The Rise and Fall of England: 16. The Fall of England (Part I)
JUNE 01, 1969 by CLARENCE B. CARSON
Dr. Carson, Professor of History at Grove City College, Pennsylvania, will be remembered for his earlier FREEMAN series, The Fateful Turn, The American Tradition, and The Flight from Reality.
The fall of England after World War II was precipitate. To outward appearances, Britain was still a major power in the world at the onset of the war. British policy was supposed to be of great moment, if not decisive, in world affairs. If the navy no longer ruled the seas, neither did that of any other power. The sun never set on the British flag; the globes which indicated such things still sported more pink than any other color. Nor is it clear why the war should have changed matters so very much. England and the British Empire fought on the side of the victorious Allies. Nor had the British Isles been invaded by a conquering army; alone among the great powers of western and central Europe, Britain was not subjected to the debilitating effect of occupying armies.
Yet, in short order, Britain was no longer a major power, indeed, was swiftly becoming a minor power. Much of the empire was breaking away, or being cut away. The British were withdrawing forces from their traditional spheres of influence. England’s role in the world, far from being increased by victory in the war, was diminishing with unseemly speed. Of course, the British had suffered much during the war, suffered from the bombing, from the loss of men, from the destruction at sea, from the disruptions and dislocations that occur in any war. But the wounds were not themselves mortal, or should not have been, to a once great nation. Indeed, others suffered more, particularly the Soviet Union, and gained rather than lost sway in the world. The explanation for the fall of England must be sought elsewhere. In brief, it is to be found largely in the policies and practices of the government, but before examining further into these there is a broader context that should be delineated.
All of Western Europe
The fall of England was part of a more general phenomenon: the fall of western Europe. The fount and center of Western Civilization for many hundreds of years has been western Europe—the British Isles, France, the Low Countries, Scandinavia, Germany, and thence to countries that had become peripheral already: Italy, Spain, Portugal, Austria, and so forth. In more recent times, the centers of power and influence had usually been England, France, Germany, and, to appearances, a revived Italy. But many untoward developments had occurred in continental Europe between World War I and World War II.
It was supposed that France had the mightiest army in the world. Yet, once the German armies broke through in World War II, it took them only a few weeks to complete the conquest of France. France, it turned out, was only the shell of its former self. Not only had World War I taken its toll but also an internal disintegration had sapped the will of the French to resist. Germany suffered the debilitating effect of a runaway inflation in the 1920′s, accompanied by foreign pressures and internal socialist experiments. Then came the terror and violence of the years under Hitler. Italy underwent both the deterioration of its parliamentary institutions and the fascist dictatorship of Benito Mussolini with its overtones of socialist syndicalism. Once great centers of civilization succumbed to the blandishments of men teaching barbaric doctrines.
Then came World War II. First, most of the countries were subjected to invasion and occupation by German and Italian armies. Then Allied armies thrust over much the same ground, and in the end occupied Germany and Italy, along with many other lands. The requirement of unconditional surrender resulted in the virtual destruction of the power and will to resist of the Germans (as well as the Japanese).
At the end of World War II, then, a power vacuum existed in western and central Europe. The shell of France had been cracked or broken; only the indomitable will of Charles De Gaulle has held the country together since. That Italian power was largely the bombast of Mussolini became obvious rather early in the war. German power was utterly destroyed; much of its manpower and machinery carted away by the Russians; the land subjected to division and occupation by conquering armies. No treaty has yet been drawn with that divided country. If the will exists to develop any new center of power on the continent (aside from the personal will of De Gaulle), then there has been as yet no opportunity.
