisure and illusion. One by one the dreams of Empire, being a world power, nurturing industrial genius, New Jerusalem, faded. The postwar dream “turned to a dark reality of a segregated, subliterate, unskilled, unhealthy and institutionalized proletariat hanging on the nipple of state materialism.”

Rage is the fashionable mood for analysts of Britain, and Correlli Barnett’s ex-asperation with his countrymen is so intense that his readers may react and ask whether matters were quite as straightforward as he suggests. It is not that his study of industrial decline is untrue. It was bound to happen as other nations developed their industries and those with cheap labor undercut industries that over the years had been emasculated by strong unions. The balance of payments ever since the war has been a perennial problem in Britain. But an account of a British economy that pays no attention to invisibles is grotesque. Barnett’s book is designed to make one believe that by some peremptory call by her leaders Britannia could have arisen from her opium dreams in 1945 and given industrial recovery such priority as to exclude social reform. Is it true that in history the rulers are always able to make events take a different course? Sometimes, yes: over a decision to go to war. But to reverse the movement of an economic tide is far more difficult.

In fact no British government could have withstood the demand in 1945 to implement the Beveridge Report’s calling on the state to provide social insurance for the sick, the old, the unemployed. Had he been elected Churchill would have done so, though more slowly; and Britain would not have got such a good health service. That report had venerable ancestors stretching back to Bismarck and Lloyd George: it was as if the country had been sitting in committee on the matter for half a century. Nor could any government have resisted the demand for houses to replace the bomb damage. Forty thousand people lived in disused army camps, yet even so the Labour government had to curtail its housing program in 1947.

Social reform and economic recovery were not alternatives. One was impossible without the other. A historian of the postwar years, Paul Addison, concluded: “A new social order was the price that the Labour movement exacted in return for the direction of manpower during the war.” There is also something odd about Barnett’s contention that the root causes of the British decline “do not lie in the postwar era…, [the decline] began in wartime.” He surely cannot have intended to neglect the vast literature, rivaling that concerned with the causes of the war between King and Parliament, on the industrial revolution in which some historians push Britain’s industrial decline back to the days when she began to lead the world.

The economic historians are not on the whole sympathetic to Barnett’s interpretation, which they regard as simplistic. It is noticeable that Barnett does not quote one secondary source of some importance. This is an article by Donald Coleman that took for its title those cricket matches between Gentlemen and Players at Lords. Coleman asked whether British industry was managed by amateur Gentlemen to the exclusion of the professional Players.2 Yes, indeed, he agreed, the Gentlemen who controlled industry were gentrified. But there was nothing new in this. Social advancement was the goal of those who made fortunes in England and had been since Tudor times. The new industrialists behaved exactly as did those who had made their fortunes in commerce and banking. Profits were the path to prestige, power, status, and personal satisfaction. Certainly the successful sent their sons to public schools, and some of them spurned a career in industry. But should not this have made space for a new generation of entrepreneurs from among the Players? In any case most industries were run by boards of both Gentlemen and Players.

Unfortunately the Players were often practical men who saw innovation as a once for all event rather than the beginning of an era. Harry Johnson, a Player who rose to be head of the Cortauld textile company, failed to see that rayon could be replaced, as it was to be, by nylon. It was in fact the public school directors of the boards of companies who introduced scientists and set up laboratories within the firm against the inclinations of the Players, who tended to distrust innovations. They thought that the lessons learned on the floor of the shop were all they needed to know and they distrusted courses on business management.

Another Cambridge historian, Neil McKendrick, warned that before we plunge into generalizations we must distinguish between different kinds of merchant adventurers and see now their problems in turn differed from those of financiers and manufacturers.3 Other historians declare that not all British businessmen were incompetent. They often did well in increasing short-term profits thereby pleasing their shareholders, whom managing directors neglected at their peril. By and large they were adequate managers. What they were not good at was exploiting innovations within an existing business, or altering the constraints every businessman encounters.

