Saving England

April 29 2013

David Cameron on Margaret Thatcher between 1979 and 1990: “She didn’t just lead our country; she saved our country.”

Below, Saving England, piece by Toynbee, Encounter, Vol 18, No 1, January 1962, section called Spectrum. A number of writers had been invited to comment on the spirit of the previous decade.

He argues that England’s future is in the Common Market or EEC. See also:

1. Television broadcast in German on Englands Rolle in der Weltgeschichte, Third Programme of Norddeutscher Rundfunk, Hamburg, winter 1961-62 (shown also in English?); revised text published in England deutet sich selbst: 12 prominente Engländer über Politik, Wirtschaft, Gesellschaft und Kultur, Hamburg, Hoffmann und Campe Verlag, 1962.

2. Article on Going into Europe, Encounter, Vol 20, No 2, February 1963.

3. Article on Europa, der Gemeinsame Markt und England, Merkur, Vol 17, No 12, December 1963.

4. Letter to The Times, Gesture to European Unity, February 28 1967. Signed also by Edward Beddington-Behrens, George Buchanan, Maurice Cranston, Barbara Hepworth, Julian S Huxley, Jan Le Witt, Henry Moore, Laurence Olivier, Roland Penrose, Herbert Read, Ceri Richards, Patrick Trevor-Roper, Bernard Wall and dated February 25. Probably not written by Toynbee, but he is first signatory and the others are alphabetical. Asks for an exhibition of contemporary European art in London “to dispel lingering doubts and to demonstrate urbi et orbi that the notion of ‘little England’ is a thing of the past […]”. A curiously insular gesture even for 1967.

5. Television broadcast über das Verhältnis Großbritanniens zum europäischen Kontinent, presumably in German, Südwestrundfunk, Baden-Baden (?), February 10 1969.

6. Article, Key to the European Super State, The Times, October 12, 1971. Argues that entry into EEC need not damage relations with Commonwealth.

7. In Morton’s incomplete list of articles sent to the Observer Foreign News Service for syndication to unidentified media here and there around the world, we have Why De Gaulle Will Fail, about France as an agricultural country (1963), Britain’s Place in the World (1966) and Why Britain Must Join Europe (1970 and, presumably different, 1971). In her list of articles written for the Central Office of Information for use in unidentified ways overseas is Historical Reasons behind Britain’s Entry into the E.E.C. (1972).

Churchill had spoken about a United States of Europe in a speech at the University of Zürich on September 19 1946.

The Common Market or European Economic Community was established by the Treaty of Rome in 1958. Britain (and Norway, Denmark and Ireland) applied to join in 1961-62, under another Conservative, Harold Macmillan.

The spread of one’s spectrum depends on one’s age. If one is old enough to have been just grown-up before 1914, the far end of one’s spectrum will include a glimpse of Victorian-Edwardian England seen with a grown-up person’s eyes; and that glimpse, however brief, will abide in one’s memory as a foil against which all later events will stand out in sharp relief. If the accident of age has given one this perspective, that ought to be a help in trying to size up what has been happening in England in this last decade. The main feature of this decade has been a radical change in England’s position in the world; but it was the outbreak of war in 1914 that brought this change to the surface and gave it a momentum that was still unspent in the 1950s. This change is difficult for the English to cope with because the century that ended in 1914 was, for England, a time of rare greatness – and this in many different fields. Such a floruit was bound to be transitory. It is remarkable that England’s time of greatness should have lasted for a whole century; and, indeed, its full bloom did not last later than the 1870s. Anyway, it is over now, and England is having to find a new place for herself in a formidably changed world. In our own time, perhaps only one other country of the same stature is passing through the same ordeal, and that is France. The ordeal is a severe one, but, after all, it is the common lot. France and England are merely the latest of the many countries that have experienced it in the course of history up to date.

Sources of greatness: Greece; Rome; Jerusalem; a landscape, or rather many landscapes; a complex and detailed rural culture; the common law; the medieval Church; medieval chivalry and pageantry; literary and scholarly traditions; a Protestantism that encouraged people to think about their religion; a scientific tradition that went back to Francis, or Roger, Bacon (will we be reading obituaries of Sir Robert Edwardeses a century hence?); political experience; individuality forged in idiosyncratic schools; privacy, from which vice came too; self-improvement among non-privileged urban people; humanitarian and social reforms.

