Correlli Barnett and Britain’s Decline

by Ralph Berry (September 2022)

Battle of Britain,
Paul Nash, 1941


Correlli Barnett died this July. The Press did not make a great fuss of him in the obituaries, and mid-ranking entertainers got as much space. The CBE was his top honour, and he was Keeper of the Churchill Archive Centre in Churchill College, Cambridge. He was the first of our historians to challenge the myths of war-time and post-war Britain, and in so doing he began the work of revisionist history which continues to this day. But the story of Britain’s post-war decline begins in the war itself, and its conduct by our military leaders.

The Desert Generals (1960) was the first assault on the reputation of Field Marshal Montgomery. Previously the unquestioned hero of El Alamein—the name he retained in his title, Viscount Montgomery of Alamein—Montgomery was subject to a forensic examination of his strategy.Barnett regarded the great battle as unnecessary, since the coming US landings in North Africa, ‘Operation Torch,’ would have forced the Germans to retreat anyway. Barnett gave much credit to General Auchinleck, Montgomery’s predecessor, whom Churchill fired for his cautious approach. Churchill tended to fire generals until they came up with a victory. Barnett’s criticisms caused outrage to Montgomery’s supporters, many of whom had fought in the Eighth Army. But The Desert Generals changed the entire picture of the British war effort, as it had been painted in bold colours by Churchill—who said ‘History will be kind to me, for I intend to write it.’

Correlli Barnett went on to write The Audit of War: The Illusion and Reality of Britain as a Great Nation (1986). This was a wide-ranging and deeply-informed polemic against Britain’s performance not only in WW2, but in earlier years when Britain’s industrial base was outperformed by Germany and the US. Indeed, throughout the Second World War, British productivity was about a third of that achieved by the US and Germany. To take a single telling point: the Spitfire was a superb machine, much loved by pilots and the public. But it took almost twice as long to make one as a Messerschmitt 109, its rival. British industry was scandalously inefficient, held back by incompetent management, restrictive practices and labour obstructionism. The unions, often led by open Communists, sensed that the future was going their way and did not stint to make trouble while the going was good (as it remained until the coming of Thatcher). Policy overall was driven by welfare as a guiding principle. These and a host of related failings were smothered by a profoundly misleading claim: ‘We won the war.’ Britain did not ‘win the war’ but was on the winning side, with victory largely (but not exclusively) due to Russia and America. Yet one still hears that cry, especially in football matches.

The Lost Victory: British Dreams, British Realities 1945-1950 (1995) was the final chapter in Correlli Barnett’s audit of Britain. It is an angry elegy for a land of lost opportunities that will never come again. The Lost Victory is an indictment of post-war thinking and policy, governed by Clement Attlee’s immense victory for the Labour Party in July 1945. He was swept into power by an irresistible yearning for the New Jerusalem that the people believed they were owed after the privations of war. The Conservative Party, which had governed from 1935 to 1945, was utterly discredited and there was nothing to stand in the way of the Socialist ideology. To take a single leading example, the National Health Service was founded by Aneurin Bevan, who had been designing what Barnett calls ‘the gilded cupola on top of the proudest tower of New Jerusalem, in the form of a free and comprehensive national health service.’ The money wasn’t there, but Bevan refused to admit it and in his memorandum to the Cabinet the topic ‘Finance of the Service’ is accorded two paragraphs out of fifty-four. Reality broke in, as it would. ‘The rush for spectacles, as for dental treatment, has exceeded all expectations.’ That rush failed to deliver results. (As all Americans note, the bad teeth of the English is notorious. It remains inexplicable that even today people go into politics without getting their teeth fixed.) Bevan had failed to make realistic operational and logistical calculations, but remained strongly opposed to charges for appliances. When Hugh Gaitskell, Minister of State for Economic Affairs, complained of the lack of up-to-date cash-flow information, Bevan made the ultimate threat: he would resign if he did not get his way. Gaitskell, for him, was ‘a desiccated calculating machine.’ The outbreak of the Korean War in the summer of 1950 blew away the assumptions on which British economic policy had been founded. But what you could call the War of Bevan’s Hearing Aid went on. The NHS became, in Nigel Lawson’s phrase, ‘the closest thing to a religion the British people have.’ It remains so, and this behemoth, widely reckoned to be in urgent need of reform, cannot be touched. To tinker with it resembled, said Barnett, ‘nothing so much as endeavouring to fit brakes on a toboggan already committed to the Cresta Run.’ O Aneurin Bevan, thou art mighty yet.

