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Britain’s Future

ISSUE:  Winter 1939

Building the British Empire: To the End of the First Empire. By James Truslow Adams. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. $3.50. While England Slept: A Survey of World Affairs, 1932-1938. By Winston S. Churchill. With a Preface and Notes by Randolph S. Churchill. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons. $4.00. Parliamentary Government in England: A Commentary. By Harold J. Laski. New York: The Viking Press. $3.50.

It seems reasonably clear that the student of world affairs does well to eschew prophecy. His most satisfactory position is, perhaps, that of an observer of the drift of events. If he makes a relatively open-minded effort to understand the past and the present, he will be less concerned with guessing the future than with being prepared, when the future comes, to apprehend as much as possible of its real meaning. Such preparation, so far as Britain and the British are concerned, involves some attention to the history of the British Empire, some consideration of Great Britain’s attitude towards other countries as reflected in her foreign policy, and some examination of the efficacy and adaptability of English political institutions. Each of the three books here under consideration concerns itself primarily with a different aspect of this threefold problem.

Mr. James Truslow Adams’s volume, “Building the British Empire,” will doubtless arouse a certain amount of objection on the ground that it is “too pro-English.” It will also probably be viewed adversely by persons who are hostile to history written with a purpose. Readers who do not share these antipathies must, if they feel that Mr. Adams’s book is still not a very good book, naturally find other defects.

Mr. Adams has essayed a “biography of the Empire.” He has stressed the combination of institutions and character which in his view produced the British Empire. Yet the result, written with characteristic facility of expression, albeit with some curious lapses in style, is little more than an Epic of England, a story of England from the beginnings to the American Revolution, a story in which considerable attention would in any event have to be given to imperial development. Still, the book is fully entitled to be considered history with a purpose. Mr. Adams insists on the obligation of the historian to undertake interpretation, and he is at no little pains to set out his own canons. One may be far from condemning his views of this kind: his insistence, for example, that “the economic interpretation” easily degenerates into oversimplification. One may, on the other hand, find highly unattractive his proneness to overdo his own interpretation. His interpolation of references to the contemporary scene, especially in this country, often appears, as was also true of the latter part of “The Living Jefferson,” distinctly to force things. For example, Mr. Adams goes so far at one point as to comment on uncertainty that existed more than two hundred years ago concerning the outcome of the contest between William III and the Jacobites by pitying himself that he must face these days the problem, for himself and others, of “property to handle”!

Mr. Winston Churchill’s book, “While England Slept,” is what Professor George Saintsbury once referred to as “something I can recommend to a friend.” It is a collection of Mr. Churchill’s speeches delivered in the momentous period following 1932. The sparkle and brilliance of the style, pronounced as they are, merely enhance the interest of a thesis which is persistently and consistently argued. For six years, while England slept, alongside a Germany disarmed, a Germany rearming, and a Germany armed—to employ the terminology of the titles of the three parts in which the speeches are grouped—Mr. Churchill contended for his motto, “the redress of the grievances of the vanquished should precede the disarmament of the victors.” He warned against false hopes raised by disarmament’conferences, he warned against unilateral disarmament by Great Britain, and he warned against moral suasion to move France to disarm. His forecasting of events was amazing. In fine, the speeches make fascinating reading. This is no less true because of a defect inherent in a collection of this kind. The other side is not heard. After all, the speeches were delivered in debate, in those debates on matters of general policy for which procedure in the English House of Commons makes such ample provision. The reader inevitably wishes for something of the case made in reply; and yet he must be exceedingly difficult to satisfy, if he allows this seriously to detract from his enjoyment of a truly remarkable book.

Professor Harold Laski’s effective use of Marxian dialectic is well known. He is usually plausible, often persuasive, and always provocative. In “Parliamentary Government in England,” his thesis is simple. The English political system “was made by the owners of the instruments of production in the interest of their property; and the safeguarding of their conception of their rights is inherent in all the rules by which it moves.” Professor Laski is not concerned with denying great virtue to these rules as seen in the perspective of past development, that is to say, in the perspective of political democracy. He is very doubtful, to say the least, concerning their future, concerning their adaptability and efficacy to cope with the problems of social and economic democracy. Political democracy, he argues, is pushed “by its own inner impulses” towards social and economic democracy; but “it finds the road thereto barred by the capitalist foundations upon which the political democracy is built.” He concludes that “the validity of those foundations therefore becomes the central issue in politics.” That issue, he holds, is now squarely joined between the Right and the Left in England; that is, between the Conservative and Liberal parties on the one hand, and the Labour party on the other. He argues that the Labour party will inevitably win some future general election, that it must as a socialist party attempt “the task of transforming capitalist foundations,” and that the Right in Opposition, faced with such transformation of the basis of society and convinced that socialism means disaster and ruin, is unlikely to play by the rules.

It is undoubtedly very important for the Labour party to anticipate victory in some future general election. It is at least equally important for the party to be prepared correctly to understand and properly to interpret its victory. Professor Laski, as a student of government, is thoroughly acquainted with “protest votes.” Well versed as he is, among other things, in French politics, he knows how pronounced can become the tendency to affect being “advanced,” by voting further Left than fundamental conviction warrants. It is much easier to imagine that Labour in England might gain a majority through a movement of opinion of this kind than it is to envisage all that would be involved in a set of conditions where the mass of English citizenry had become fundamentally determined upon the forthright substitution of socialism for capitalism. It is a truism that without a deeply convinced public opinion a Labour majority would have little right and little chance basically to alter the social and economic structure of the country. On the other hand, the existence of a public opinion genuinely determined to establish and maintain socialism would involve such completely different conditions and thought processes from those which now prevail that we can scarcely hope to formulate judgments about such a situation.

The decadence of the English, the break-up of the British Empire, and the relegation of Great Britain to the position of a second-rate power have been asserted or prophesied by so many for so long that a general attitude of skepticism is a natural reaction. In reality, it is difficult, even if not impossible, to conclude that, short of an unforeseeable world catastrophe, Britain and the British will not continue to play a part and maintain a position of the first importance in world affairs. The case, in its simplest form, is not so much that experience has shown gloomy prophecies to be unreliable as that occasions for dire predictions have normally been impending crises, and successful weathering of storms suggests persistent and stubborn qualities of greatness. Luck, it is true, is not only a possible but a usual explanation; for the prophets of evil not unnaturally fall back on luck, when their prophecies go awry. At the same time, this is perhaps less a case of defending bad prophecy than of consistently maintaining the same attitude towards explanation as is involved in the prophecy, that is to say, a pronouncedly anti-British attitude. In reality, whether or not Napoleon was correct in holding that mastery of luck is a mark of genius, American attitudes of hostility to England are almost certainly a reluctant, grudging, and, no doubt usually, unconscious tribute. There is no little reason for believing that malice towards England and wide interest in it are definite indications of a highly developed sense of inferiority. But that is another question.


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