In the past the English have avoided the awful mistake of crying over spilt milk. They have quickly found and milked new cows, instead of standing still and wringing their hands. They stopped grieving over their defeat in the Hundred Years War in the exhilaration of discovering and colonising a New World. They stopped grieving over the loss of the thirteen American Colonies in the exhilaration of making the Industrial Revolution and acquiring a new empire in India. In our day we have had recourse to this simple but effective British philosophy once again in meeting our own generation’s ordeal. Recognising, as we did in good time, that the days of colonial rule were numbered, we decided to make the liquidation of our 19th-century Empire into a festival instead of a funeral. We christened it the transformation of the Empire into the Commonwealth, and this has been no mere face-saving word-play; for, in the act of coining a new word, we managed to create a new reality. We also discovered that the maturing Commonwealth was not our only compensation for a fading empire. Simultaneously we found another new world to win within the coasts of our own island. If the 19th century was a golden age for England, it was not one for the great majority of her inhabitants. England’s century of economic and naval supremacy abroad was a century of shocking social inequality and injustice at home. In our generation we have won not only the Commonwealth but the Welfare State. (The name may be still controversial, at any rate in American mouths, but the thing itself has been accepted in England by all parties as a good thing which has come to stay.)

The Welfare State and the Commonwealth are obviously two of those exhilarating enterprises that are England’s traditional prescription for easing the painfulness of change. In both enterprises we have given ourselves an extra shot of exhilaration by contriving to be the pioneers and by doing promptly and with a good grace what we realised that we should have had to do, anyway, willy-nilly, sooner or later. Our good sense here is illustrated by the case of the French, who have done much the same things in the end but have done them belatedly, kicking miserably against the pricks and harvesting a minimum of credit, gratitude, and satisfaction. In contemplating their French contemporaries, the English of our generation are tempted to feel smug. The English can no more forget June 1940 than the French can, and the contrast between our respective performances in that year has, ever since, been making both nations awkward to deal with, particularly for themselves. The consciousness of having once been heroes can be as great a handicap as the consciousness of having once failed to rise to the occasion.

Fortunately to-day England is putting her childish pride in her pocket and is knocking at France’s door to ask for admittance to the Common Market. Within twenty-one years of the Battle of France the roles of the two countries have been reversed – and why? France is in a relatively strong position again to-day because she has discovered for herself the British remedy for the painfulness of change. On her overseas front France may be incorrigible. She seems to have learnt nothing and forgotten nothing as a result of her successive fiascos in Syria, Indo-China, and Algeria. General de Gaulle seems still to be dreaming of conjuring back to life the military power of Napoleon’s France or Louis XIV’s. But, since the end of the Second World War, most Frenchmen have been busy over something else. They, like us, have found a new world to win within their own home territory. They have been putting France, for the first time, through a thoroughgoing industrial revolution, and, on this economic plane, they have begun to think of French prosperity in the new terms of a united Europe, instead of going on brooding over past French glory in the antique terms of the Rhine frontier.

The post-war French have been making this new vision of theirs effective by translating it into reality through hard work. The French have always been hard workers in good times and in bad times alike; and on this point they might well feel smug to-day in contemplating us. The need to work hard now is one from which the English cannot be absolved by any past achievements; not by our victory in the Battle of Britain, not by our transformation of the Empire into the Commonwealth, not by the bloodless social revolution that has produced the Welfare State [the further Glorious Revolution, we might have been tempted to call it]. Achievements are wasting assets, and nothing but unremitting hard work can ever renew them. This truth ought to be obvious; for the post-war fruits of French hard work are only one example out of a multitude in the world around us. In a world in which Americans, Russians, Chinese, and Japanese, as well as Continental Europeans, are all working like beavers, can any nation afford to sit back and rest on its oars?

While the English have been prompt in making over the Empire into the Commonwealth and in narrowing the gulf between the former “two nations” on this island, we have been late in the day in accepting the fact that England is a part of Europe. The proper verdict on this English acceptance of geography is the one that Tennyson pronounced on the lady who told him that she accepted the universe: “By God, madam, you had better!” “How England saved Europe” was the title of a popular history of England’s role in the Napoleonic Wars that was published when I was a child. The author’s thesis was the conventional one that England saved Europe by keeping Europe divided. This may have been a service to Europe at times when unity was being forced on her by one Continental European country’s trying to conquer the rest. England once again saved Europe in that way in 1940; but the occasion will not recur; for to-day, when Europe has been dwarfed by the United States and the Soviet Union towering up on either side of her, that chapter of European and English history has been closed. On this point the Continental European countries have been quick in reading the signs of the times, and they have risen to the occasion by setting out to unite with each other by peaceful agreement. England has not, of course, dreamed of opposing this peaceful unification (she could not prevent it, even if she wished to). She has, however, dreamed of staying outside. This dream of England’s maintaining a self-contained sterling area next door to a united Continental Europe is about as crass an anachronism in our day as General de Gaulle’s dream of France’s regaining her Napoleonic military stature.

