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Irving Howe

World Politics

Britain – An Epoch Ends

(3 March 1947)

From Labor Action, Vol. 11 No. 9, 3 March 1947, p. 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

So many premature litanies have been sung over the British Empire that one is hesitant to speak of the current British crisis as signifying the collapse of the empire! And yet ...

It has never before been in such a terrible situation; that much is certain. To the empire builders and glorifiers of the past, this would be a bleak day; were Rudyard Kipling or Cecil Rhodes to come to life again they would be appalled. For the empire – that once mighty work which ground the bones and blood of millions in Africa and Asia into pounds sterling – is today tottering so badly that it cannot even provide heat and light for the citizens of its capital city.

There is more than a touch of irony in that it is precisely the fact that Britain was the first major imperialist power in the world that today contributes so heavily to her downfall. The first power in which industrialism gained a clean-cut triumph, the first power in the modern era to gather under its flag subject lands and peoples throughout the globe, Britain has today fallen to the rank of a second-rate power with an obsolescent technology and a top-heavy economy badly dependent upon the rest of the world for its sheer existence.

That this tiny country, with an inadequate source of raw materials and exposed to wretched weather, should have become the once largest imperialist power in the world is itself an astounding fact. There are many reasons for this fact, but here we wish to mention only those two which are most important in terms of the current situation: England was the first major industrial power; and resultantly its acquisition of vast areas of colonial dependencies upon which it grew fat.

Today both of these assets are drying up. The industrial primacy of England has become a positive disadvantage. Those nations, the United States and Germany, which followed Britain on the path of industrialization, outstripped her; they developed British technology further than the British themselves and therefore were able, in view of their superior basis in natural wealth, to outstrip Britain.

Britain Now a Second-Rate Power

Today Britain is a nation the industrial plant of which is in deterioration. In a revealing dispatch in The New York Times of February 24, Michael Hoffman writes that Britain is moving toward a “steady slide into conditions of poverty unknown in the Western world in modern times.” Britain, he reports, “is faced, with disaster” unless it is able to continue and increase its export program by which it hopes to regain a position of economic solvency.

“An increase of forty per cent in the volume of exports must be accomplished this year to maintain even the low level of consumption that is now keeping people alive and able to work. The industries of this region (the industrial midlands – Ed.) must increase their exports by nearly two-thirds for the country to make that target ... Otherwise, Britain cannot feed herself, cannot supply her people with cotton, oil and other essential taw materials when the present credits are exhausted. Without these things her industrial economy would simply cease to exist.”

But how much longer can the British workers be half-starved and sweated to prostration in order to maintain this export program? “In Sheffield,” reports Hoffman, “there are more than 100,000 union members among the employees of the city’s high-grade steel and fabricating plants. Many of them are living in conditions that could be described only by a Dickens or portrayed only by a British version of Tobacco Road.”

How badly the industrial plant of Britain has deteriorated during the past several decades is indicated in Hoffman’s excellent report:

“The conditions of Britain’s provincial cities and factories comes as an appalling shock to an American observer – not in comparison with the best in the United States, but in comparison with the best in Central Europe, with war damage being discounted on both sides of the comparison. Britain is an old, run-down country ... the basic industries ... are moribund ...”

Is it any wonder then that Britain, so badly battered in the war and now a debtor to the United States, cannot compete with the giant, modern industries of the United States? Is it any wonder that it must try to accumulate reserves by means of heavy exports acquired at the price of the living standards of its workers?

The Shrinking British Empire

What was once the major source of the profits of British capitalism – its colonial empire – is today badly shrinking. British imperialism is being forced to abandon positions in India, in South America, in the Near East. This is not at all due, as Dorothy Thompson has been trying to establish, to the anti-imperialist position of the Labor Party. When the Labor Party can, it defends feverishly the maintenance of imperial rule, as witness Palestine.

The retreat of the empire is due rather to the following factors: (1) the internal disintegration of British economy, partly described above; (2) the continued revolt of the restive colonial peoples under British rule; and (3) the ever-present, if not always visible, pressure of rival imperialism, the U.S. and Stalinist Russia, to take over its positions.

Yet if the formal empire structure is disintegrating, that does not by a long shot mean the end of British imperialism. Even if, for instance, the British finally do withdraw their governmental apparatus and armies from India, they will still dominate India’s economic and thereby its political life, so long as a dependent capitalist economy continues to exist in India.

But the days of former “glory” are gone. The empire – and who can calculate how many millions of people it doomed to wretched lives and miserable slavery for the profit of The City? – is falling away, as is capitalist society in general. That is no tragedy at all; quite the contrary. What is a tragedy is the fact that the government in Britain which tries so hard to patch up the empire; which, despite its piecemeal nationalization of industries, does its best to perpetuate British capitalism – the tragedy, we say, is that in the popular eye this government should be identified as socialist and labor.

Churchill may introduce motions of censure in the House of Commons and fume with rhetorical indignation, but there is little he could do to save his beloved empire which Attlee is not already doing. The structure is crumbling; the job of socialists is to make a clean sweep of it and construct a new, free society in its place.

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