Saturday, April 25, 2015

Correlli Barnett's The Audit of War

In his 1986 book The Audit of War Correlli Barnett deals in greater depth with some of the issues he explored in his earlier The Collapse of British Power.

Barnett argues that the Second World War found Britain hopelessly unprepared for war not just in a purely military sense but as a nation. Britain’s industrial base was hopelessly antiquated and absurdly inefficient, her population largely uneducated and her leaders highly educated but with the wrong sort of education.

As Europe drifted towards war in the late 1930s Britain’s major problem was that her military planners believed that she could only win a long war, but she could only afford a short war. In fact by early 1941 Britain was technically bankrupt. The only reason the British were able to keep fighting was because the Americans were paying the bills. Ironically this left the country even more unprepared for the postwar world.

Barnett argues that Britain’s early leadership in the Industrial Revolution was largely a matter of luck. The country not only had the required natural resources in abundance, those natural resources were remarkably conveniently located. And being the first nation to go through the Industrial Revolution Britain for many decades faced no competition. As a result British industry was lazy, complacent, short-sighted, fragmented and inefficient. As Britain started to face genuine competition from rising industrial powers such as Germany and the United States British industry retreated into a fantasy world in which the best way to face the challenge of the future was to close one’s eyes and pretend it would never happen.

Britain’s workforce was abysmally uneducated and ignorant. Her captains of industry were not merely un-intellectual but anti-intellectual. Profits were kept high by keeping wages low. These problems were exacerbated by trade-union leaders who were selfish, short-sighted and bloody-minded. The nation’s leaders were the products of an education system that provided a wonderful grounding in the classics but that entirely ignored the modern world.

Barnett sees this as being partly due to the rise of a certain brand of high-minded but unworldly Christianity that encouraged emotional humanitarianism as the expense of an understanding of the complexity of the real world.

The Second World War gave rise to a number of extremely powerful, extremely persistent myths. The most pervasive was a belief in British technological superiority. After all Britain produced the world’s first jet fighter and British radar was instrumental in winning the war. Barnett systematically explodes these myths. 

For example, there is the myth of the Spitfire. After isn’t it true that the Spitfire was a world-class fighter and that it did allow the RAF to win the Battle of Britain? Barnett points out that the real story was rather different. The Spitfire was a superb design but the British aircraft industry was entirely incapable of manufacturing such an aircraft. The Spitfires that won the Battle of Britain were built with American machine tools, they were armed with American guns, most of their instruments and other vital components were American, Swiss or even German. Such high-tech components simply could not be manufactured in Britain.

British radar depended on American components. British radios depended on American components. British shells only exploded because they were fitted with Swiss fuses.

Even the extraordinarily high output of war production was an illusion, only made possible by sacrificing export industries which in turn was only possible due to the willingness of the  US to foot the bills.

And the biggest illusion of all was that the while country was pulling together. Throughout the war British trade unions did everything possible to hinder the war effort. There were continual strikes and go-slows, often over absurdly trivial incidents.

Barnett may strike some readers as being excessively harsh towards Christianity but it’s important to remember that he’s talking about a particular variant of Christianity which was in fact the ancestor of the Kumbaya Christianity which would do so much harm throughout the 20th century. Barnett might also strike some conservative readers as being rather too keen on state intervention in the economy (although Barnett is certainly no Marxist).

Correlli Barnett is always provocative, controversial and stimulating and The Audit of War is no exception. Recommended.

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