If England has now awoken from this dream of hers in time to gain admittance to the Common Market the title of the next chapter of the story may be “How Europe saved England.”

What is the Tennyson anecdote about? Does it have something to do with his proto-Darwinian preoccupations in In Memoriam?

The author of How England Saved Europe, four volumes, London, Smith, Elder and Co, 1899, was a Methodist emigré to Australia, William Henry Fitchett.


A year after this, on January 14 1963, de Gaulle vetoed the British application to join the EEC at a press conference at the Elysée Palace.

“England in effect is insular, she is maritime, she is linked through her exchanges, her markets, her supply lines to the most diverse and often the most distant countries; she pursues essentially industrial and commercial activities, and only slight agricultural ones. She has in all her doings very marked and very original habits and traditions.”

“L’Angleterre, en effet elle est insulaire, elle est maritime, elle est liée par ses échanges, ses marchés, ses ravitaillements aux pays les plus divers, et souvent les plus lointains; elle exerce une activité essentiellement industrielle et commerciale, et très peu agricole. Elle a dans tout son travail des habitudes et des traditions très marquées, très originales.”

That was the first of his “Nons”, though, unlike Thatcher, with her reiterated Nos in the House of Commons, he did not use the word. October 30 1990: “The President of the Commission, M. Delors, said at a press conference the other day that he wanted the European Parliament to be the democratic body of the Community, he wanted the Commission to be the Executive and he wanted the Council of Ministers to be the Senate. No. No. No.”

The four countries reapplied in 1967. At a further press conference at the Elysée Palace on May 16, de Gaulle again made it clear that he would veto Britain’s application.

A few weeks later, the European Coal and Steel Community (1951, Treaty of Paris) and European Atomic Energy Community (1958, Treaty of Rome) were brought under the umbrella of the EEC. These were the three European Communities, often henceforward called European Community. The ECSC expired in 2002. The EAEC still exists. Would joining the EEC in 1962 have meant a fortiori joining the other two communities as well?

The transition to Pompidou in 1969 allowed the subject to be reopened. Negotiations began in 1970 under Edward Heath. Accession was on January 1 1973 under Heath (with Denmark and Ireland) without a referendum. The original six members became nine. Britain’s membership was confirmed in a referendum held on June 5 1975 under Harold Wilson. Thatcher won a permanent UK budget rebate in 1984. The EEC was renamed EU when the Maastricht Treaty came into force in 1993, to reflect its wider range of operation. Maastricht was amended by the subsequent treaties of Amsterdam (1999), Nice (2003) and Lisbon (2009).

De Gaulle thought in old-fashioned terms (he also saw in British membership a Trojan horse of American imperialism in Europe), but was right about Britain fundamentally. Cameron said similar things in his Bloomberg speech in London on January 23 2013, fifty years, nearly to the day, after de Gaulle’s. “It’s true that our geography has shaped our psychology. We have the character of an island nation: independent, forthright, passionate in defence of our sovereignty. We can no more change this British sensibility than we can drain the English Channel. And because of this sensibility, we come to the European Union with a frame of mind that is more practical than emotional. For us, the European Union is a means to an end – prosperity, stability, the anchor of freedom and democracy both within Europe and beyond her shores – not an end in itself.”

Britain had seemed a semi-detached if not disruptive member. Thatcher never got past the idea that Germany had to be contained. Britain’s support of any proposal for expansion of membership masqueraded as pro-European, but came also from an instinct that the more members the Community had, the less likely it was to agree on anything or become monolithic. British political parties have ducked and woven through the decades to appease this or that side of a divided electorate. The Maastricht Treaty, though Thatcher had signed up to it (John Major signed it), left Britain more uneasy than ever.

The prospect, after the scale of the debt crisis became apparent in 2009, of a much tighter and more centralised fiscal régime in the EU concerned even a member that had opted out of joining the Euro (which was introduced in physical form in 2002). Cameron, op cit:

“At some stage in the next few years the EU will need to agree on treaty change to make the changes needed for the long-term future of the euro and to entrench the diverse, competitive, democratically accountable Europe that we seek. I believe the best way to do this will be in a new treaty, so I add my voice to those who are already calling for this. My strong preference is to enact these changes for the entire EU, not just for Britain. But if there is no appetite for a new treaty for us all, then of course Britain should be ready to address the changes we need in a negotiation with our European partners. The next Conservative manifesto in 2015 will ask for a mandate from the British people for a Conservative government to negotiate a new settlement with our European partners in the next parliament. It will be a relationship with the single market at its heart. And when we have negotiated that new settlement, we will give the British people a referendum with a very simple in or out choice. To stay in the EU on these new terms, or come out altogether. It will be an in-out referendum.”


