The Competitiveness of Nations in a Global Knowledge-Based Economy

Book Review, The Economist April 25, 1981, p.111


English Culture and the Decline of the Industrial Spirit, 1850 - 1980

By Martin J. Wiener.

CUP. 217 pages. 9.95. Available from CUP, New York.


What kind of person said the following in a speech in the 1940s?

I believe that the worship of material values is the fatal disease from which our age is suffering, and that, if we do not eradicate this worship, it will inevitably destroy our whole society and not even leave us any business to discuss.  We must steadfastly keep on reminding ourselves all the time that material efficiency is only a means and not an end.

Are these the words of a high-minded socialist?  A country vicar?  Possibly a member of the royal family, in sententious mood?

No, none of these.  The reference to business provides a clue.  They are the words of Samuel Courtauld, a prominent British industrialist evincing that suspicion of the modern world and those self-doubts about the capitalist ethic and material progress that have distinguished British businessmen from their opposite numbers in other countries since at least the 1850s.  The Crystal Palace had scarcely been built when there set in a powerful reaction against the very industrial civilization it stood for.  Britain’s business was not, after all, to be business.

Professor Wiener’s concern is to document the ambiguity about - indeed the hostility towards - industrialism and business values that still pervades Britain’s elite culture.  He is an American.  Probably only a foreigner could have approached the subject with such sensitivity and detachment.

In the 1850s, he says in effect, two cultures warred for England’s soul.  One believed in buying and selling, in making money, in creating large markets, in technical innovation, in the industrialist and the engineer as the main agents of human progress; the other believed in hierarchy, continuity, the existing class structure, in the supremacy of spiritual over material values.  One culture stood for science and technology, economic growth, the spread of cities, the career open to the talents, the pursuit of economic self-interest; the other stood for leisure, the countryside, gardening, arts and crafts, love of the past and disinterested public service.

After a remarkably short battle, Professor Wiener maintains, the. culture of gentility triumphed - or, more precisely, an uneasy accommodation was reached, permitting the pursuit of profit but only provided the industrialist paid lip service to older values which, in the end, were not his own.  The greatest of Victorian engineers, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, sent two of his sons to Harrow, where science was scarcely taught and the sons of businessmen were looked down on.  Cobden despaired: “feudalism is every day more and more in the ascendant in political and social life”.  In the United States and Germany, to this day, Mr Freddie Laker, genius of the marketplace and millionaire, would be probably be well content; in Britain, only Sir Freddie Laker has really arrived.

Professor Wiener believes - and your reviewer agrees with him - that this persistence of anti-industrial values is far more important in accounting for Britain’s relative economic decline than the loss of empire, high taxation, excessive government spending, shortages of capital, militant trade unions or the lack of natural resources.  In all of these connections, either the argument does not apply to Britain at all (Britain has abundant natural resources and no real shortage of capital), or else it does apply to Britain but applies equally to other industrial countries without producing the same results (Germans pay high taxes and France, too, lost an empire).  Only in Britain is there a cultural “cordon sanitaire encircling the forces of economic development - technology, industry, commerce”.  In the world’s first industrial nation, Professor Wiener observes, industrialism does not seem quite at home.

If this is so, what is to be done?  Professor Wiener is an historian and does not say.  But a foreigner, regarding the British quizzically and with some distaste, might suggest taxing the public schools out of existence, doing away with the honours list, imposing heavy excise duties on old houses and gardening tools, taxing commerce more heavily than industry, abolishing all taxes on profits in manufacturing industry, squeezing the incomes of the professional classes, actively discouraging unpaid public service and importing foreigners at large salaries to manage British companies.  Of course it would all be very un-British, but then Britishness is precisely the problem.

Professor Wiener’s analysis is by no means entirely novel, and most of the best phrases in his book are quotations from other writers.  Even so, this is an important book, one that deserves to be read and pondered on by everybody who has some portion of Britain’s destiny in his (or her) hands.