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.
This article concludes the current series on England.
The fall of England should be attributed most directly to the misuse of governmental power by socialists. They turned the power of government on their own people, restricting, inhibiting, and obstructing the exercise of their energy and ingenuity for constructive purposes. Of course, these obstructive activities were not exclusively employed by the Labour Party; socialistic ideas and practices had long since become the common coin for virtually all the politicians, thanks to the Fabians and their aids, witting or unwitting. The Labour Party was only more thoroughgoing than the rest in the application of the socialist ideas.
The two best symbols of the fall of England, however, were the dependence of England on the United States and American policy and the cutting loose of empire. England’s dependence on the United States was heralded by the so-called dollar shortage after World War II, by the applications for loans, by the American subsidies, by the Canadian loans, and by the abandonment of an independent role in the world. (Some Americans are apt to be more conscious of the British influence on American policy than of its being the other way around. Such influence has undoubtedly been considerable. However, my point has to do with actual dependence, not with the direction of flow of intellectual influence.) The loss of independence should be interpreted as an unmistakable sign of the fall from former greatness.
Breakdown of Empire
The dissolution of the British Empire came quickly after World War II. There were three major moves in this direction made by the Labour Party. One of these was the cutting loose of large blocks of territory in the Far East. India was divided and became two countries: Pakistan and India. Ceylon and Burma were granted independence at the same time as India and Pakistan. Ceylon, Pakistan, and India accepted Commonwealth status, but Burma cut loose more completely.
The second move was to change the character of the Commonwealth. The commonwealth arrangement had been one in which all member nations professed their loyalty to the monarch and accepted the dominance of England. The members were referred to as dominions, and thus tacitly recognizing that domination. It became apparent at a conference of prime ministers held in 1946 that this state of affairs was no longer quite acceptable. As one historian summarizes the affair, "the real significance of this conference was that Britain no longer presided as the real and overwhelming power behind the organization, with her economic and military strength providing its material potential."’ The word "Dominion" had become irksome. The Dominions Office was replaced in 1947 with a Commonwealth Relations Office. The Commonwealth remains now largely as a relic of former times, a symbol of relations which once existed and remain in memory.
The third move was the withdrawal from the Near and Middle East. This is the fabled land mass in which arose the ancient civilizations; it lies athwart the paths connecting Africa, Asia, and Europe. With the dissolution of the Turkish Empire during and after World War I, the British moved in to assume much of the suzerainty over the area. Shortly after World War II, they began their withdrawal: from Palestine, from Egypt, and from other Moslem countries.
The return of the Conservatives to political power in England in 1951 did not long delay the process of cutting loose much of the rest of what remained of the British Empire. In Africa and the Americas pressures were mounting for independence for numerous remote and obscure provinces.
The following account gives some indication of the process:
… The Anglo-Egyptian Sudan became a sovereign state in 1956, and British Somaliland was given independence in 1960…. Independence was granted to the Federation of Malaya in 1957…. Status as independent sovereign states was also given to the Gold Coast (rechristened Ghana) in 1957, to Cyprus and Nigeria in 1960, to Sierra Leone and Tanganyika in 1961, to Uganda and Western Samoa… in 1962, to Kenya and Zanzibar in 1963, to Malta in 1964 and to Gambia in 1965.2
So it has gone with colony after colony. A goodly number of them have retained commonwealth status, but, as has been indicated, this was coming to mean less and less. There have been breaks from the Commonwealth, too, as, for example, that of the Union of South Africa. The British Empire is only a light shadow of its former self.
It should be emphasized here that England’s greatness did not reside in or arise from the possession of an empire. On the contrary, the acquisition of an empire was, in large measure, a reflex of greatness. It is true that from the latter part of the sixteenth through the latter part of the eighteenth centuries the British had been under the sway of mercantilistic ideas and had acquired an empire of sorts following the practices associated with them. But following the American War for Independence a great change occurred. The British came increasingly under the influence of the ideas of free trade. The greatness of England flowed from the energy and ingenuity of her people, freed as they were from so many restrictions and obstacles to productivity.
Commerce and Culture
The British Isles illustrated the verity of Adam Smith’s dicta: that the wealth of a nation consists of the goods and services that a people can command, and that the way to augment these is to trade freely with all others, producing those things in which that nation has some advantage and buying from others what they can more economically produce. The British Isles were well situated and geographically well equipped as a training ground for a seafaring people.
So it was in the Modern Era, the British ventured forth to the far corners of the earth, their ships burdened with goods much sought after by somebody or other. In return, they brought back treasures for the people of their own islands. To facilitate this trade, trading posts were established, investments were made, native production was bolstered, political control was extended, and so on. By the latter part of the nineteenth century, some Englishmen were beginning to attach value to the Empire itself, and the British began to formalize it once again. But this was probably more defensive than anything else, for other nations were now turning to the acquisition of colonies and to the erection of barriers to trade.