I end, as does Barnett, with the image that closes The Lost Victory. When Michael Heseltine became Deputy Prime Minister in 1995 he presented a copy of the book to all members of the Cabinet. That image is still the guide to the state of the nation today. And it is still as ineffective in bringing about change.

In a powerfully romantic metaphor the novelist Joseph Conrad likened the island of Britain to ‘a mighty ship bestarred by vigilant lights–a ship carrying the burden of míllions of lives’. In summer 1950 this liner, having survived the great storm of the Second World War thanks to an American tow, was wallowing slowly ahead, perilously overladen, more rusty than mighty. In need of being rebuilt from the keel up, she had instead undergone only a superficial refit, with items of new technology bolted on to her Victorian structure. Money which should have gone into such vital re-equipment as new engine-rooms had been spent instead on a costly new sick-bay, spacious new cabins for the crew and passengers, and on a world-wide public relations campaign to proclaim the importance and prestige of a line constantly teetering on the verge of bankruptcy. The board of directors was not alone to blame for this state of things: the ship’s officers and crew were so devoted to the old vessel, its worn-out machinery and its familiar routines that the very idea of adapting to a virtually new ship appalled them. The passengers too had no wish to see her drastically altered: they were fond of her in all her traditional if faded splendour, and they just wanted to enjoy a quiet, comfortable and relaxing voyage, not too disturbed by the bickering between the officers and a lower-deck unwilling and discontented to the point of recurrent mutiny.


Table of Contents


Ralph Berry has spent his career in Canadian universities, ending with the University of Ottawa. After that, he took a Visiting Professorship in Kuwait University, followed by the University of Malaya. In recent years he has written for Chronicles magazine. His hinterland is Shakespeare, but not as a figure of Tudor history. Shakespeare’s works are a mirror to today’s issues and themes, through which we can better understand today’s politics.

Follow NER on Twitter @NERIconoclast


2 Responses

  1. This article was brief but interesting. I used to enjoy Barnett’s book reviews in The Literary Review. This succinct biography has prompted me to check out Barnett’s books.

  2. Barnett has always struck me as broadly convincing if eccentric on some points. On Alamein, for example, given how the war had progressed before, I wonder what Britain’s position would have looked like if they had just held the line and waited for the joint Torch landings in the west.
    Sometimes the political motives for a victory are enough to justify it.

    I don’t get the dentistry thing though. Other than the elderly [I’m 51, so basically older than Xers for me], British people I’ve met the last few decades all have normal, healthy teeth so far as I’ve noticed. Or more accurately, the same range as one might see in Canada. From desiccated by age or abuse to perfectly fine. My parents came to Canada in the 50s and 60s at 12 and 26 respectively, from the UK poor classes of the postwar era, and their teeth aren’t great at 82, sure. My dad’s were always poor, but he had Canadian dentistry from the age of 12, to it’s postwar standard at least. So if it was better than British, he must have done something bad to them. Maybe the smoking from his teens to 40s.

    I always assumed the perfectly aligned, uniform size, blinding white teeth was a purely American thing, and although I normally don’t notice it it makes them look like androids when I do. Universal braces and headgear didn’t even seem the norm in Canada when I was a kid in the 70s and 80s. Pretty much only girls, from the better off families, bothered with this. Maybe some folks with serious alignment problems. My dentists just kept removing excess or overlarge teeth.

    All in all, I’m happy to not notice people’s mouths all that much, but I don’t think Brits’ teeth are actually out of the norm, unless that American Model is the new normal. And yet the idea persists.

    Though I expect Barnett would not have wanted the defence budget diverted to universal cosmetic dentistry, so there’s that. I’m not really sure what he did want done- his critique was great, but what solutions there were eluded me all these years. That France and Germany preserved shipbuilding and car industries, and Finland built the former almost ex nihilo, amazes me. I wonder how Britain could have maintained its position.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

New English Review Press is a priceless cultural institution.
                              — Bruce Bawer

Order here or wherever books are sold.

The perfect gift for the history lover in your life. Order on Amazon US, Amazon UK or wherever books are sold.

Order on Amazon, Amazon UK, or wherever books are sold.

Order on Amazon, Amazon UK or wherever books are sold.

Order on Amazon or Amazon UK or wherever books are sold

Order at Amazon, Amazon UK, or wherever books are sold. 

Order at Amazon US, Amazon UK or wherever books are sold.

Available at Amazon US, Amazon UK or wherever books are sold.

Send this to a friend