View from Brussels: Britain’s longstanding envy of Germany

Maybe Brexit is a time to take stock of the past, before marching into the future. Germany, its economy and technology, has often been a subject of envy. One common thesis is that Britain spent the entire 20th century in decline. But maybe ‘declinists’ underestimate the technocratic strengths of postwar Britain?

Britain is at a crossroads. Yet the British newspapers, from this European writer’s perspective, find it hard to get a grip on important things. What I do see in the British media is the rearing of the old familiar head of jealousy and inferiority complex towards Germany.

In the Autumn Statement, Chancellor Phillip Hammond pointed out how German labour productivity is 30 per cent higher than Britain’s. In other words, German workers finish by Thursday what it takes British workers till the end of Friday to complete. This was an unacceptable state of affairs. Measures are being taken to reverse the situation.

Higher unemployment rates raise productivity rates: apparently because it sorts the inefficient workers out of the system. Maybe that can explain some of France’s higher productivity, but not Germany’s. Germany’s dole queues are no longer than Britain’s.

To those of us old enough, it is 1979 all over again. Margaret Thatcher was totally fascinated by the (West) German economic miracle. She feared Germany and respected it at the same time. She read the books of right-wing historian Correlli Barnett who admired everything German. He has been described as Britain’s only Bismarckian nationalist historian.

In Barnett’s highly influential thesis, published in books and essays in the 1970s and 1980s, Britain had been falling behind for at least a hundred years. It had had a head start in the Industrial Revolution because of cheap coal and inventive, practical tinkerers. But then, as the century progressed and the industrial economy became more complex, Britain fell behind in the provision of technical schooling for engineers and by the early 20th century Germany had taken huge leaps in new industries such as chemicals and optical glass; Britain retrenched into its preferential access markets in its Empire.

That survival strategy foundered after World War 2 when Britain surrendered its empire. In the Barnett thesis, deluded by apparent victory in that war, which was really won by America and Russia, the British elite had this fantasy of being able to burden its already weak economy with the welfare state of the New Jerusalem to reward the workers-in-uniform who had won the ‘People’s Victory’ in 1945. Britain was led by a political class which had good, egalitarian intentions, but knew nothing of the real world: even in the Labour party, Oxbridge graduates in the arts dominated and they understood nothing about technology or wealth creation, as Britain fell ever further behind its rivals. It had won the war – just – but was now losing the peace. By 1979, it was time to get real. 

Anyway, I have to say, as a child of the eighties, I think I took to Barnett’s version of history – and Germany’s position as paragon of virtue, discipline, technology and rectitude, which Britain had to emulate. So it is bracing to read a historian whose life mission, it seems, has been to try and prove Barnett wrong.

Professor David Edgerton is a historian of technology associated with King’s College London, and formerly of Imperial. In several books, and numerous articles over 25 years or more, he has developed the thesis that 20th century Britain was not at all a society of two cultures with the wrong, otherworldly culture in charge, but a very successful warfare-welfare state with more planes and bigger ships than Germany in 1940. Edgerton argues that Britain was surprisingly well prepared for war in 1939, with a well funded army and navy, the “most powerful of the great powers” (p58, Warfare State Britain: 1920-1970) He writes “rather than ‘disarming’ in the interwar years Britain kept arms spending high and focused on the most modern military technologies. Rather than leading to ‘appeasement’, liberal internationalism, which had a strong political-economic core, was not only anti-Nazi but militantly so.”

The German army was not the technological juggernaut often imputed to it. The picture of the hopeless British army that escaped Dunkirk in small boats, the “fussy little steamers” of JB Priestley’s radio broadcast, was misleading. The British army was always motorised; the German army was always horse-drawn. While everyone knows that Germany had some of the best tanks, Britain was more efficient at using given resources to produce more of them. German victories on the battlefield had a lot to do with the élan of the German soldier, while logistics and the coordination of vast technological resources of war became, after Britain had licked its Dunkirk wounds, the British (and American) speciality. In one key passage in Warfare State Britain, Edgerton writes:

“We know that the German forces, especially in the Second World War, were much less equipment intensive than the British; we also know that it was the British who centred their air force on the idea of strategic bombing and not the Germans. Most remarkably, Stephen Bungay concludes in a recent study of the Battle of Britain that the RAF, not the Luftwaffe, was run by hard-bitten professionals, that the British were the better prepared and the better users of technology, that the British fought with discipline and control while the Germans relied on individual élan, that the British were team players and the Germans individualistic cultivators of the culture of the hunt, and that the British were ruthless and determined while the Germans were the jousting knights of the air.”