It is important to remember, too, that British ships did not carry goods only; they carried at least the appurtenances of civilization to many of the darkest parts of the world. Britain was, in the nineteenth century, the center of a great civilization and exemplified many of its finest achievements: of government, learning, discipline, ordered liberty, thought, and institutions.
It should be obvious, but it is not to many people today: the attainments of civilization are not equally distributed around the world. Cultural relativism has taken its toll. Many talk as if all peoples are on an equal plane of achievement and development. Of course, this is nonsense, however high-flown the language in which such notions may be garbed. The customs and habits of many people are and have been barbaric, their institutions cruel and restrictive, their religions a hodgepodge of superstitions, their economies a melange of inhibitions to economy. The British offered to those willing to learn some chance of amelioration.
Two Faces of Power
The spread of British influence was generally the leading edge of civilization in the greatest days of England. That is not to say that the British were always just in their rule, that every innovation they championed was an improvement, or that barbarians were always transformed into civilized peoples. On the contrary, there is little enough that the wisest of men can do to help others, and human nature is too much flawed for us to hope that good intent was always the ruling passion. Indeed, it is most likely that the British sought mainly their own good in what they did. Yet the benefits from this extended to many other peoples.
Even so, it is doubtful that an empire is an ideal arrangement either for those who have one or for the peoples who fall in some way under imperial rule. Such power does indeed offer opportunities for its abuse. As it is desirable that each man stand on his own feet, so it may be desirable that each people direct their own course. In the abstract, an excellent case can be made against empires and an equally good case can be made for national independence. In some sort of imaginary world, the cutting loose of the empire by the British might have had entirely salutary results. England might have prospered as it basked in the good will of peoples freed from its tutelage. Some such idealism may have inspired some of those who had a hand in the dissolution. There is a hint of this posture in the following statement of John Strachey, a prominent Labourite: "That daemonic will to conquer, to rule, and sometimes to exploit, which first possessed us as a sort of emanation from the Gangetic plain two hundred years ago, has left us. And thank heaven it has."3
Unprepared for Freedom
Whether it is fortunate or unfortunate, we do not live in the imaginary world of socialists or even in the abstract world of rationalists. We live in a very real world where power holds sway, where peoples are variously situated to maintain their independence before it, where peoples of different backgrounds, religions, and heritage lay claim to and vie for control of a given territory, where there are some who have little to no aptitude for governing territories of the extent of nation-states, and where other power flows in to fill the vacuum of that withdrawn.
In a number of instances, independence, rather than bringing peace, brought bitter struggles and contests. So it was for India. That land had been held together, it appears, only by British mediation and control. Once these were withdrawn, India was divided between irreconcilable Moslems and Hindus. The ensuing creation of two separate countries brought its own train of horrors:
A veritable Walpurgisnacht ensued, since an understanding for peaceful exchange of populations proved to be the merest euphemism. Millions wrenched from their ancestral homes, were driven blindly toward unknown, promised lands. Plunder and arson, wholesale rape and massacre befell hapless victims of the partition.4
What happened in Palestine is a somewhat more familiar story. Jews claimed the territory as their ancestral homeland. In 1945 and after, they poured into Palestine in increasing numbers. Many Arabs lived in the area, and claimed the land by possession. The British withdrew in 1948 in favor of the United Nations. That body proceeded to partition the land, a portion of it being granted to the Jewish state of Israel. The Arab countries in general and Arab residents in particular resented and resisted the United Nations action. To the present day, the conflict remains unresolved.
The Thrust of Communism
The most drastic impact of British withdrawal from colonial possessions, along with the withdrawal from theirs of other European powers, has been the thrust of communism. A host of ideologies were promulgated in the nineteenth century, most of them more or less socialistic and all of them erosive of civilization, for they were assaults upon the foundations of civilization—the inherited culture, the learning of the ages, revealed religion, the older institutions, and so on.
The most barbaric of these ideologies—excepting possibly anarchism—was the one promulgated by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels. It is the one that twentieth century communists claim to represent most faithfully. Once in power, communists are, of all socialists, the ones most willing to use force and violence to achieve their ends, particularly on the international scene. They are the ones who have taken advantage most tenaciously of the opportunities for the spread of power opened by the withdrawal of Britain and other colonial powers.
Indeed, there is a close connection between communist doctrine and the abandonment of empires by governments socialistic in character. Marxists have held that empires are instruments for capitalistic exploitation of backward peoples. Western socialists of whatever hue have accepted this charge at face value generally. One writer notes that in England an "idealistic picture of a Socialist Galahad riding to the rescue of the oppressed and enslaved Colonial Empire… had been presented in so much Socialist writing before and during the war…." It was not surprising, then, that "to the new generation of nationalist leaders arising in the Colonies it was a system of exploitation built up through the years by which the imperialist oppressors had waxed fat at the expense of backward peoples. Indeed, earlier generations of Socialists had told them so."5 Western socialists have played into the hands of the communists. Acting on general socialist premises, they have cut away empires as they gained the opportunity, and pressed generally for it to be done everywhere. As they have done so, the international communist movement has moved into these areas thrusting for control and the extension of the totalitarian power of communism.
