Saturday, 21 February 2009

'Alien to British Culture': A Myopic View of Britain's History and Society

I have just started reading 'The Strange Death of Socialist Britain' (1992) by Patrick Cosgrave (1941-2001). I read the book that inspired the title of 'The Strange Death of Liberal Britain' (1935) by George Dangerfield which I read about eight years ago. Both books look at how and why what seemed to be the political and even social consensus of an era faded away. Dangerfield was looking back to the period of 1906-14 in which the Liberal Party was in power and brought about social welfare reforms. In addition, there seemed to be a consensus about a liberal society and democracy which following the First World War and the dictatorships of the 1920s and 1930s, people were nostalgic for. However, as Dangerfield shows that despite the popular image, in fact Britain of the early 1910s was facing immense social upheaval with pressure from organised labour, female suffrage supporters and those seeking an independent Ireland, that some feared the country was verging on civil war or a revolution.

Cosgrave looks at a different period, stretching from 1945 victory the Labour Party and the mixed economy and welfare state that was created and seemed to be accepted right across the political spectrum up to the end of the period of Thatcher in power and the unexpected defeat of the Labour Party in the 1992 election. That period is seen as the last gasp of Socialism in Britain and Labour was only able to come back to power in 1997 by turning into a post-Thatcherist party focused on an individual. I have long argued that the Labour Party, not even New Labour, came to power in 1997, rather, the Blairite Party came into office along the lines of a Gaullist or Peronist party seen in other countries. Of course the current economic crisis with the governments of the UK and other countries taking over banks and companies suggests that maybe Socialism in practice is not entirely dead.

Given that Cosgrave is a biographer of Margaret Thatcher, Lord Carrington, Enoch Powell, R.A. Butler and Sir Winston Churchill, I was not expecting a liberal or left-wing appreciation of the period under scrutiny. However, even given that it was written at the time when Thatcherism seemed to be scattering all rivals to the winds it seems an astoundingly narrow, almost deluded approach. Cosgrave goes beyond anything the Thatcher regime voiced. It soon becomes apparent that he feels that the loss of the British Empire 1947-80 or there abouts as being a huge error and that in some way Britain should have clung to its colonies, not least, because independence only led to dictatorship and wars, of course neglecting the reasonably peaceful development of India, the most populous of Britain's former colonies after the 1940s. Cosgrave wants all or nothing. He did not want the colonies to go and yet he sees the Commonwealth, the looser connection between elements of the former British Empire as a huge error too, but more on that in a minute.

Now anyone who believes that Britain (or any European state) could have clung to its empire in Africa and Asia has absolutely no idea of history. If the American War of Independence 1776-83 and Spain's loss of its American colonies in the 19th century show nothing about trying to keep hold of colonies as they mature, then Cosgrave and others should simply look to the experiences of those countries who did try to retain their colonies beyond the due time. Not only does it ignore the ongoing conflicts in many colonies in the 1880s-1910s but also what happened after 1945. France fought in Indochina effectively 1945-54 and in Algeria 1954-62. These conflicts led to over 178,000 locals and French dying and another 225,000 being wounded; torture was used and there were massacres in Paris in 1961 and in Oran in 1962. It also came close to plunging France into a civil war 1958-60. Is this the kind of experience Cosgrave wanted for Britain? Another example is the Portuguese Colonial War 1961-74 between the colonial power of Portugal which had held colonies in Africa for over 400 years, far longer than Britain, and the states of Mozambique and Angola fighting for independence. This killed untold thousands of locals, over 8000 Portuguese troops and led to the displacement of over a million people. Even closer to home, it can be argued that Britain's continued occupation of Northern Ireland (and I know this is a controversial argument as many argue that that state is entirely a part of the UK) but that conflict from the start of the 'Troubles' in 1969 to 1998 led to the death of over 3000 people and brought the conflict to mainland Britain in bombing campaigns. Does not Cosgrave understand that if Britain had tried to cling to every colony it would have suffered such an experience many times over. Perhaps he wants a police state under martial law, because that is the kind of UK you would have ended up with if Britain had not let its colonies go, not some kind of paternalist dream he seems to subscribe to.