The truth is that there is a multitude of causes for the poor performance of British industry since the war. The governmental ethos after 1945 was inimical to entrepreneurs. If the state intervenes in your business, and the civil service steps in at times to run it, and if your enterprise is restricted by currency regulations, planning controls, and rationing, you are less likely to take risks because you cannot make a rational calculation about the future. To run a nationalized industry or a public corporation was a nightmare. Richard Marsh, the Labour minister who quit politics to run British Railways, came to the Cabinet in 1975 with all the arguments for closing the mid-Wales railway line because, as he said, it would have been cheaper to give a Rolls Royce to every passenger than to keep it open, so few were they in number. He heard the voice of the secretary of state for Wales say: “But, Prime Minister, this line runs through six marginal constituencies.” A general election was imminent. The line was not closed.

The Harvard historian William Lazonick and his colleagues argue that British management remained too individualistic and obsessed with family ownership,4 and Alfred Chandler at MIT maintains that mass production and distribution, dating in America from the growth of railroads in the mid-nineteenth century, gave America aggressive management. It also created the multidivisional company in which the gain of splitting the company into specialist units to whom management functions are devolved is balanced by the centralized direction of a powerful head office.5 Leslie Hannah showed how slow British businessmen were to organize their business along these lines. British businesses remained too small, too smug, or too unenterprising.6 But that is a very different argument from Martin Wiener’s. There is little evidence according to Nicholas von Tunzelmann that the British were particularly unwilling to get their hands dirty.7

The British civil servants must bear part of the responsibility. They too often came to the wrong conclusions. For instance they opposed Britain’s entry to the Common Market. Barnett shows how accurately they warned the politicians during the war of Britain’s inability after it to compete industrially, but their diagnosis was never matched by remedies. A memo by a mandarin is no more effective than a speech by a politician in bringing about change. They thought—and it is characteristic of intellectuals—that the diagnosis was the remedy. In 1962 they recommended lifting controls on the size of profits on retail sales: not until ten years later did Edward Heath do so. The contrast has often been made between the British mandarins and the French Enarques—graduates of the Ecole nationale d’Administration—moving in and out of politics, administration, and industry. Obsessed that they might be accused of corruption, the British mandarins tried to preserve their purity unsullied by contact with business, proud of their readiness to serve a socialist or a Tory government with equal loyalty.

On one matter, however, Barnett is right beyond dispute. A major cause of British industrial decline was the temper and structure of British trade unions. “This Great Movement of Ours” was as indifferent to the pleadings of a Labour, as to a Conservative, government. It really consisted of a multiplicity of unions, which fought each other on demarcation disputes (rather as sales and production fight each other in management). The trade unions were always in favor of more pay at the expense of jobs and dedicated to the strike, if not this year then next, as the surest way of imposing their will on employers. They regarded restrictive practices, absenteeism, pilferage, and intimidation as the natural response to the bribery, expense accounts, and executive privileges of management.

The trade unions, like British management after the war, went for short-term advantages. For thirty-five years successive governments tried to come to terms with the unions; but whatever official bodies were set up, the negotiating table turned into an arena for confrontation. Precisely because the British ruling classes were so intent on working in partnership with the unions and on preserving their freedom under the law, the unions, knowing they had the whip hand, proved in the end intransigent. If some large concern became engaged in a strike their executives knew that government would run out on them and intervene in a classic compromise that time and again gave the unions the victory.


This still leaves us with another factor which is said to have contributed in a major way to Britain’s decline. Correlli Barnett subscribes without hesitation to the view that British education, obsessed with the cultural ideals of Newman and Arnold, deprived the owners and their work force of the skills they needed. Not content with accepting almost without question the scheme for secondary education that his civil servants laid before him, Rab Butler was guided by a committee that advised him on the educational ideals that should animate the schools.