World War II did not bring to an end aggressive action in the world. It only succeeded in destroying the power to resist it on the continent of Europe and for much of Asia. The Soviet Union —fount and center of international communism—used the European disruption as an opportunity to expand communist power and practices. It should have been clear by then that the Soviet Union was aggressive and expansionist. Not only had the communists made a pact with the Nazis before World War II for dividing up the spoils in eastern Europe—a pact observed to the extent that the Soviet Union invaded Poland from the east after Germany invaded from the west—but also they had expanded by taking Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia, as well as invading and seizing part of Finland during World War II. If any doubt remained, it should have been removed shortly. Everywhere the Soviet armies went, communist governments were soon set up, or were enabled to take over: in Poland, Hungary, Rumania, and so forth. The Security Council of the United Nations, which was charged with keeping the peace, was quickly deactivated by Soviet vetoes.
The Lion at Bay
Britain was the only European country with major power potential at this moment in history which might have wielded weight against Soviet expansion. But Britain was set on another course, as we shall see. It is true enough that the British were exhausted by a long and demanding war effort. (But so, surely, were the peoples of the Soviet Union.) It is true, too, that the British relied heavily upon American aid to conduct the war, that foreign investments had been to a considerable extent dissipated, and that there had been heavy losses of all kinds. There were excuses enough, in all conscience, for the British reticence to continue a vigorous role in the world. But when a victorious power uses the occasion of its victory to abandon its historic role, it can hardly be attributed to exhaustion by the war.
In fact, such power and force as remained in the British government was turned on the British people. No matter that a majority of the electorate had voted for the Labour Party in 1945, they had, in effect, voted for the government to unleash its power on them. Socialists in power, as has been shown, continued and extended the wartime controls, appropriated property, regulated, restricted, and harassed the British people as those people tried to come to grips with the difficulties that confronted them.
How this power was employed at its nether reaches is illustrated by the following examples from the latter part of the 1940′s:
… The Ministry of Food prosecuted a greengrocer for selling a few extra pounds of potatoes, while admitting that they were frostbitten and would be thrown away at once. The Ministry clamped down on a farmer’s wife who served the Ministry snooper with Devonshire cream for his tea. A shopkeeper was fined £5 for selling home-made sweets that contained his own ration of sugar. Ludicrous penalties were imposed on farmers who had not kept strictly to the letter of licences to slaughter pigs; in one case, the permitted building was used, the authorized butcher employed, but the job had to be done the day before it was permitted; in another case the butcher and the timing coincided, but the pig met its end in the wrong building…¹
These homely examples may tell more than volumes of theory of the true nature of the socialist onslaught.
In short order, the socialists were able virtually to wreck what remained of a once vigorous and healthy economy. Economy had suffered greatly from the interventions of the interwar years. It was hampered even more drastically by wartime restrictions. But the measures of the Labour government were such as to make economic behavior very difficult to follow.
The wreckage was wrought by nationalization, controls, regulations, high taxes, restrictions, and compulsory services. There was a concerted effort to plan for and control virtually all economic activity in the land. The initiative for action was taken from the people and vested in a bureaucracy. Where industries were actually taken over, they were placed under the authority of boards which were perforce irresponsible, for the usual checks and restrictions (such as the necessity to make a profit) were removed. In short, the bureaucracy was let loose and the people were bound up. To put it another way, much of the great ability and energy of the British people was turned from productive purposes to wrestling with the bureaucracy.
By examining in detail, it would be possible to show all sorts of reasons for the failure of the socialists. However, in such brief scope as this it will be more appropriate to take two of the reasons and explain them. These two are central, but surely not the only ones. One is somewhat peculiar to England; the other is a universal fallacy in socialism. Let us take the broadest one first.
Emphasis on Distribution
Socialists have periodically claimed, at least since the publication of The Communist Manifesto in 1848, that the problem of production has been solved. Indeed, they have waxed wroth over the dangers of overproduction, of glut, and of affluence. They have gone so far as to claim that capitalist countries have to have war in order to get rid of the excess production. The problem, they have said again and again, is one of distribution. Moreover, English socialists have been devoted to the idea of as near equal distribution of goods and service as is possible (or "practical"). If they were right in believing that the problem was one of distribution and not of production, they were probably also right in believing that government could solve the problem.