Then Cosgrave has a problem with the Commonwealth, well as he puts it, not the entire Commonwealth but the ''new' or coloured Commonwealth'. He feels it was wrongly constructed because it permitted free immigration of people from those countries to the UK and so leading to 'large pockets of immigrants alien to British culture'. Now that is poor analysis and basic bigotry on so many levels. For a start he seems to think that immigration to the UK started with the arrival of the ship the 'Empire Windrush' in 1948, whereas of course people have been moving into the UK for many centuries. People came from Africa and the Middle East with the Romans and right throughout Britain's involvement with the slave trade. Refugees from France came in the 16th century and refugees from China and Russia were coming through the 19th century. Too many people look in askance when a television series does not show an all white population in Victorian Britain especially in the cities, but of course an all-white population is simply a myth it was never like that as you can see easily from paintings of the time. The Commonwealth did not create immigration, in fact it made it harder to immigrate into the UK. Under the British Empire at its height, an era when passports were restricted to those autocracies like Russia and the Ottoman Empire, people moved freely around the empire. They might face prejudice but at that stage there were not legal restrictions.

Like many people Cosgrave makes the mistake that the British Nationality Act of 1948 somehow opened doors that had been closed. In fact it simply regulated relations between countries that were now not part of an empire but had a different, increasingly independent relationship with Britain. Decades after the Republic of Ireland was formed, Irish people still have rights to stand as candidates in the UK and vote, and a whole raft of rights as if we were still connected and not two sovereign states. What would have been Cosgrave's alternative to the evolving Commonwealth, to say 'well, yes, I know we conquered you, exploited you, messed up your economy and got you to fight in our wars for us, but I am sorry, we owe you nothing, you have no right to come to the UK'. To have closed access in that way would have seemed incredibly mean-spirited and Cosgrave forgets that even Conservatives of that era did not see the world in the harsh terms that he does. Those countries such as France and Portugal who fought bitter wars of decolonisation, even they formed communities with their former colonies, so Britain would have appeared peculiar not to have done the same. Of course Cosgrave's 'me first' attitude to the states of the Commonwealth is the same as his attitude to workers too.

Cosgrave forgets that economic migration works like a lot of economics through supply and demand. Immigrants would not have been brought to the UK (Enoch Powell himself despite his racism, brought West Indian nurses to work in the health service) if there were not jobs for them. Cosgrave forgets that until the economic crises of the 1970s, Britain like most of western Europe had 'full' employment (usually reckoned to be 92-97% of the working population in employment, there is deemed to be a need for 'transitional' unemployment as people move between jobs) and that was with the immigrants he loathes. Britain without immigration would (as it had done in the late 1940s when it experienced labour shortages in many key industries) have faced difficulties in its transport, health and retail sectors in the 1950s and 1960s. There were insufficient white UK people to do the jobs needed by the booming economy, especially at the wage rates employers were willing to pay. Cosgrave forgets this too, that despite of his love of the Thatcherite principle of a flexible labour force willing (or compelled) to work at the lowest cost to an employer possible, that low wages promote immigration. Cosgrave is clearly wrapped up in the attitude that the white British population shop accept its 'station' and do poor jobs at low wages and certainly not complain (he loathes trade unions as much as he does immigrants). It is noticeable how many Polish workers have returned to Poland now the British economy is suffering. Of course writers like Cosgrave believe there is something inherently attractive about Britain that we need to repel those unlucky not to have been born here from languishing in the wonders of Britain. This is, of course, why immigration into Britain in recent years has almost been matched by emigration of Britons especially to France, Spain, the USA and Australia.