The report of this committee, which Barnett has disinterred, is a particularly ripe specimen. Its chairman was a former headmaster of Harrow, Cyril Norwood, and his report opposed the teaching of any course that might be called vocational. It recommended that modern languages should be taught as far as possible as dead languages since few boys and girls would be likely to need them later in life. Three pages were devoted in the report to the needs of commerce. Seven were devoted to religion. These conclusions were too steep for the civil servants in the ministry. But Barnett believes that the Butler Education Act of 1944, instead of providing technical education for the majority of its citizens, sanctioned soft subjects such as cake baking in the secondary modern schools. (To institute in the grammar school curriculum for thirteen-year-olds a practical class like the American “shop” would have been regarded as ludicrous.)

There is indeed a syndrome familiar to those who listen to the murmurings of British universities. It is to the effect that at any given time they are doing splendid work in supporting industry but they must be careful not to be seduced from their true role of pursuing knowledge for its own sake. The standard work on the relation of British universities to industry exemplifies this syndrome, and is not all that successful in rebutting the charge that they were indifferent to the needs of industry.8 Michael Sanderson confirms how slow the dons were in Victorian times to admit technological studies. The civic universities, which began by being geared to local industry, deviated back to liberal studies. Between the wars Scotland, once the pioneer of engineering and vocational studies, produced hardly any innovators in technology among the professors and trained fewer students for commerce and industry. Ernest Barker, Harold Laski, Julian Huxley, and the communist scientist J.D. (“Sage”) Bernal all deplored the sacrifice of true learning to the encroachments of industry. Similarly the industrialists never failed to complain that graduates in technological studies “didn’t fit in” or “were not really our type.”

Sanderson tries to counter this by producing evidence to show that there was never a time when some dons were not advocates for gearing more courses to industry. But if so much had been done by 1970, when he concluded his book, why was there such a complaint by government fifteen years later that so much more needed to be done? Was it not because until recently British universities for the most part expected industry to support financially what they were doing in the expectation that there might be a spinoff? Too few sought out industrial firms and asked whether there was some research they specifically needed. (Conversely industry exasperated the universities by failing to exploit commercially the discoveries scientists had made.) Sanderson’s final pages must confirm Barnett’s deepest suspicious, for there again is the familiar homily that the balance between vocational and academic subjects should not be tilted too much toward industry and business. Sanderson writes:

There is a danger with the close involvement of universities with industry of swinging to an equally unbalanced opposite extreme of denying the value of consumption of education,…of the widening and disciplining of the mind for its own sake and seeking to test such education by the criteria of “investment” in “human capital.”

One can hear in the neighing sound of this prose the old brood mare’s alarm that her foals are going to be corralled and made to haul carts rather than gallop over Newmarket Heath. It is a sound that has echoed over the campus ever since Newman wrote and pious Anglicans denounced the godless institution at London’s Gower Street, University College, where undenominational higher education for women as well as men first began in England. It was heard in May of this year in the House of Lords coming from Joe Grimond, the venerable former leader of the Liberal party. Business and management studies were for long suspect. Britain needs 90,000 new senior managers a year: only 5,000 first degrees in management and 1,200 MBAs are awarded a year. America, with four times Britain’s population, produced more than forty times these numbers.

And yet can one be as certain as Barnett or Martin Wiener that British culture and education are the main cause of its industrial decline? The Japanese, who have few management schools, have outperformed their rivals. And is the case study method of the Harvard Business School so effective after all? It teaches how to solve problems by simplifying complex issues, but has it not been criticized for ignoring how you carry out the decisions you have made? Does it teach adequately how to discover what questions you should be asking, and how to point your business in the direction it should take during the next decade?

