William V Shannon
William Shannon

Fellowship Title:

Post-Imperial England in Transition

William Shannon
September 2, 1969

Fellowship Year

In the past twenty-five years, Britain has lost an empire and dropped from a world super-power to one of a half dozen medium-rank powers. What does such a decline do to a nation’s political and social institutions? What follows is the first of a series of reports, which attempts to examine this question.

An American arriving in London in the same week as the astronauts landed on the moon has a unique opportunity to understand Britain’s changed status in the world. Americans have become accustomed to thinking of their country as the foremost power in the world. It seems only natural that the first men to land on the moon should be Americans, that we have never lost a war, and that if an American ship or plane is attacked, it is cause for political uproar and congressional investigation. Every Englishman (“English” and “British” are used interchangeably in these reports although it is understood that Britain comprises Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland as well as England.) over forty grew up with the same natural sense of his country’s power and greatness. “Britannia, Britannia rules the waves.” From Gibraltar to the Suez Canal, from India to Singapore to Hong Kong, the British ruled one-sixth of the world’s population and the sun never set on their global empire.

For twenty-two years, however, beginning with the granting of independence to India and Pakistan, Britain has steadily been relinquishing its empire and withdrawing from its old imperial privileges and responsibilities. The whole Indian experience in which successive generations of British families went to India to run its Civil Service, administer its railroads, officer its army and, incidentally, add scores of words to the language (e.g. “posh” meaning that “Port Out, Starboard Home” was the preferred way to travel on a ship to India), this whole experience is now only a faded memory. The once supreme British Navy, rich with hundreds of years of history, tradition, and romance, now has no battleships and is dwarfed by the Russian and American fleets. The British pound, the world’s foremost trading currency and the standard by which lesser currencies were measured, has been devalued twice in twenty years and may be teetering toward yet a third devaluation.

The loss of an empire is not without its pleasant side. Young British soldiers no longer die trying to control the impenetrable hatreds and fanaticism’s of Moslem and Hindu, of Arab and Jew, of Malay and Chinese, of Nigerian and Biafran. “It’s your country and you’re welcome to it,” is the attitude of many an ordinary Englishman quite content to go home to Yorkshire or Sussex. The sudden need this summer to introduce British troops to separate Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland is an unexpected reminder of this once-familiar Imperial duty.

The shrinkage of Britain’s world power, nevertheless, imposes a severe strain on its people and its institutions. The fact that Britain was on the winning side in World War II has tended to obscure the seriousness of its problems. Countries of comparable size in Europe—Germany, France, and Italy—suffered defeat and occupation. Shocked and humiliated, they had no place to go but up. The British were naturally slower to realize that the war, though it ended in victory, had been almost as exhausting and expensive for them. The Government had taken control of real estate, stocks and bonds, and other private investments in the United States and elsewhere in 1939-40, and sold them to raise cash to pay for munitions. As a result, there was a substantial drop in dividends flowing into Britain from abroad. The ordinary British citizen naturally did not realize that these losses imperiled the nation’s balance of payments and indirectly undermined his personal standard of living. Moreover, Fascism and war had smashed the trade unions on the Continent, but Britain entered the postwar world with a vigorous, unimpaired trade union movement which was determined and able not only to defend but also to improve working class standards of life.

These differences in popular expectations and in the strength of the unions account for the marginal but crucial difference between Britain’s sluggish postwar economic performance and that of its more dynamic rivals on the continent. (A diminishing but still significant element of managerial inefficiency due to “old school tie” nepotism has also contributed.) A permanent shift of two to three per cent of national income each year from consumption to investment would set right Britain’s balance of payments and end the misery of recurring bouts of Government-directed deflation’s designed to protect the pound. But for fifteen years this slight shift has eluded successive Chancellors of the Exchequer.

As a result, British economic institutions—its industrial management, the unions, the Treasury—are continuously under fire. In the United States, the balance of payments, insofar as it impinges on people’s consciousness at all, is a mild nuisance which causes the Government to cut the duty-free customs limit or try ineffectually to discourage foreign travel. But in this country, it is not only a critical concern; it is a national obsession (or, at least, as close to an obsession as the doleful economists and the scoldings of the press can make it). When a British firm loses a major contract to an overseas rival, it is worth a three-column headline. When a British firm goes into bankruptcy, the newspapers run somber analyses of the reasons for so much managerial incompetence. A similar business failure in the United States would rate half a column on the business pages of American papers.

