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An Identity Crisis

A. Madhavan

Peter Calvocoressi
Penguin Books, New Delhi, India, 1979, pp. 261, £1.25

VOLUME IV NUMBER 5-6 March-April/May-June 1980

The Second World War is a great divide in the history of 20th century Britain. It marks the transition of Britain as a world power to a period of post-­imperial identity crisis. The 30 years since the war were difficult years of adjust­ment. A major protagonist was reduced to the role of a participant in the Greek chorus of nations. But Britain is by no means a minor power. Its economic strength ensures a high ranking in the league table of GNP, and its self-sufficiency in oil is an enviable favour of geological fortune. Its political influence, necessarily diminished, is still respectable. Its arts and letters, although no rival to the first Elizabethan age, still have power to delight and astonish us. The problem of identity remains. In Donne's metaphor we can say, ‘No nation is an island.’ But does Britain feel itself part of the main? Which continent? These were the years when Britain behaved like a trapeze artist who leaps to the forward swing but is loth to quit the swing he is poised upon. This book is a concise, analytical account of Britain coming down in the world. The difficulty of writing recent history is one of focus and selection. The author has done well to avoid the super­imposition of a grand design on the welter of events. He purveys no thesis. He is fair, from a right-of-centre standpoint, and sufficiently distanced from the narra­tion to exclude his personal experience of the times. He is an annalist rather than a historian. He wrote some of the annual volumes of Chatham House's Survey of International Affairs. The dry touch of the expert summarizer is palpable. The pageant of colourful political figures who flit through these years—Attlee, Bevin, Bevan, Gaitskell, Eden, Macmillan, George Brown, Wilson, Heath—flit through these pages as flat impersonal agents rather than as living people. The book is divided into five parts. First comes a report of the post-war tasks, the foundations of the welfare state and nationalization. (It is seldom realized that the public sector in Britain is so extensive—post, telecommunications, electricity, gas, coal, railways, airlines (75%), motor (50%), steel (75%) and shipbuilding). There is a thoughtful discussion on prop­erty. ‘Europe has known two distinct and incompatible traditions about private property. The one holds that private property is natural, the other that it is unnatural. The first tradition is rooted in ...

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