Downhill All the Way

An adroit new history of the British Empire in the post-Victorian era

The late Christopher Hill—arguably not A. N. Wilson's beau ideal as a historian—once told me a small joke in his mildly stuttering style. It seemed that the fifth or sixth husband of Barbara Hutton had been interviewed on his nuptial night, and when asked how he felt at being the latest to possess the celebrated Woolworth heiress, had replied, "Well, I know what I have g-got to d-do, but I am not quite sure how I am going to make it i-i-i-interesting."

Some of the same apprehensiveness may descend upon anyone who undertakes to write about the eclipse of British power in the first half of the twentieth century. The basic outlines—or, if you prefer, the essential holds and grapples and maneuvers—are tolerably well known. Death of the Old Queen in 1901; a nasty and expensive war in South Africa presaging a deadly rivalry with her vicious grandson, the Kaiser; a "Great War" that bled the country white; two decades of stupidity and drift marked by fatuities such as the restoration of the gold standard and the myopic placation of unappeasable dictators; another cataclysmic war, which caused the reluctant surrender of global supremacy to the United States. Honor partly rescued by titanic standing of Winston Churchill and unexpectedly long reign of a second Elizabeth; both these wasting assets subject to sharply diminishing returns.

Wilson does not depart very much from this well-beaten track. Indeed, he more than once cites, and actually rather lamely concludes with, Dean Acheson's much quoted remark that Britain had "lost an empire and not yet found a role." That fairly banal observation, made at West Point in 1962, might have been overlooked if it had not so infuriated Churchill. It is also outside the ostensible scope of Wilson's book, which closes with the early 1950s and suggests that a trilogy (including it and its predecessor, The Victorians) may be in train.

I must say that I hope so. Wilson does indeed know how to make it interesting. He manages this by an adroit alternation between the macrocosmic and the microcosmic. At one point he takes us on a tour of the great British Empire Exhibition at Wembley, in 1924, with lavishly exotic pavilions provided by India and Malaya and a sturdy sculpture, in pure Canadian butter, of the Prince of Wales. (It is easy to forget that Britain ended the First World War with more territories under its control than it had enjoyed in 1914.) Then we are shown the 1936 funeral of the first Communist member of Parliament, an Indian Parsee named Shapurji Saklatvala; the precincts of the crematorium were still decked with red flags when the next customer's cortege arrived—containing the coffin of Rudyard Kipling. By that time the loyal and butter-sculpted Prince of Wales had mutated into the willful and mutinous King Edward VIII, whose sexual thrall to the Baltimore divorcee Wallis Simpson was to provoke the first ever abdication. (Wilson relates the last words of old King George V, father to this impetuous boy, and expresses the usual doubt that he ever asked, "How is the empire?" as he lay dying. He does not canvass the idea that the expiring monarch actually inquired, "How's the vampire?": an allusion to the designing woman who had already undermined the throne.) And he has no patience with the well-attested view that young Edward was "a selfish sybarite, a Nazi sympathizer," saying that "history" has a "babyish" need to believe this, when (as he does not mention) it was the conclusion reluctantly arrived at by the eminent royal historian Philip Ziegler.

No matter. Wilson may also be unfair to E. M. Forster, but he writes in the spirit of Forster's old maxim "Only connect." In particular, and in a very clever way, he allows us to see all the prefigurations of that rising American influence, which, slowly accreting, was to burst upon the post-1945 British as if it had come as a complete surprise. The first female to take her seat in the House of Commons (Nancy Astor) was an American. Winston Churchill's influential mother was an American. Kipling's wife was an American. Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, the former from the English music hall and the latter from the Deep South, are imaginatively represented by Wilson as a duo based on Henry James's Anglo-American ambiguities. And it made little difference that atom-splitting, radar, and television were British discoveries, since like jazz and cinema the main uptake of all the big ideas was on the American side of the Atlantic. (The British abandoned television broadcasts as soon as the Second World War began, thus conducting the propaganda fight largely on radio: a medium dominated by an Irish-American named William Joyce, or "Lord Haw Haw," who transmitted from Hitler's Berlin.) There is a wider Hibernian subtext to the story. The two British teak-heads responsible for the Amritsar massacre, in April of 1919, and therefore for the moral end of the British dominion in India, were General Reginald Dyer and Governor Michael O'Dwyer. Both were Irish-Protestant Unionists. It was the Orange Unionists who defended them in Parliament, at a time when Ireland itself was terrorized by the Black and Tans, and it was Sir Henry Wilson—leader of the 1914 Ulster mutiny—who pronounced that if Ireland was lost, then the whole imperial game was up. Reading this book, I was suddenly put in mind of its illustrious forerunner, George Dangerfield's The Strange Death of Liberal England. Like Dangerfield, A. N. Wilson can grasp the encapsulating anecdote and the numinous coincidence, and capture the manner in which tragedy gibbers happily over the shoulders of the group photographed on the well-kept lawn.

