The Twilight Years
The Paradox of Britain Between the Wars
by Richard Overy
Viking, 544 pp., $35
A few months ago Peter Hitchens reminded his readers in the Daily Mail that a mere 70 years ago—in 1939 to be precise—“we were the world’s greatest empire. Half the globe used our currency, we controlled vast resources, and owned enormous foreign investments. . . . We possessed an enormous Navy, a modern Air Force, and, at the same time, the most advanced welfare state in the world.”
Anyone casually picking up this account of Britain in the interwar period might well conclude that Hitchens was referring to another country altogether. Of course, the key to the paradox is that while all the things in the Daily Mail piece are true, there can be a crucial difference between what a country actually is and how it feels about itself. Given particular circumstances, the possession of great power and loss of nerve can go together. This is what makes The Twilight Years of more than mere historical interest for the present-day American reader.
While Britain emerged technically victorious from the First World War, that conflict inflicted grievous wounds upon its society. Nearly a million young men were sacrificed in the killing machines of the Somme and the Marne, many from the very families from which the country’s leadership class had been drawn for generations. After 1919, the country was led by old (or at least older) men, most of whom lacked the energy and imagination to steer Britain successfully into the complicated shoals of the postwar period. Resources that might have been devoted to modernization of industry or new technologies had already been diverted into financing the war effort, and latent industrial strife postponed for the duration was suddenly given free rein. New antidemocratic ideologies from Eastern and Central Europe were beginning to poison the atmosphere in elite cultural and intellectual circles.
The Twilight Years is hardly a cheering volume. In some ways it amounts to a long slog through two decades of clinical depression—if a society as a whole can be likened to an individual. The major themes are the (prematurely announced) death of capitalism, a concern with eugenics, and the sudden discovery of psychoanalysis and the unconscious, the love affair with the distant (and mythical) Soviet Union, and finally, a “peace movement” which eventually foundered upon the realities of Hitler’s advances on the continent.
The anticapitalist motif is perhaps the principal thread that holds much of the politics together. Overy asserts that, particularly after 1929, there was “an unspoken assumption” in Britain—even among people who were not necessarily
Marxists—that “capitalism meant chaos, while planning equaled progress.” Moreover, the widely publicized assumption that capitalism always led to war opened a two-way conduit between Communists and fellow travelers on one hand, and pacifists on the other.
Fear of war was, of course, a natural and understandable concern—if not, indeed, obsession—for Great Britain in this period, and not only because of the huge losses suffered during the most recent conflict. Changes in technology (particularly the development of airpower and the sudden possibility of long-range bombing) suddenly stripped the island of a sense of physical security long granted by geography. A fact perhaps forgotten today, Overy writes, is that the antiwar movement in Britain was the largest popular cause during the interwar period, “crossing all conventional lines of party allegiance, social class, gender difference, and regional identity.”
Nonetheless, one cannot help being struck by the naïveté and unwisdom with which the peace movement attacked the problem. There was, for example, the Peace Pledge Union, which gathered millions of signatures, or the Peace Ballot, in which Britons were invited to vote against war—as if anybody was really “for” it. Great hopes were pinned on the League of Nations—until it failed to act after the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931. Sillier still was the notion that “collective security”—in other words, a paper alliance system linking Britain, France, the Soviet Union, and perhaps Czechoslovakia—combined with disarmament!—could somehow discourage voracious dictators like Hitler and Mussolini.
The peace movement collapsed slowly in the face of harsh realities. One was the Spanish Civil War, which caused many leftists to suddenly reexamine their pacifist convictions; another was the Munich agreement; yet another was the Hitler-Stalin Pact followed by the carving up of Poland which deprived advocates of “collective security” of their Soviet linchpin.
One of the central paradoxes of this period is the fact that, while the Communist party of Great Britain never attracted many followers, the Soviet Union itself was the subject of huge admiration by broad sections of British intellectual and public life. The Society for Cultural Relations Between the Peoples of the British Commonwealth and the USSR was founded in 1924; by the 1930s it could count among its luminaries Virginia Woolf, Bertrand Russell, Aldous Huxley, H. G. Wells, and John Maynard Keynes. Another organization, the Committee for Peace and Friendship with the USSR, included Ralph Vaughan Williams, Bernard Shaw, G. D. H. Cole, and John Strachey. The most important catch for Sovietphiles was, of course, Sidney and Beatrice Webb, at the time arguably the most important Socialist intellectuals in the English-speaking world. Their book, Soviet Communism: A New Civilisation? appeared in two hefty volumes in 1936. (The second edition appeared in the following year, with the question mark removed.) While Stalin’s Great Terror was consigning millions to the Gulag or execution squads, the Webbs were denying that the Soviet Union was a dictatorship at all but a special variety of political democracy. In her private correspondence Madame Webb was even more categorical: Commenting on the Moscow trials to H. G. Wells, she wrote that the issue was not whether the accused were guilty or innocent, “but will the counter-revolution be avoided?”
Overy admits that there was a double standard at work here. The same people who condemned concentration camps and political murders in Italy, Germany, and later Spain were speaking of countries with which many Britons could reasonably be expected to have some personal familiarity. No doubt this is true, but it is certainly not true that there was no information available on the facts of Soviet Russia in 1930s Britain. The best case he can make for these people—he obviously has considerable sympathy for them—is that many people cherished “the ideal of the Soviet Union in order to hasten the reform of Britain.”
Ironically, the war that so many on the left worked to avoid in the 1930s ended up being the very instrument by which Britain was transformed in directions they had long wished: the dismantling of empire, the embrace of economic planning, and a vast expansion of the welfare state.
Overy probably could have found a way to say this in a long article, but for those who have a morbid interest in a morbid age, this volume will hold out a certain interest, particularly since so many of the assumptions—taking into account differences of time and place—that informed Britain’s late-imperial intellectual classes have lately found such resonance in our universities, in our mainstream media, and now, indeed, in the highest reaches of our government.
Mark Falcoff is a resident scholar emeritus at the American Enterprise Institute.