Cosgrave also makes an error when he portrays the culture of immigrants to Britain as 'alien' to British culture. For a start, what is British culture? I have debated this before, but it is certain that it is not something static. Even if people have a nostalgia for a Britain of the past, it is an edited past (for example with the black faces and malnourished removed from the picture). British culture is diverse and constantly evolves. Immigrants have always been part of that and have been assimilated in the UK faster than in some other countries, Germany being a notable example. Of course immigrants by definition are people with 'get-up-and-go' as they have travelled hundreds or thousands of kilometres to get here. The passive people who accept their place in the world are those still back in India or Jamaica. By definition immigrants want to get on and want their children to become doctors and not work the long hours they worked. Of course this eagerness to shake up society and to pull your family up social levels upsets Cosgrave no matter what ethnicity the individual trying to achieve it. Here he again marks himself out from a strong strand of Conservative tradition which encourages the individual and their family (even Margaret Thatcher lauded families) to prosper and get on and sees the Conservative way as a better way to promote such advancement rather than the 'Nanny state' controls they associate with Labour. Cosgrave is a pre-Disraelian Tory and seems to favour a feudal hierarchy with no chance of advancement. Of course with his bigoted, racialist (as opposed to racist) approach he could not accept 'coloured' immigrants gettting off the bottom rung. In addition, many immigrant families whether they felt they should or because they genuinely believed in it, were stronger advocates of elements seen as being at the heart of British culture such as church attendance and sports like cricket than most white British families. Of course this stemmed from how such things were transmitted across the Empire and remain even now in the Commonwealth. In particular to speak of Commonwealth immigrants as being 'alien' to British culture is most misguided as their arrival here often speaks of their faith and adherence to that culture in a way that people arriving from other countries would find impossible.

I suppose I am not surprised that I picked up this copy of Cosgrave's book for £1 (reduced from £16.95). I was hoping for something that came close to Dangerfield's account and analysis and instead found a book which is even out-of-step with the contemporary Conservative view of society and recent history and tends towards being an attempt at a respectable history from the BNP (British National Party) perspective. Of course you can argue that the whole basis of his book is on a faulty foundation and that there never was a Socialist Britain. The welfare state built on the Liberal social welfare policies of the 1910s; Keynes was a Liberal and certainly not a Socialist and what we saw by the end of the 1940s was not Socialist economics with a directed economy, it was kind of Keynesian approach though prosperity meant many elements of Keynesianism were not needed until the mid-1970s. Nationalisation is seen as being Socialist economics, but again the approach adopted to nationalised industries was one of being at arm's length which was part of the problem and so the form was little different to the rationalisation of the railways carried out by the Conservatives in the 1920s or the muncipal gas boards of the 19th century. British foreign policy was not Socialist. Decolonisation was pressed most strongly by Franklin D. Roosevelt, US President and the Conservative governments oversaw far more decolonisation than Labour ever did. Labour was anti-Soviet and brought Britain into NATO and kept it out of the ECSC which formed the basis of the EEC and thus the EU. It was the Conservatives who moved Britain to participating in Europe. So, one can look hard for a Socialist Britain and not find one.

It would be more accurate to have titled Cosgrave's book, 'The Strange Death of Tory Democracy Britain' as what we saw from 1975/9 onwards was actually the overthrowing of the Disraelian tradition of the Conservative Party (which spent 48 years of the 20th century in power and another 20 years in coalition governments, usually in a dominant position) by the New Right and how far that marks a jump from the kind of society the party that tends to be in power most often in the UK wants to try to foster. Given that I would argue that we need another Attleean revolution now (i.e. a Liberal one) to deal with the financial crisis and its human consequences, it is important to blow away the false divide that authors like Cosgrave have put up and see in fact that we have experienced first the Conservatives then Labour be shorn of their social conscience so dumping us into a situation where greed dominated. As to rising bigotry, well that fills the headlines today and needs to be challenged by us all. Given that Cosgrave has irritated me so quickly I can imagine I am going to be stimulated to write more about this doyen of Thatcherism.


MCG said...

Have a look at Cosgrave's obituary (if you haven't already) - he was quite a character:

Rooksmoor said...

MCG, thanks for this. I was so irritated by his writing that I did not do the usual background research on him. I would be intrigued to read his 'Buchan style' novels and wonder if they have the bigotry of the 1910s brought back for the 1990s. He certainly appears to have been a character, but what I find most interesting is how much he saw himself as being in the essence of British Conservatism, yet in fact he was an individual who marks out a sharp divide in Conservative views and was far out-of-step with the heritage of that party which to some extent David Cameron despite his ineffectualness is more in touch with.

I suppose I will always be unhappy with someone like Cosgrave as he reminds me too much of those young fanatical Thatcherites I met in the 1980s and 1990s who, despite the suffering to millions of people that Thatcherism had caused, would be incredulous if you did not accept that such policies had been 'necessary'. Of course, none of them had been made unemployed or suffered the kind of poverty the 1980s brought to so many people.