Ninety-two years on, and liberals, conservatives, and Marxists can all reckon August of 1914 as the month from which everything measurable is—to annex the title of Leonard Woolf's autobiography—downhill all the way. As often as Wilson counsels us against the fallacy of scanning the past through the reversed telescope of the present, he is unable to free himself from this crucial—and just—conclusion. The mechanization of warfare, the glorification of the state, the mass mobilization of peoples, the advantage given to demagogues, and the permission to engage in genocide under the color of warfare: all this would have raised the eyebrows of the most self-confident Victorian imperialist.

In counterpoint, then, to the grandiose general globalizing of "telegrams and anger," ultimatums and campaigns, wars and alarms, Wilson stresses the quiet, discreet, private, faintly annoying way in which many of the British so often managed to find the situation desperate but not serious. He spends time in the company of reform-minded rural vicars of the Church of England (one or two of them satisfyingly deranged), and with those charitable and voluntary associations that began to repair the damage inflicted by Victorian slums and the Victorian factory system. Perhaps too much aware that the usual model for this habit of "decency" and modesty is the austere figure of George Orwell, he tries too hard to be different from the norm and makes the amazing claim that The Road to Wigan Pier was a "treasured text" of the Blackshirts. (A swift glance at the relevant footnote reveals this weird notion to be based on a private conversation with Sir Oswald Mosley's widow—an unrepentant blue-blooded Nazi bitch who most probably had not read the book and who certainly had not noticed Orwell's despair, in its pages, at the way in which some workers were stupid enough to be gulled by her husband.) Still, and at a time when Sir Oswald Mosley was being taken seriously, about 70,000 European Jews managed to make an emergency home by crossing the Channel. Wilson mentions Popper, Pevsner, Solti, Freud, Menuhin, and Elton (and could have added Koestler and Deutscher, and also have mentioned how many were interned and maltreated), but probably captures the awkwardness best by relating the story of Eva Neurach in the clutches of a hostess.

"Where are you from?"
"Ah, well, never mind."

It is almost certain that the questioner in the above case was wondering how to be civil to a German, not a Jew. But the insistent politeness and the tradition of uncomfortable hospitality still count for something. (I am told that the great hostess Sybil Colefax, finding Albert Einstein among her guests at one such soiree, was instructed to put him at his ease and began by asking, "Did you hear that mad old Woofles has left Pug-Wug completely flat—and run off with Binky-poo?" There is a reason why Evelyn Waugh can be regarded as a social historian of this epoch.)

The cover of the book shows the chiaroscuro photograph, ineffaceable from modern memory, of Wren's masterpiece, St. Paul's, as it was enshrouded by smoke and flame during a Nazi bombing raid. But in his discussion of the Second World War—still regarded by many British people and by even more Americans as the crisis that justified and legitimized everything—Wilson adopts a tone of skepticism that approaches sourness. In the first place, the war could have been avoided by a less selfish and supine policy during the preceding decades. In the second place, its conduct was often very close to criminal, in particular as regards the immolation of German cities and civilians. In the third place, having begun with the appeasement of Nazis and Fascists, it closed with a capitulation to Stalinism and a sellout to the nascent American empire. There have been several growling ultra-Tory voices raised among British historians in the past decade to the same effect. Some of these voices are reactionary in the strict sense of the term, and nostalgic for both Joseph and Neville Chamberlain. Wilson takes the view that Britain is well shot of the colonies and believes that the social reforms of the postwar Labour government were noble in both intention and effect. That makes a nice change.

The late John Muggeridge, son of Malcolm, described to me once how he had been dispatched to Kenya in the early 1950s, and had voyaged there by way of Malta, Cyprus, and the Suez Canal zone without ever having to carry a British passport. It is amazing to reflect both how recent all this was and how long ago it all seems. Wilson has the ability to evoke the past without condescension, and to measure its passing without sentimentality. Where this will take him with what seems like the necessary succeeding volume, I cannot easily tell. Just ahead lies the Britain of Margaret Thatcher—who had a soft spot, if not indeed a hard spot, for what she termed "Victorian values." And this must give place to the Britain of Tony Blair, who re-created social democracy by fusing it with post-Thatcherism. Both of them, in their different ways, disproved Dean Acheson, by showing that Britain had the ability to act as a medium between Washington and Brussels. Both of them also showed that some shells were left in the British post-colonial arsenal. And then there is the question—oddly unaddressed by Wilson—of the English language as a lingua franca for everything from air-traffic control to the Internet. I believe I can guess that Wilson is no friend to the American global mission. (In a rare concession to sheer or mere euphemism, he describes Chirac's and Schröder's reaction to the Iraq operation as one of "skeptical alarm.") But then, it may be Barbara Hutton who has the last word. When the Titanic, that triumph of British shipbuilding, was first launched, it was shown as being greater in length than even the Woolworth Building in New York—then the tallest skyscraper in the world. Within a few decades Hutton had given her mansion in London to the American embassy for use as an ambassadorial residence, easily outdoing in magnificence anything that could be offered by Carlton House Terrace. And within a few years of that my friends' parents were abandoning the traditional corner shop and country store to do what they used to despise: shop at Woolworth's. Britishness suffered great battlefield and market reverses, but it was also five-and-dimed away, and perhaps that's the detail that makes it interesting.