I’m reading Correlli Barnett’s The Collapse of British Power. Barnett, born in 1927, was one of the more provocative English historians to emerge in the post-war years. He was a military historian but his most interesting work combines economic, social, political and military history.
The Collapse of British Power, published in 1972, was the beginning of his four-book sequence The Pride and the Fall. There is so much of interest in this book that it’s probably best to deal with just one element at a time and to leave the other elements to later posts.
The Collapse of British Power deals with the decline of British power and influence during the years between the two world wars, and with the utter failure of successive British governments to halt this decline or to avoid the coming catastrophe of the Second World War.
One of the more controversial claims he makes concerns the British education system in late Victorian and Edwardian times. The inadequacy of education for the working classes deprived Britain of the skilled workers she needed in order to modernise her increasingly antiquated and uncompetitive industrial base. The situation for the upper classes was equally disastrous. The public schools and the universities focused almost entirely on the classics. They produced generations of young men who could quote Virgil but whose knowledge of science, modern history and even geography was virtually non-existent.
Even worse, the public schools were not rally interested in imparting knowledge at all. They saw their function as being to provide a religious and moral education. Learning to do the right thing was what mattered.
Barnett makes the point that all this was essentially a Victorian phenomenon. Prior to this life at an English public school was a rather rough-and-tumble affair. The rise of Evangelical Christianity changed all that. Reforming headmasters like Dr Thomas Arnold at Rugby sought to make school life a much more structured, much more moral and much more religious affair. The emphasis was on games, on learning sportsmanship, and on absorbing concepts like honour and duty. These are certainly not bad things but the trouble is the pupils learnt little else. They knew Latin and Greek and they knew how to behave like a Christian gentleman. They knew that winning was not important – playing the game in the right spirit was what mattered. Barnett claims that never before in human history had entire generations of the ruling class been so thoroughly indoctrinated with a particular world-view.
The boys educated at these public schools would become the men who led Britain during the 1920s and 1930s. They were hopelessly unfitted to lead a modern industrial nation, and they were ludicrously ill-equipped for the worlds of politics and diplomacy. British industry continued to decline and British politics was dominated by men who were quite unable to deal with the real world. Most fatally, they were unable to deal with the leaders of other countries who considered national self-interest to be more important than playing the game. The men who led Britain in the interwar years considered treaties to be solemn pledges. They believed that having joined the League of Nations Britain was morally obliged to honour its commitments to the League. The idea that the leaders of other countries might not display the same sporting spirit did not occur to them. As a result Britain found itself hopeless outmanoeuvred by the cynical hardheaded leaders of countries such as Germany, Italy, France and the United States.
This of course has considerable relevance to our own times, when children are indoctrinated in philosophies and world-views that have no connection whatsoever with the real world. They will be entirely unable to face the challenge of reality, just as the British leaders of the 20s and 30s failed to face that challenge,