At any rate, the Labour government undertook redistribution with a right good will. They levied highly graduated income taxes, taxed luxury goods at high rates, controlled prices of food, clothing, and shelter, and rationed many items in particularly short supply. Not only that, but they provided free medical services, provided pensions, and otherwise aided those with little or no income. They distributed and they distributed.
Yet, a strange thing—at least to them—occurred: the more they redistributed, the less they had to distribute. Not only did such shortages as they had known during the war continue, but others cropped up as well. One writer points out, "By 1948, rations had fallen well below the wartime average. In one week, the average man’s allowance was thirteen ounces of meat, one and a half ounces of cheese, six ounces of butter and margarine, one ounce of cooking fat, eight ounces of sugar, two pints of milk, and one egg."² Even bread, which had not been rationed during the war, was rationed beginning in 1946. The government had first attempted to fool the English people into buying less bread by reducing the amount in a loaf. When that did not work, they turned to rationing.3 Housing, clothing, food, fuel—everything, it seemed—was in short supply.
A Bad Winter
The situation became perilous in the winter of 1946-47. It was, undoubtedly, a bitterly cold winter, accompanied by unusually large snowfalls. Ordinarily, the winters in England are mild, protected as the island is by the water and the prevailing currents and winds. Not so, this time; the full fury of winter settled upon the land. The effect was near catastrophe, even when reduced to dry textbook language: "… in February the coal stocks which were already low could not be replenished because of transport difficulties…. For several days much of the industry of the country had to close down; almost two million people were temporarily unemployed; and domestic use of electricity was forbidden during normal working hours."4 In the midst of all this deprivation, the Labour Party continued on its ideological way, "doggedly pushing their complex nationalization Bills through Parliament whilst wrathful Tories attacked them for paying too little attention to food and fuel, and for employing three times as many civil servants as miners."5
It will be worthwhile to pause in the account briefly to consider why a cold winter should cause such distress. We should all be familiar enough by now with the fact that socialist countries seem to be ever and again victims of freakish weather, and such like. Assuming that the rains fall on the just and the unjust alike, there is no need to conclude that these are simply a result of Divine disfavor. On the contrary, a rational explanation is ready to hand. Socialist restrictions make it virtually impossible to adjust with the needed speed to unusual circumstances. In the market, the rise of prices signals distress, and the opportunity for profit induces men to concentrate their energies at the point of greatest demand. But in England prices could not rise, for they were controlled. Transport could not be shifted readily to carrying coal, because it was controlled. The coal miners did not respond to the challenge, for they were enjoying the political perquisites they had won by nationalization. In short, national planning is for an ever-normal situation based on averages which have never exactly occurred and can hardly be expected to in the future. The very unexpectedness of the unusual makes planning for it a contradiction in terms. When men are free, their energies may be turned readily to relieving distress; when they are restricted, they use up much of their energies in complaints against the powers that be.
At any rate, the socialists in power discovered very quickly that the problem of production had not been solved. In England, as elsewhere, socialists have been confronted with mounting problems of production. By the summer of 1947 the British government was making no secret of the problem. " ‘We’re up against it,’ intoned the Government posters, £400,000 worth of them, all over the country: ‘We Work or Want.’ "6 There is little evidence that socialists have learned the source of what must be to them the paradoxical development of mounting problems of production when they follow their policies of distribution. If they did, of course, they might give up socialism. The fact is that when production is separated from distribution to any considerable extent the incentives to produce are reduced. When this is accompanied by numerous restrictions which hamper men in their productive efforts, goods and services will be in ever shorter supply.
