The Rise and Fall of England: 16. The Fall of England (Part I)

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.

Socialist Wreckage

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.

Increasing Intervention

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 [1947], 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."