Even the performance of the Treasury, the prestigious heart of the deservedly admired British Civil Service, seems less than impressive. Acting on the advice of Treasury experts, successive Chancellors have tried to play the economy each year like a finely tuned piano, but it is now doubtful that the Government has or can possibly collect the economic data sensitively and accurately enough to justify such subtle exercises in policy-making. Some economic critics, left-wing or independent in their private political views, had attributed slow economic growth and periodic payments crises to failures of policy on the part of Conservative cabinets from 1951 to 1964. But after five years of indifferent success by the Labor Government, there is a growing belief that the Treasury may simply have overreached itself in trying to manage the economy’s performance too closely.

The more serious strains arising from Britain’s changed role in the world, however, are psychological and invisible. For centuries, this island stood apart from Europe in splendid isolation, involved in but not wholly dependent upon the affairs of the continent and looking outward to the broad seas and the wide world. When Napoleon ruled Europe for more than a dozen years, England helped hold him at bay. When Hitler overran Europe in 1940, England stood alone against him. But when Britain, its empire gone and its overseas involvement’s much diminished, tried to find a new identity as equal partner in the new Europe, France vetoed its application to join the Common Market. To be rebuffed by those to whom one has sometimes condescended is a painful experience.

Following upon this rebuff to national pride, Harold Wilson and the Laborites were elected—narrowly in October 1964, and triumphantly in March 1966 — to manage the nation’s affairs. They had finally convinced the middle class “swing” voters that they were no longer prisoners of Socialist ideology and that, on the contrary, they were the right people—open-minded, pragmatic, eager for change—to lead Britain into a new era in which it would not only adjust to but master the challenges of science and technology. The vision offered, though not in so many words, was that of a much larger but equally efficient and hardheaded version of Sweden.

This very conception implicitly called into question much that is traditional in Britain beginning with the monarchy, the House of Lords, and the entire aristocratic system of honors and privileges. Attacking the monarchy is the last thing the Labor leaders had in mind, for the Queen and her family are generally popular and the monarchy as an institution is subject to no serious criticism.

But what role is the monarchy to play in a technocratic democratic state? No other European industrial power is burdened by the presence of a conservative, land-based, traditionalist elite, which, if it is not precisely a ruling class, still exercises much political power and social influence. Holland and Scandinavia retain their royal families but have reduced them in their style of life nearly to a republican level of simplicity. Not so the Queen of England. It is not the Queen as a person who is called into question but the system of honors and rewards of which she is the fount and the static aristocratic style of life of which she is the symbol.

Modernizing Britain and streamlining its institutions for an age of high technology and ruthless industrial competition mean inevitably a different approach to the nation’s educational system. Scholarships and Government grants have democratized the student bodies of Oxford and Cambridge dramatically in the past twenty-five years. It is the earnest young scholarship students from the state-run grammar schools and not the indolent, champagne-drinking aristocrats of Evelyn Waugh’s early novels who now set the prevailing tone. But the majority of English children still leave school at 15. Britain sends a smaller proportion of its young people to college than any of the principal European countries and far fewer than the United States. Although Britain has tried to upgrade its technical training schools to college level, it still has no institutions of higher learning comparable to M.I.T. or Cal. Tech. Moreover, the “public” (i.e., private) boarding schools command the best teachers and tend to make state-run secondary schools seem second-rate. Can there be a new Britain if its schools are still structured on class lines and still devoted to the ideal that a classically-educated gentleman is best qualified to rule an empire?

The Victorians devised the British Civil Service to administer their far-flung imperial responsibilities and later to cope with the social problems of modern industrialism. Its integrity and competence have been a model for the civil service in the United States and other countries. But a country shorn of empire and without the military strength to impose its will or redeem its diplomatic advice has necessarily to reorient its Foreign Office. The Labor Government appointed Sir Val Duncan to chair a three-man commission on the reorganization of the Foreign Service. Its report in the summer of 1969 has been a subject of sharp controversy in the press. In brief, the commission proposes to concentrate British staff in Europe while de-emphasizing former areas of imperial concern in Africa and Asia and to stress economic counseling for British exporters at the expense of traditional political reporting. This makes elementary sense for Sweden or Switzerland but for themselves, the British are not sure.