The Berkeley historian Sheldon Rothblatt, one of the first scholars to examine this matter, took issue with Wiener for pillorying classics as a typical dead-end snob subject.9 Classics, he pointed out, were all the time being rejuvenated by archaeology, anthropology, and historiography. Nor has the British ethos and education blunted the entrepreneurial skills of its bankers, insurance brokers, and retailers. Rothblatt observed that there were always some industries in Britain that were doing excellently—at one time armaments, advanced textile manufacturing, soap, pharmaceuticals, and bicycles. He questioned Wiener’s contention that graduates who entered industry did so out of necessity not choice: choices of careers are always determined by circumstances. Wiener thought the reluctance to innovate characteristic of British torpor. But the bankruptcy courts are full of firms in which the premature purchase of a new production process meant ruin.

Economic historians do not support the Barnett-Wiener thesis that British culture and education have played a major part in Britain’s decline. If Barnett had worked on the economy of France or Italy he would have discovered attitudes similar to those he revealed in Britain. Did the French Marxisant intelligentsia or Günter Grass and Heinrich Böil in West Germany, impede the economic recovery of their countries? It is odd that Wiener has never asked himself how it is that America (whose curriculum in school and college is not all that different from the British) has not been afflicted by the British disease. What distinguishes Japanese students (or indeed the students of East Asian descent in California) is not that they study some unique combination of subjects that turns them into successful businessmen. What distinguishes them is their single-minded dedication to learning and achievement. Donald Coleman judged that the causal connection between British culture and industry was as hard to establish as the connection between the Protestant ethic and capitalism. Did the sermons of Puritan divines affect the behavior of sixteenth-century merchants and have all the writings of Newman, Arnold, and the rest in praise of the gentlemanly ideal (from which Wiener was to lift some pretty tendentious quotations) affected British industrial performance? The cause, said Coleman, is just as likely to be class conflict or toilet training.

This matter might be left to the academics to debate were it not for the fact that the issue has assumed a new dimension in the Kulturkampf that is now developing in Britain. The war is between the intelligentsia and Margaret Thatcher’s entrepreneurial Conservatism.


When Margaret Thatcher formed her first government she said her mission was to turn the country around, Now in her third term she is even more single-minded in her resolve to smash socialism, to emasculate the trade unions, to shake up the civil servants and take large chunks of the economy out of their hands, to punish the universities until they contribute more to the regeneration of British industry and to force the schoolteachers to test children from the age of seven to see whether they have learned their lessons. Above all, she wants to establish the market as the sole judge of what is valuable in life. She wants to establish as the foremost virtue the entrepreneurial spirit of competition and individual success. The rich and the well-to-do are rewarded by tax benefits and exhorted to make the economy grow, the poor are to be chivied, as their benefits are cut, to get a better job, if they can find one, and join the upwardly mobile, or else suffer the consequences.

This vision of life outrages the British intelligentsia. They are obsessed by their hatred of Margaret Thatcher. At a recent conference held in Portugal on modern literature the Italians were driven to beg the British writers present to recollect that the subject of the conference was literature and not their prime minister. They think she is impervious to argument and authoritarian: as repressive where individual rights and liberties are concerned as she is dismissive of the effects of competition upon the poor. She tramples on the intellectuals’ dreams. They consider that she despises their ideals of compassion for the poor and of ending class conflict and mass unemployment. They are outraged that she refuses to run public utilities for the benefit of ordinary people and not for private gain. Orwell once said that the trouble with competition is that someone gets hurt, and the objective of the intelligentsia had been to see that as few as possible got hurt. Their rage increases as they see foreigners praise the British economy and Margaret Thatcher sustain her hold on government at home as Britain grows richer. Can it be that the ethos of Samuel Smiles is to prevail?

Their disillusion began when the budgets of universities and colleges were cut by over 10 percent in the first Thatcher government; and cuts have continued to be imposed on them. The original reason for the cuts was the government’s overall policy of reining in public expenditure; and higher education was peculiarly vulnerable because a fall in the birthrate will have the effect in the 1990s of a third less adolescents leaving school. But what began as an economy has now become a crusade to shake the universities up and shake them out—a policy that is in one sense certainly succeeding as British academics flee across the Atlantic to find in the country that was said to respect only the almighty dollar a place where dispassionate, esoteric learning is prized.