The other major reason for the dire impact of socialism and interventionist measures on England was closely related to the historical economic development of that country. Throughout the modern era the British have been a seafaring and trading people. In the nineteenth century, they accepted the prescription of Adam Smith, in large, specializing in what they did well, depending much on foreign trade, and importing much of what they consumed. The great prosperity which they enjoyed testified to the efficacy of this approach to economy. But from World War I on, interventionist measures made it increasingly difficult for the British to compete in foreign trade. Union wages, the subsidizing of the idle, high taxes, the progressive disjoining of production from distribution made it more and more difficult to sell goods abroad. Domestic inflation and the appropriation of foreign investments reduced Britain’s position as financier in the world.
Then the Labour Party came to power in 1945. They were quickly faced with mounting deficits in foreign trade—beginning to be referred to by then as a "dollar shortage." The "dollar shortage" was, of course, a result of governmental policy. The government was trying to distribute what it did not have in hand to pass out. It inflated the currency, supported higher wages, increased services provided without charge, subsidized basic goods, fixed prices below what they would have been in the market, and then tried to supplement the goods and services available from abroad without giving a quid pro quo for these. "Dollar shortage" is a convenient shorthand term for the notion that the United States ought to subsidize Britain.
How the contradictions worked out in practice have been described by Bertrand de Jouvenel. "The incomes of British private citizens, taken as a whole, were, in 1945, seventy-five per cent above the 1938 level. But it was far from the case that there was on offer to buyers a seventy-five per cent increase of goods and services!…" On the contrary, "the actual position in 1945 was that a seventy-five per cent increase in incomes was matched by a fourteen per cent diminution in consumable goods and services…."7
In the free market, this disparity would have been closed by rising prices. But the government did not allow this to take place. Instead, it maintained price controls and rationing. In consequence, prices remained comparatively low for such things as food, clothing, such shelter as could be had, and electricity. The British people were able to spend a much smaller percentage of their incomes for such necessities, compared, say, with Americans. As a result, "British purchasing power… overflows wherever it can. Expenditure on drink rose to 238 per cent of what it had been before the war, on tobacco to 340 per cent."8 Much of this income was spent on goods that were imported, such as tobacco.
More of the Same
Since government action had produced the conditions in which such ironic results occurred, the logical course would have been to change the policies: stop the inflation, end the rationing, remove the price controls, and so forth. To have done so, of course, might have entailed the admission of error by politicians, a general phenomenon without precedent in popularly elected governments. It would certainly have meant the abandonment of much of the surge toward socialism.
Instead of admitting it was to blame, the government turned more of its force on the British people. The government acted as if the people were to blame. They should not spend the money in the way they did. They should not buy so much that could otherwise be sold to foreigners, nor consume so much that had to be bought from abroad. One writer describes the increased use of force in this way:
… Whilst appeals for higher production rang in their ears, the public found, in Dalton’s autumn budget of 1947, cigarettes rising… in price "in a deliberate drive to cut smoking by a quarter." "And smoke your cigarettes to the butts," said the Chancellor, "it may even be good for your health." American films stopped arriving in Britain when a seventy-five per cent import duty was imposed, and cinemas began to empty. Timber and petrol imports were cut, so newspapers shrank back to four pages and the basic petrol ration was abolished, although anyone living more than two miles from public transport could draw a supplementary allowance. Foreign travel was suspended and public dinners dwindled into silence. Clothing coupons were cut, and there seemed to be less food than there had ever been since the beginning of the war. It became a criminal offense to switch a fire on during the summer months.9
These measures were accompanied by efforts to increase production. "Much of the wartime direction of manpower was revived. Under the Control of Engagements Order, which went into effect in October , new employment could be secured only through the exchanges. Applicants would be advised to go into priority industries and under some circumstances would be directed to do so…. In November an order required registration of all the unemployed and those in trades considered non-essential—football pools, amusement arcades, night clubs, and the like. By these measures it was hoped to draw into industry a million additional workers."¹º
Other Drastic Measures to Close the "Dollar Gap"
Even this combination of Draconian measures did not close the "dollar gap." As a matter of fact, once independent Britons had gone hat in hand to the United States asking for a large extension of credit, the delegation having been headed by Lord John Maynard Keynes. They were granted 33/4 billions of dollars which was supposed to last for several years. Actually, however, the deficit was so great in 1947 that the amount of credit available could hardly cover it. In 1948, Britain was granted nearly one billion additional dollars under the Marshall Plan. Americans were led to believe at the outset that aid to Britain was for the purpose of enabling that country to recover from the war. Yet, it should be clear that for the several years following World War II the British were not simply having difficulty recovering from the war. Matters grew much worse after a couple of years of socialism than they had been during the war. The British were caught in the toils of their own government, at the behest of a majority of the electorate. They were struggling with might and main against the disabling impact of socialism. The United States was not helping Britain recover from the war; it was subsidizing socialism. By subsidizing socialism, the United States government helped the Labour government to survive a few years, while concealing from the British people, as well as from other peoples of the world, the full extent of the debacle.