Race relations are yet another aspect of British life, which the shift from center of empire to competitive European technocracy was sure to alter. As long as London was capital of a multiracial empire, it was logical to maintain that subjects of the Queen were everywhere equal and that no passports or visas were necessary to travel or reside in any part of the empire. But as the empire vanished, as cheap air travel made it much easier for immigrants to come to Britain, and the number of Indian, Pakistani, and West Indian immigrants

swiftly grew, the ideal of a color-blind Britain receded. The usual housing and job problems emerged and the usual tensions developed in and around the slums where the newcomers congregated. Britain under the Wilson Government has drastically restricted immigration. This has meant turning away from the Labor Party’s liberal ideals as well as from the nation’s imperial past. Britain, no less than its putative partners in the Common Market, is to be essentially a white man’s club. But the nearly one million colored already here cannot be wished away, and their needs are a challenge to the new Britain. In the summer of 1969, the Institute of Race Relations published Colour and Citizenship, the first comprehensive study of British race relations. Financed by the Nuffield Foundation and prepared under the direction of E.J.B. Rose, the report has been five years in the making. It poses all the hard questions, which perplex any liberal society trying to do justice to colored minorities.

While Britain has been trying to find a secure footing in a world in which the pace of technological invention and scientific discovery steadily accelerates, those same forces are transforming Britain itself and in paradoxical ways. Bureaucracy and centralized planning seem to be concomitants of industrialism, and the British, like many other people, react by experiencing a sense of political impotence and de-personalization. Critical decisions affecting one’s job and one’s neighborhood such as the closing or opening of a factory branch or the location of an airport or highway are made by private and public authorities which are far away from the ordinary man. How can he influence these decisions? How can he even make his voice heard by the decision-makers? In response to these questions, there has gone up in Britain as in the United States a cry for decentralization. At the very time when British leaders have been trying to maneuver their way into the new Europe and wondering how much of their national sovereignty they are prepared to sacrifice to become part of this larger union, nationalistic movements long somnolent have gained fresh vigor in Scotland and Wales.

Simultaneously, television subtly undermines the monopoly of political debate once possessed by the House of Commons. A prime minister speaking directly to the nation on television or two MP’s arguing on a television panel show can affect the shape of public opinion much more effectively than any of them can speaking to one another in the House. Television is only one agent of change. As economic and technological questions grow ever more complex, members of the House whether they be Government backbenchers or in the Opposition feel less and less able to cross-examine ministers effectively or to exercise real control over their day-to-day decisions. In Britain as in other parliamentary countries, Parliament feels its traditional procedures less relevant and its supremacy threatened.

The five years of the Wilson Government have been a time when old faiths have been seen visibly to crumble and old institutions undeniably to falter. It was the evanescent political triumph of his next-to-last predecessor, Harold Macmillan, to make the old order seem unchanged and still viable. Macmillan came to power early in 1957 amidst the ruins of Anthony Eden’s Suez debacle. Suez conclusively demonstrated that Britain did not have the military resources or the economic strength to pursue an independent foreign policy in defense of its own imperial interests. That had been apparent to the Attlee Government when it let India have its independence in 1947, but the Conservatives, more empire-minded, were more reluctant to acknowledge the full implications of Britain’s decline in the world. Macmillan, however, clamping on the mask of an Edwardian gentleman and adopting the languid recherché manner of a duke, managed to make the Conservative Party and a majority of the nation believe that nothing had really changed. By 1964, the vivacity had ebbed out of his performance and the young satirists were attacking him and his elegant successor, Lord Home, in full glee.

Wilson, elected on a demand for change, has proved a curiously ambivalent figure. Although talking the rhetoric of the new technological era, he has not easily dropped the habits of mind of Britain’s powerful past. He mortgaged his economic policy for his first three years in office to a determined losing effort to maintain the pound at the old parity of $2.80. He moved only slowly to wind up Britain’s military bases east of Suez, talked grandly of Britain’s frontiers being on the Himalayas, and tried unsuccessfully to coerce Rhodesia. Earlier this year, Wilson abandoned an effort to restructure the House of Lords. More recently, he withdrew the Government’s bill to impose restrictions on the anarchic powers of the labor unions. He has left the school problem almost untouched. The economy is once again gasping through a semi-deflation imposed to correct another balance of payments deficit. In short, Wilson’s years in office have made it plain that the old ways will, indeed, not work. He has pointed the way to a different kind of future for Britain. But in making painfully slow progress toward that future, he has also made it clear how difficult the transition will be.

Received in New York on September 2, 1969.

Mr. Shannon is an Alicia Patterson Fund award winner on leave from The New York Times. This article may be published with credit to Mr. Shannon, The New York Times, and the Alicia Patterson Fund.

© 1969 William Shannon