Toynbee had suffered an incapacitating stroke by the time Thatcher became Leader of the Opposition in February 1975. What would he have thought of her? He and his wife joined the Labour Party in 1918 and voted for it at the Khaki election, to the disgust of the Countess of Carlisle. McNeill: “His attraction to the Labour Party […] dimmed after 1922 almost as swiftly as it had arisen, and Toynbee retreated from political activism towards a nonparty, vaguely liberal point of view in domestic and foreign affairs.” He would vote Liberal in later years.

More than one piece of journalism by him in the ’60s and ’70s expresses alarm at the trade unions’ abuse of their power. He lived to see the nadir of postwar economic morale in England, the Three-Day Week in the first quarter of 1974 under the Conservative government of Heath, though not its reprise, the Winter of Discontent of 1978-79 under the Labour government of Jim Callaghan which led to Thatcher’s victory. See:

1. Letter to The Times, Backing Britain, February 10 1968 about Wilson’s I’m Backing Britain campaign and the secret union trial and condemnation of four shop stewards who did back Britain by working an extra half-hour a day without pay (he calls himself a Liberal in this letter). This seemed a tawdry and tired campaign even at the time, but was much-noticed in an age of few media outlets and gave a pop-art twist to use of the national flag.

2. Article on The English Sickness, The Observer, November 10 1974. I remember in the ’80s looking at a pile of letters in an attic in which was a letter from early 1974 from one inhabitant of educated Hampstead to another. The writer, who had lived though the war in England, wrote that he had never known morale in the country so low.

3. Article on A State within the State, The Observer, October 26 1975. This was four days after his death and is presented in Tomlin’s anthology as evidence that “Toynbee’s mastery of historical analogy remained with him until the last”. The Observer introduces it as “this last article […] before his death”. But it cannot have been written after his stroke in August 1974 – which begs the question why it was presented thus. Perhaps it was about to be printed and withheld because of his illness. Its reference to Mr Healey’s budget must be to his first budget in March 1974.

4. In Morton’s incomplete list of articles sent to the Observer Foreign News Service for syndication here and there around the world, we have The English Sickness (1966) and The Second Battle of Britain, about the 1972 coal miners’ strike (1972).

I think he would have welcomed Thatcher, with reservations. He loathed the attitude to work of the trade unions. Thatcher introduced legislation to limit their powers and she beat the miners in the endgame, the 1984-85 strike. Heath had been brought down by the miners’ strikes of 1972 and ’74.

He welcomes the Welfare State in its original conception, but would have despised the dependency culture. He believed in self-reliance and thrift. His sympathy for his rural Yorkshire neighbours’ reaction to proto-underclass-sounding city visitors in the late ’30s who

“don’t know how to cook and […] don’t know how to sew and […] don’t know how to cure a ham; and […] can’t even sit at home and talk, because they have nothing in their heads to talk about”

would have been shared by Thatcher in her reminiscing-about-Grantham mode. The reform of the welfare state, which Cameron is now tackling, is Thatcher’s unfinished business.

Not that the work of the welfare state is done. See the return of soup kitchens and food banks in Britain and across swathes of Europe and the US since 2009.

His reservations would not have come from snobbery. But he might have been torn between some of this and a compassionate social conscience, which his uncle, Arnold Toynbee, the economic historian, had had in rich measure and which his own granddaughter, the very unThatcherite Polly Toynbee, would inherit.

He had an equally low opinion of the standard of universal education that Britain had achieved since 1870. The Yorkshire countrywoman’s

view was a tragic commentary upon the social effects of our present half-baked system of Universal Education.

The popular press degraded people.

The bread of Universal Education is no sooner cast upon the waters of social life than a shoal of sharks rises from the depths and devours the children’s bread [footnote: Matt xv 26] under the philanthropists’ eyes. In the educational history of England, for example, the dates speak for themselves. Universal compulsory gratuitous public instruction was inaugurated in this country in A.D. 1870; [footnote: The system of universal direct compulsion was not made complete until 1880, and the practical establishment of free education not until 1891.] the Yellow Press was invented some twenty years later – as soon as the first generation of children from the national schools had come into the labour market and acquired some purchasing power – by a stroke of irresponsible genius which had divined that the educational philanthropist’s labour of love could be made to yield the newspaper-king a royal profit.

So did advertising. So did nearly all manifestations of modern popular culture in Britain. He disliked the professionalisation of sport. Television was

a form of escapism which I arrogantly despise […].