The dons doubt whether it is any longer prized in Britain. For some years now the universities have been told by ministers, publicists, and industrialists who want to cozy up to the prime minister to study and teach subjects that will help productivity and the export drive. The humanities should take a back seat, pure science too; cosmology, Sanskrit, econometrics, anthropology, and literature must be regarded as luxuries and therefore rationed; applied science and technological study are the first priorities.

Under the new education reform act that recently passed through Parliament the government is abolishing the independent University Grants Committee and replacing it with a body with whom universities will have to sign an agreement to perform specified services in return for funds from government. They will be told to admit so many students each year to particular courses. Is it surprising that the dons wonder whether the government policymakers have ever heard of Alan Turing, a pioneer of artificial intelligence and the computer revolution, 2 homosexual mathematician who saved his country from defeat during the war by cracking at a crucial juncture the German naval ciphers when the battle of the Atlantic was at its height, who lived, if anyone did, in a secret garden of knowledge? For that matter, have they ever heard of the story of the discovery of the structure of DNA and the subsequent revolution in biology and genetic engineering? Or have they heard of the current race to solve the problems of superconductivity?

There is also no doubt where Conservative ministers picked up the notion that British culture and education are responsible for the nation’s discontents. The culprits are Wiener and Barnett. When Keith Joseph, a former fellow of All Souls’, was secretary of state for education he used to wave their books in the face of civil servants. Praising Barnett he said:

It can legitimately be held to be a long-standing trahison des clercs that the relatively highly regarded academic and intellectual world failed to perceive that the bough on which they were fairly comfortably resting depended on business vitality which they tended to scorn.

Robert Jackson, the minister of state for higher education, another fellow of All Souls’, tours the universities pressing them to remember that they have other obligations than those to pure knowledge. Ralph Harris, who publicized Hayek’s economics and the blessings of the market economy, sings the same song in his speeches in the House of Lords; and it was he who converted Keith Joseph, and Joseph who converted Thatcher to the virtues of the entrepreneurial society. The Wiener–Barnett thesis has been seized with glee by the Yuppie generation of Conservatives as an excuse no longer to listen to the dons’ demands for money raised from taxes.

Nor are the universities the only victims. The government, preaching the evil of monopoly and the virtues of competition, has taken a disapproving look at British broadcasting. The advertising monopoly that the grossly overstaffed commercial companies and the trade unions have enjoyed held British business to ransom, but it enabled such programs as The Jewel in the Crown to be produced. The monopoly is now to be pried open, and cable and satellite companies will compete for audiences and advertising. But worse is to come. The BBC is financed by a compulsory license fee levied on all who own a television set. It is now being mooted by ministers that the license fee should be abolished and the BBC become a subscription channel. The specifically cultural channels, of both the BBC and commercial television (BBC2 and Channel 4), should in addition be transferred to satellite so that those who want to see them will have to pay not only for a subscription but also for a dish.

The BBC is by now a hallowed British institution. In the first few decades of its existence it regarded itself as having a mission to educate the nation. It was stuffy. It marketed Establishment opinion. But in the days of radio it was, perhaps, the major influence in turning Britain into a musical nation and for some years its “Third Program” was a unique intellectual venture. During the Fifties the challenge of commercial television forced it to become less stuffy and its outspoken criticism of politicians lost it brownie points in Parliament. The BBC came close to denying that it had any obligation to the state over certain incidents in Northern Ireland and at the time of the Falklands war. Last year the lack of editorial judgment and control led the governing body of the BBC to sack the director general.

