By - Alain Peyrefitte

CHAPTER 15 ........The Exception That Proves the Rule:

pages 117 - 120

Our cultural geography has confirmed case by case the Protestant communities' greater aptitude for development. Yet isn't the United Kingdom, long the leading model of a merchant and industrial civilization, in the process of showing that it too is mortal? And isn't this therefore a whopping exception to the rule we were beginning to reach?

Britain today is one of Europe's poor relations. As long ago as the eve of World War I, it had rivals for leadership. Between the wars it showed some signs of exhaustion. But the real upset occurred in the 1950s. Britain's per capita income growth slowed down; West Germany and France, moving faster, caught up to it around 1960. Now it is dragging along - with Italy dogging its footsteps - in the rear of the EEC. In 1979, the most recent year for which figures are available, it ranked seventeenth among the twenty-four members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in per capita gross domestic product. The British do not seem aware of the danger, unless they are exercising their sense of humor and refusing to dramatize a painful reality.

A Retired Nation

That they are failing to react to their decline may in fact explain their failure to overcome it. But how did the decline come about? Through the loss of the greatest colonial empire any nation ever conquered?

It is true that the British Empire is no longer anything but an alumni association. But Holland, France and Belgium also lost colonial empires that, each in its own way, mattered as much to them as its empire did to Britain. Indeed, decolonization spurred their development. And Britain did successfully manage political decolonization without sacrificing its trade relationships with former colonies.

More serious was Britain's abandonment of its worldwide financial possessions. Despite the drain on its capital in World War I, London in 1938 was still, with New York, the world's creditor. It became a debtor to pay its way through World War II, borrowing a total of L3.6 billion; but until then it had been the income from capital invested abroad that had made up for Britain's trade deficit, and the loss of that income was reflected in the country's balance of payments. Worse still, the City has not lost the habit of exporting capital that would probably be more useful to the nation if invested at home.

To modernize British industry, for example. Britain's success had rested on its technological lead. Yet the British neglected to rejuvenate their industrial plant, and so their products ceased to be competitive; they were unable to carve out their share of the vast expansion of the 1960s.

Here we come up against the real question:

For three centuries the British spent their energies lavishly.

Through discipline, boldness, self-sacrifice, they succeeded magnificently. World War II demanded a greater effort of them than ever before merely to survive. They accepted the challenge, not without suffering. For a while, major labor disputes hobbled the war effort; Churchill ended them only by promising a welfare state.

When the ordeal was over, the British were eager to reap its rewards to live it up, go home early in the afternoon. They took to insisting that they were more concerned with gross national happiness than they were with the gross national product. They convinced themselves that the other industrial nations would eventually follow their example.

But aren't they insulting the future when they act like a pensioner legitimately anxious to enjoy his retirement because he knows he is going to die? A people does not die. Yet the world's most energetic and adventurous society gave itself up to the joys and the poisons of the welfare state: everyone for himself and the state for all.

Decompression Sickness

Churchill, the man of war who was beaten in the peacetime election, made way for the Labor Party, which unstintingly distributed what he had been forced to concede: guaranteed well-being, regulated and bureaucratized. Britain turned its back on its traditions. Nationalization of certain industries dealt a stunning blow to free enterprise and a market economy. The new social policy collectivized a people hitherto conditioned to competitive individualism.

History has never granted a country the advantages of increased government intervention in private affairs without the inconveniences attached to bureaucracy. But when you resign yourself to living in a retirement home, you have to put up with its little annoyances. Better take it good-humoredly.

The welfare state was probably too contrary to the principles on which British grandeur had been built: a willingness to take risks, initiative, a spirit of enterprise, voluntary austerity, ruthless competition. The reversal of values brought with it a reversal of the national destiny.

Deep-sea divers grow accustomed to high undersea pressures. But resurfacing too quickly causes decompression sickness: at best, a loss of will; at worst, death. The British social body must have decompressed too fast. Sweden took forty years to cover the same ground Britain tried to cover in less than a decade; its nationalization policy was far more cautious than Britain's. Even so, the prudent progressiveness of Sweden's socialist leaders has not prevented it from reaching the limit of what is tolerable - and beyond it to the intolerable.

Hypertrophied Union Power

Government bureaucracy is not the only kind. Trade-union bureaucracy is just as pervasive. The British unions are often cited as models in France - ''If only our union leaders were as reasonable," people say. But the cliche lost its meaning long ago. Until 1969, Britain was the world's second biggest exporter of automobiles. This comfortable position was ruined in a single year by massive strikes.

Big labor, big business, big government: the balance used to be fruitful. Yet, confronted by an etiolated capitalism and a weak government, the trade unions grew stronger. In the nineteenth century they became the first unions to be legalized in Europe; by 1914 they had 4 million members, then the world's largest force of organized labor. Now they are too strong. The Labor Party is the unions' party. The Conservatives have been unable to curb this new kind of feudalism.

An unexpected shift has occurred in the traditional balance between unionism and business: the establishment has allowed the trade unions to expand their power on condition that the City's role as a world brokerage center for capital and raw materials be preserved. By this objective complicity, Britain's financiers have directly imposed a heavy sacrifice on the country in the interests of an already obsolete prestige; indirectly, they have aggravated union corporativism. The middle class is being ground between these two millstones. Because union members naturally prefer not to change either their jobs or their place of work, the unions block any impulse toward revision. What good is it to an employer to increase productivity through the use of new machinery if he can never reduce staff?

The British aeronautic and automobile industries employ twice as many workers as their French counterparts. Fierce competition, mobility of firms and personnel, constantly renewed techniques - Britain's economic dynamism was rooted in all these stimulants of unrestrained capitalism. Now it has given way to unrestrained unionism. But the result is not social dynamism, it is economic stagnation and therefore, in the long run, social disorder. It is true, however, that the democratic alternation of political power could redress these imbalances and alert unheeding Britons to the dangers facing them.

Exhaustion or Eclipse?

When an individual ages, his whole organism ages. A society ages piecemeal. The parts that do not age are ill at ease. And Britain's aging can be measured by the siphoning off of its youth. Since 1950, many of those who might have injected new vigor into British society - researchers, scientists, technicians, engineers - have left the country. To replace this elite has come a wave of poor immigrants who pull the country backward and teach it racism.

Was Britain merely the first stage of a rocket designed to put the United States into orbit? To judge a device's validity, we have to consider the whole rocket, not just the fallen first stage. It would be highly imprudent to write Britain off. We have noted Holland's eclipse in the eighteenth century after its streak through the seventeenth; why shouldn't Britain be going through a temporary eclipse now?

Its entry into the Common Market after much hesitation showed that the Commonwealth dream is fading, that Britain's isolation was worrisome. Alignment with Europe forced it to think realistically. There is an abundance of oil and natural gas in the North Sea. Britain still has plenty of assets: an extremely high scientific standing [thirty-five living Nobel prizewinners in 1976], advanced technology, the City of London, an incomparable network of trade and financial relations throughout the world.

But a recovery will be possible only on condition that its social organization ceases its insidious perversion of the British soul by discouraging effort and initiative while delivering the country over to demagoguery. Until Britain rediscovers the values - individual and collective responsibility - that made it strong, until it rebels against bureaucracy and indolence, there is small chance of its recovery.





By - Alain Peyrefitte

Translator- William R.Byron

USA Publisher - Alfred A.Knopf, Inc., NYC 1981

Canadian Publisher - Random House 1981

French Publisher - Librairie Plon 1976