A New World of Barbarism
The end of the British Empire has been accompanied by the spread of a new barbarism in the world. As Western power has been withdrawn, much of Africa has reverted to tribalism. Much of Asia has come directly under the Hammer and Sickle. Communists vie for power in Arab lands, and disorder spreads from land to land under the revolutionary impetus provided by Moscow and Peking. The security to property which governments once provided has gone from most of the world, and that individual liberty which it so effectively buttressed is in so many places a thing of the past. Britain was once the center from which ideas and practices for securing liberty and property were advanced around the world. This is no longer the case. An England under the pervasive influence of Fabian socialism has lost the power to protect civilization, the vision to discern its lineaments, and the will to take decisive stands against barbarism. The England that once was is no more.
The fall of England is not absolute, of course. It is relative to the powers of other nations, relative to strength and influence once wielded, relative to that place which she once occupied. There remains, of course, the relics of an empire in the Commonwealth of Nations. There remains the relic of British financial leadership in the world in the Sterling Bloc. Indeed, everywhere one examines, there are relics of former greatness: in universities which retain a vestige of former leadership, in a monarchy which is almost purely ceremonial, in a House of Lords which awaits the next blow to its position from Commons, of craftsmanship in such fine names as Rolls Royce, of religion as remain in a still established Church of England, of empire in ceremonial visits to out-of-the-way places by royalty and ministers. The habit of greatness can still be sighted in self-confident ambassadors, in literate if somewhat decadent writers, and even in an occasional will to lead expressed by some Britons. These are, however, faded reflections of glories past, as things stand.
There was even some economic revival in the 1950′s and going into the 1960′s. The Conservatives in power from 1951 to 1964 restored a modicum of domestic tranquility to the United Kingdom. There was even talk once again of British affluence. The value of the pound was stabilized on the world market in the interim between two socialist governments. The iron and steel industries were denationalized. Controls were already being relaxed in certain areas before the return of Conservatives, and they were much more generally removed thereafter. As rationing ended, so did the shortages it had produced. One historian notes that the "lot of the average English family improved. The 1950′s witnessed a housing boom, and by 1961 one family in four lived in a post-World War II dwelling. The scars of war disappeared…. The byproducts of the affluent society also included increasing numbers of supermarkets and other self-service stores…, the general acceptance of an annual two-week vacation for most families, and, by 1962, the ownership of a television set by four families in five."6 This renewed prosperity, of sorts, should be attributed to the efforts and energy of the English people and almost exclusively to private industry.
The return of Labour to power in 1964 under the guidance of Harold Wilson was the signal for new troubles and an accentuation of old ones. The pound has been devalued once more. The United States has been called on to help shore up the currency. Britain has suffered from the flight of physicians and other professions from a land of severely delimited opportunity. The will to nationalize is no longer very strong; indeed, there appears to be little enough enthusiasm for socialism itself. Yet, its tentacles are firmly fastened on the country.
What of the Future?
The time has not come, of course, to pronounce the fall of England as final. That England has fallen from its former greatness there should be no doubt. Whether that land will rise again to greatness, whether her people will lapse into the kind of historical slumber that has happened to many former great kingdoms and empires, or whether some foreign invader will arrive to smash the relics and drive the inhabitants into mountain redoubts no one can know at this time. The eastern branch of the Roman Empire survived for nearly a thousand years at Constantinople after Rome itself had fallen to the Barbarians. Spain is still a nation‑state several centuries after greatness has fled. Western Europe has had several rises and falls during the Christian Era, and this is more particularly true of France. There may always be an England, but the issue is by no means settled. There was a time when there was no England, and it may be so again. The islands have been there for ages, but they have had many and diverse inhabitants.
There is a sense in which we can be glad that the present England is not great and powerful. Such influence as a socialist government could give is hardly needed in the world. The welfare state is all too barren and lifeless to provide succor for the spirit of man. If England is to revive and prosper, it will surely be because her leaders and people have some great vision before them, something that appeals not only to the flesh but to the spirit, something that will instill discipline, that will call forth the best efforts of her people. There are, of course, demonic visions as well as good ones. Communism is such a demonic vision, and its prophets now move restlessly over the earth seeking minds to seduce. The British are under the sway of neither such a demonic vision nor of one that could provide again new impetus to civilization.
There is, however, in England’s great history both the key to that country’s revival and to the recovery of civilization. Surely, all men of good will hope that they will rediscover these great ideas and beliefs and give them vitality once more.
Planning on an international scale, even more than is true on a national scale, cannot be anything but a naked rule of force, an imposition by a small group on all the rest of that sort of standard and employment which the planners think suitable for the rest…. To undertake the direction of the economic life of people with widely divergent ideals and values is to assume responsibilities which commit one to the use of force; it is to assume a position where the best intentions cannot prevent one from being forced to act in a way which to some of those affected must appear highly immoral.
F. A. HAYEK, The Road to Serfdom