The intelligentsia regard the government’s new proposals to be an act of revenge for the BBC’s past incivilities and to indicate the depths of the government’s philistinism. The output of the BBC, which every literate country admires, could not survive such a revolution. But David Young, the secretary of state for trade and industry, who has succeeded Norman Tebbit as Margaret Thatcher’s favorite minister, regards broadcasting simply as a medium for raising revenue by the state through selling franchises and as a boon to the salesmen of British industry selling his products through advertising. That the BBC is one of Britain’s cultural assets never crosses his mind.

The cultural chasm has begun once again to yawn. After the war the leaders of both parties supported Keynes’s brain-child the Arts Council. Reverence for the arts and respect for the intellect became fashionable, and Britain no longer seemed to be a philistine country. It followed Europe in recognizing that the state owed a duty to subsidize the arts. The subsidies were never as lavish as in France, where presidents want to leave a cultural monument as a memorial, like the Centre Pompidou, or the Musée d’Orsay, or the Louvre pyramid. Nor as prodigal as West Germany, where the municipal and regional governments carry on the tradition of the former princelings in their courts. But the result was that London became a great center for music and renowned for its theater. There was a price to pay. The iceboxes and the automobiles were not as large as they were in America. One argument, used even by those who sympathize with Margaret Thatcher’s market economics, is to ask a question: What kind of life do you want to lead? You can compete even if you leave the office at six. Not perhaps as effectively as the Japanese, who never seem to leave it, but well enough to make a comfortable living and lead a civilized life.

But there is another side to the matter and the intelligentsia refuse to see it. They forget that they are a self-interested party. For forty years they have seen opportunities and salaries for themselves multiply, and to see these now reduced hits their pocketbooks as well as their self-esteem. They feel rejected. (In fact they are not all rejected—a new set of intellectuals are now courted and produce working models for Margaret Thatcher’s government.) Their hatred of her is in part fueled by snobbery: they detest her style, her gentility, her humorless, endless moralizing, her choice of blouses. They forget her remarkable achievements, the transformation of morale in Britain, her formidable managerial ability, her stand for simple virtues such as honorable dealing, loyalty to institutions, and contempt for fudging issues.

They also forget that there is some truth in the Barnett-Wiener thesis. The same impulses that make them blench at the sound of Thatcher’s voice and the sight of her hairdo work against throwing higher education institutions open to a wider public. They cannot envision linking the most prestigious places with humble colleges so that the unqualified can move, if they display talent, to an academically more rigorous course of study. There is not, and never has been in Britain, the same respect for industry and business that there has been in America. It is inconceivable that any British prime minister could have said that the business of Britain was business. Only twenty-five years or so ago a scientist at Cambridge (who was to win a Nobel Prize) was asked by another scientist (who was to become a luminary in the Cavendish laboratory) why he had wasted his time writing an obituary of a physicist who had spent his time applying his research to industrial problems instead of pursuing knowledge for its own sake.

Britain is once again reaved by the division in Howards End. In that novel, it will be remembered, E.M. Forster depicted two families. There were the Schlegel sisters, who loved Beethoven and ideas and who wanted to help the poor—generous, open-minded, and prepared to live up to their ideals. And there were the Wilcoxes, selfish, self-deceiving, insensitive, gradgrinding, philistine businessmen not above a dishonest trick or two. Forster leaves us in no doubt which of the two he prefers, but he also makes it clear that the Schlegels as rentiers live indirectly on the wealth produced by the Wilcoxes.

It may be that no causal connection can be traced between the decline of British industry and the nation’s culture. But the British intelligentsia should listen to the impressions of foreigners who have often wondered whether in our time the Schlegels overdid it and spurned the Wilcoxes too much. The great Alexandrine poet Constantine Cavafy, whom Forster met in Egypt during the First World War, warned him what might happen if the Schlegels did so. One day Cavafy said to Forster, “Never forget about the Greeks, Forster. Never forget we are bankrupt…. Pray that you—you English with your capacity for adventure—never lose your capital. Otherwise you will resemble us, restless, shiftless, liars.”

This Issue

September 29, 1988