Britain was better organised, better able to use modern technology – think radar – more understanding of the importance of technology in war, more efficient at converting civilian resources to war, and more ruthless. Everything true of the British was also true of the Americans cousins: the Anglo-Saxons were both experts at total war. But we know this of America. Something of the myth of a bucolic people who won the war in a fit of absentmindedness still clings to the British.

So much for myth-making about the British in the war, there was a myth-making about the British after it, thinks Edgerton. The British political class that came after the war was not a bunch of do-gooding humanistic naifs who were clueless about how to pay one’s way in the future. On the contrary, scientists were prominent in government after the war. The war upgraded the importance of scientists and experts over generalists and politicians, as Edgerton shows in his analysis of the structure of the Whitehall bureaucracy. And a kind of war mobilisation mentality lasted in Whitehall for a long time after the war.

The British ruling class applied considerable skills to building of a welfare state in combination with the continued growth of the warfare state, which did not finally weaken until the 1970s. The civil servants were not anti-scientific dilettantes but true believers in the benefits of technology to create wealth and prosperous living standards, through civilian technology converted from the spearhead of original British defence research, building on wartime R&D. Strangely though, in contrast to American history-writing, there is hardly “any allusion to the military scientific complex in all the vast commentary on the British state”, writes Edgerton.

Thanks to generous defence contracts, the postwar British state directed sophisticated research in aviation and nuclear power and nuclear weaponry that led the world in many ways. America was regarded as the true rival and British scientists believed they had to leapfrog the bigger country through better innovations to compensate for America’s economies of scale, so Britain went straight into jet bombers and led the United States by two years in nuclear deterrent strategy.

When prime minister Harold Wilson – who believed cabinet colleague Richard Crossman’s warnings of declinism – launched his White Heat of Technology stuff in 1964, Britain already had a highly state-directed technological development economy. One amazing statistic is that Oxford had more men to women students in 1964 than in 1924, 40 years earlier. The reason was that British universities had a greater proportion of science and engineering-oriented subjects being taught in 1964 compared to 1924; and there was the usual bias of male candidates in the science subjects. The popular mind recalls flower power and Mick Jagger, but actually sixties Britain was a thoroughly science and technology-oriented society. Only in 1970 was the ratio of warfare- to welfare-spending back to the level it was in the 1930s, says Edgerton.

Wilson’s boffins eventually concluded, though, that high R&D investment – the highest in Europe, according to the president of the Royal Society Patrick Blackett in 1968 – did not in fact translate into economic growth, at least not any more. While Britain was more prosperous than its neighbours in the 1950s and early 60s, it truly was a poorer country than its rivals in 1970, but that wasn’t because it lacked innovative science and technology projects or the state commitment to fund them. Britain won, in this period, more Nobel prizes than France or Germany. “The most straightforward inspection of the figures yielded the uncomfortable conclusion that Britain did a great deal of R&D and yet had a relatively low rate of economic growth,” Edgerton declares.

The high R&D spending mattered less, perhaps, than the inability to commercialise the clever inventions pouring out of laboratories – perhaps the economically debilitating effect of the culture of secrecy that was a hangover of the war.

This column has been about the past, but of course we are interested in Britain’s future, standing as we are at the crossroads at Brexit. Britain’s future, and the role technology will have in it, deserves more than just one column. But I can’t help thinking that, before you know where you are going, it is a good idea to understand where you have just come from. Edgerton concludes that all too often British politicians drew upon mythologies of the past, he calls them “anti histories” written by not very astringent historians. “Two cultures” CP Snow was one myth-maker, Correlli Barnett another. Edgerton writes: “Such anti-histories involve a gross distortion of the historical record by denying the strength of technocracy in Britain and overestimating the significance of opposition to them.”

My take-home message is not quite worked out yet. But I think I will be something along these lines. I am not saying Edgerton’s anti-declinist alternative history of the 20th century gets it all right, but he is surely right to point out the oversimplifications and omissions in Barnett’s account.

The message Barnett gave the Thatcher era was that Britain had to be a more ruthless, organised and competitive society, more like Germany, focused more on technology and discipline. That Britain had to “get real”. Britain was too lazy and soft, led by politicians and civil servants who were hopelessly out of touch with scientific and economic realities. But maybe Barnett was wrong.

And that this assessment was based on misconstrued ideas of what both Britain and Germany were. Under Thatcher, Britain reformed in the direction of imagined Teutonic ‘realism’ and ‘discipline’. But guess what? Today Germans have shorter working hours and work more productively. And they are richer, still. Quality of life is superior – still. While Britain seemed to have divested itself of a successful technocratic society and replaced it with what – a society based on the fickle industry of financial services and inflated consumer spending? I am not quite sure how, but something went wrong in the analysis.

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