Not everything was bad. He liked the hippies. But

“Recreation” in the present-day Western sense has always seemed to me to be an unhealthy regression to childishness. I have therefore despised it, and I believe I have been right. But does not this judgement commit me to condemning, with it, my own trick of keeping myself preoccupied by a continuous agenda of work all round the clock? This discomfort that I am feeling now that my half-century-long agenda is at an end suggests that, for me, this was serving the same perverse purpose as the infantile philistine’s radio and television. It was making it possible for me to avert my mind from “other business” [spiritual business, and looking inward] from which I shrink […].

Thatcher achieved her reforms at the cost of a certain barbarising of society. Wasn’t she a kind of Diocletian?

Nowadays we don’t think of the welfare state as an “exhilarating enterprise”, we think of it as a social and fiscal problem. We don’t think of the French as hard-working either.

The problem for Britain now is: what is the next great enterprise? The fig-leaf on the world stage of the great liar Tony Blair was to “punch above our weight”. It was a Conservative, Douglas Hurd, who had first used the metaphor, in 1993 (I am not saying it is an impossible thing to do). The Yorkshirewoman was right. The entire challenge is to develop private, and civic, life. Ecological and other change will follow from that.

If that article were to be written today, “education” would have to be mentioned in place of “Welfare State” and “challenge of creating a stable, well-integrated multicultural society” in place of “Commonwealth”. We encouraged immigration to give ourselves a shot in the arm. We showed more enthusiasm in internalising our empire than in merging ourselves with Europe.

Morale is sometimes high during a war and collapses after it. That had happened to England by 1979, whatever Toynbee says about making festivals instead of funerals. Strikes offered a kind of perpetuation of the feeling of heightened living, as if we had become addicted to that in 1940. The Ealing comedies (1947-57) were in large part a celebration of our mediocrity. The Suez fiasco in 1956 humiliated the ruling class. (In the same year, the literary establishment suffered a collapse of credibility with the Colin Wilson affair, in which Philip Toynbee was one of the duped.)

A superficial prosperity allowed the mock-Edwardian Macmillan to assure the working class that they had “never had it so good”. The stranglehold of the trade unions became tighter under Wilson, Heath and Callaghan. Middle-class morale picked up under Thatcher. Some sections of the industrial working class suffered from her policies and haven’t forgiven her.

BBC story today about a return to “east of Suez”, from which Britain had supposedly completed its withdrawal in 1971.


Young, possibly homeless, man on Great Russell Street, central London; Hare Krishna chanters behind him; photograph by Nicola Albon, posted February 21 2012 on her excellent blog Slice of London Life; copyright, used with permission

Saving England, Encounter, Vol 18, No 1, January 1962

A Study of History, Vol IX, OUP, 1954

A Study of History, Vol IV, OUP, 1939

Gropings in the Dark, essay, September 1973, in An Historian’s Approach to Religion, second edition (previously unpublished), with new Preface, May 1978, by Veronica Toynbee, OUP, 1979, posthumous

Experiences, OUP, 1969

8 Responses to “Saving England”

  1. davidderrick Says:

    Thatcher’s funeral was not technically a state occasion. The distinction seemed to hang on the fact that it had not been debated in Parliament. Wellington, Palmerston, Gladstone and Churchill had had state funerals.

    Margaretolatry (original term, no google result) in any case got out of hand. Some of her detractors were also unbalanced.

    Why did David Cameron or his wife have to carry a bottle of water into St Pauls?

  2. davidderrick Says:

    To be fair to Thatcher, she never brought “Grantham” into political rhetoric, as an American politician would have done.

    Toynbee’s rejection of modern popular culture was stuffy, but he was a Victorian.

    Nicola confirms that the picture is entirely unposed. Her other pictures certainly look that.

  3. davidderrick Says:

    Other low post-war moments:

    November 19 1967 – devaluation of sterling under Wilson; the Chancellor Callaghan then resigned to make way for Roy Jenkins

    December 1976 – IMF loan under Callaghan and the Chancellor Denis Healey

    September 16 1992 – British withdrawal from ERM

  4. davidderrick Says:

    Another source of English greatness: gardens and the tendency to have them. Ruth Padel on her childhood (quoted on Desert Island Discs, January 11 2009): “Looking at nature properly, knowing the names of the plants, seeing how the petals worked, observing animal behaviour was just there. That was what you did. That was what being a person was.”

  5. davidderrick Says:

    The English working class has no great resentment of black or south Asian immigrants, but a wide and deep resentment of recent European immigrants.

  6. davidderrick Says:

    Published on the death of Thatcher.

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