Widespread Demoralization and Corruption
Socialism in England did not simply wreck the economy; the efforts which had these results had other and undesirable side effects. Among these was a widespread demoralization and corruption of some portion of the populace. The British have long enjoyed a high repute for obedience to the law. They have usually been exemplary citizens in contrast with the peoples of some continental countries, where evasion of the law is so common as to be nearly universal. Socialism changed things in Britain, or let loose something in the British character that had been more restrained theretofore. In 1937, there had been only 266,265 indictable offenses; the number had jumped to 522,684 by 1948. "In 1951, cases of violence against the person, which had soared steadily since the war, were two and a half times more than in 1938, and criminals, it seemed, were three times more vilely sexual."¹¹ Another writer describes the development in this way, saying that since 1945 the "public have increasingly devoted themselves to the evasion of the law and to operations upon the black markets. Contempt for authority has increased; class consciousness has become more acute; cynicism regarding corruption in public life more prevalent; personal and class irresponsibility more in evidence; gambling practices more widespread."¹²
However elegantly the rationale for socialism may be expressed, it does not succeed for long in obscuring its true nature from the citizenry, or some portion of them. Socialism is a plan for the use of force, for confiscation, for taking from some to give to others, for disturbing or changing the character of relations among people. When people find themselves thwarted by deprivations and restrictions attendant upon such programs, they turn to the very methods government has more subtly been using in practice: theft and violence.
While the Labour government was turning such force as the government had on its own people, while the economy was being virtually wrecked, while the people were being demoralized, untoward events were taking place elsewhere in the world. Colonial peoples—or those who would speak for them —were clamoring for independence. International communism was on the move to fish in these troubled waters. Revolutionaries were preparing themselves for that destruction which they conceive to be their first task but which quite often proves the only one for which they have any adeptness. England, under the dubious tutelage of the United States and led by irresolute Labourites, was beginning its withdrawal from its former active role in the world. That, too, is part of the story of the fall of England.
The next article in this series will continue to describe "The Fall of England."
1 David Hughes, "The Spivs" in Age of Austerity, Michael Sissons and Philip French, eds. (Middlesex, England: Penguin, 1964), p. 99.
2 Susan Cooper, "Snoek Piquante" in Sissons and French, op. cit., p. 38.
3 Ibid., pp. 40-43.
4 Henry Pelling, Modern Britain (New York: Norton, 1960), p. 181.
5 Cooper, op. cit., p. 51.
6 Ibid., p. 52.
7 Bertrand de Jouvenel, Problems of Socialist England (London: Batchworth Press, 1949), J. F. Huntington, trans., p. 107.
8 Ibid., p. 173.
9 Cooper, op. cit., p. 52.
10 Alfred F. Havighurst, Twentieth Century Britain (New York: Harper and Row, 1962, 2nd ed.), p. 402.
11 Hughes, op. cit., p. 102.
12 John Jewkes, The New Ordeal by Planning (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1968), p. 204.
“There are means to prevent crimes, and these means are punishments; there are means to reform manners, and these means are "good examples."