A superpower's long decline

Topics Britain | BOOK REVIEW | British rule

Book cover of THE AGE OF DECADENCE: A History of Britain, 1880 to 1914
What fools we were,” King George V told his prime minister, Ramsay MacDonald, in 1930, looking back to the era before World War I. In the context of the wartime catastrophe his generation had delivered, the king may have had a point. Arthur Balfour, prime minister from 1902 to 1905, lamented “some process of social degeneration” that “may conveniently be distinguished by the name of ‘decadence.’” Joseph Chamberlain, the most charismatic politician of the late-Victorian age, put it more pithily. “The Weary Titan,” he said in 1902, “staggers under the too vast orb of its fate.”

For many Americans today, perhaps fearing late-stage decadence and their own Weary Titan, this story may strike close to home. For in Simon Heffer’s telling, the history of Britain from 1880 to 1914 is one in which “a nation so recently not just great, but the greatest power the world had ever known, sustained in its greatness by a rule of law and parliamen­tary democracy, had begun its decay.”

The Age of Decadence is a successor volume to the same author’s well-regarded (2013), which charted Britain’s rise to “greatness” in the earlier part of the 19th century. Mr Heffer picks up here with Gladstone taking over the premiership from his great rival, Disraeli, in 1880, then guides us through the high-Victorian era into the 20th century with the accession of King Edward VII in 1901. He ends in 1914 with Britain facing an unhappy choice between a European war with Germany and a civil war in Ireland. He wisely does not include the origins of the world war substantively, avoiding the teleological danger of making everything in Britain about the war as the country hurtles toward some kind of inevitable abyss.

There are many pleasures to be had in this fine book, not the least of which is the vivacity of Mr Heffer’s prose. A columnist for The Sunday Telegraph as well as a historian, he writes elegantly but punchily, combining seriousness with welcome flashes of waspishness that stop things from getting stuffy. Pointing to the socially entitled Virginia Woolf’s sneering at a fellow novelist, the shopkeeper’s son Arnold Bennett, he notes that her put-downs “had him written off for much of the 20th century by generations of university lecturers and critics, who confused snobbery with literary criticism.” That, as they say, is a twofer.

Mr Heffer has little interest in debates among historians on the period, but he does not rely just on secondary literature and makes excellent use of wide-ranging archival research. That approach gives the book a fresh perspective, although not necessarily a new one.

The Age of Decadence is a masterpiece of pacing. After an amiable perambulation with the last of the Victorians, we build to a frantic cliff-top scramble as the Edwardians lose their grip on events and themselves. 

THE AGE OF DECADENCE: A History of Britain, 1880 to 1914
Author: Simon Heffer
Publisher: Pegasus Books
Price: $39.95; Pages: 912

By the final pages, Mr Heffer has skilfully conjured a country in chaos and heading over the edge.

Mr Heffer has no hesitation in pointing the finger of blame at the complacent, “swaggering” late-Victorian and Edwardian elites who ran the show in these four decades. From 1880 “until the apocalypse came in 1914,” he writes reprovingly, “there was among the upper and upper-middle classes a resting on laurels; a decision, literal and metaphorical, to live off dividends rather than work that little bit harder and improve more.” The end result: “Britain was diminished” and “British power was in decline.”

Mr Heffer warns us against “the pornography of nostalgia,” but still, there are other ways to see the Edwardians. The Edwardians certainly meet Arnold Bennett’s criterion of being “identified with the great cause of cheering us all up.” Everything was brighter, faster, more fashionable. With the growth of cinemas, gramophones, telephones and the first 100-miles-per-hour trains for trips to the seaside, Edwardians for the most part had more fun than those stern Victorians. Thanks to advances in medicine and nutrition, people in Britain lived longer (unless they found themselves in the wartime trenches). And everyday life also improved. The daily existence of the working classes on whose backs much of the wealth of the previous century had been built was enhanced immeasurably by a battery of social, industrial and educational legislation. Liberal reform culminated in the comprehensive 1911 National Insurance Act — one of the most important pieces of legislation of the 20th century and one that remains a foundation of the British welfare state and National Health Service.

Twentieth-century Britain overcame rival empires, fought and won two cataclysmic wars and twice reconstructed the world order in its own image. The British retreated from empire once its corrupting decadence became manifest. Historians of other empires might ask whether the Edwardians were any more degenerate than the French of the Third Republic, or imperial Germans, Russians, Ottomans, Iranians and Chinese. Certainly Britain was eclipsed by the United States but arguably there was not much the Edwardians could have done about the rise of a vast, resource-rich continental power that unlike its other rivals was reasonably well governed. Today Britain remains one of the half-dozen richest countries in the world with a cultural and political impact that far exceeds its size. Much of its good fortune is rooted in the legacy of those Edwardians.

So perhaps in the end King George V only had it half right. For while they were often foolish, the Edwardians were no fools.

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