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Decline theories and counter-arguments

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Decline theories and counter-arguments

Post by Admin on Wed Feb 16 2011, 13:02

The ‘cultural critique’
Perhaps the best known theories of decline are those sometimes referred to under the umbrella term ‘cultural critique’. The central notion here is that key features of British culture have proved damaging to competitive economic performance. In particular, the argument is that British middle- and upper-class cultures have had an especially deleterious effect on entrepreneurial life. The elite preferred continuity, preservation and antiquity to change, innovation and novelty. Romantic and pastoral idealism obscured from view the realities of hard-headed economic decision-making. Public schools and leading universities shared a bias against business, science, industry and technology with the result that the elite products of these institutions were unable to offer first-class economic leadership: universities were a way out of, not into, industry; and industrial management was of poor quality. Training and education were inadequate, and short-termism hampered many areas of economic and political life. The arguments of Correlli Barnett and Martin Wiener have been profoundly stimulating and influential here: indeed, the decline debates are unimaginable without their contributions (English and Kenny 1999; Wiener 1992; Barnett 1987). Yet, a strong and often persuasive counter-reaction to this thesis has emerged. Bill Rubinstein’s more systematic and empirically developed research into wealth and the wealthy in Britain has led him to argue that British strength has rested on finance and commerce, rather than on industry (1981; 1987). This digs at the roots of much cultural-critique thinking: if the economy could flourish primarily on the foundation of finance and commerce, then de-industrialisation need not entail national economic decline at all. Indeed, Rubinstein argues that Thatcherite political economy was a reversion, whether witting or not, to the economic strengths at the heart of the British pattern of development (Rubinstein 1990; 1993). Rubinstein is not alone in challenging Wiener’s attack on the public schools and the old universities, and other features of the latter’s argument have also been assailed (Robbins 1990; Harvie 1985; Edgerton 1996).

Similarly, many aspects of Correlli Barnett’s thesis (and indeed his research methodology itself) have been convincingly questioned by specialist scholars (Edgerton 1991; Tomlinson 1997; Clarke 1997; Contemporary Record 1987). Rather than seeing Britain as anti-technological, anti-scientific and anti-industrial, some historians contend that in fact Britain has been a powerful twentieth-century scientific force, that British engineers and scientists have played a leading part in industry and government, and that the state has been an important supporter of technology and science (Edgerton 1996). Again, Wiener’s emphasis on the anti-industrial impact of rural preoccupation has also been questioned. Peter Mandler has recently pointed out that: cultures absorbed in their rural past are not necessarily anti-modern; England between 1880 and 1914 was actually less characterised by a nostalgic interest in the countryside than were other European countries; and inter-war England was again less absorbed in rural nostalgia than other European cultures and was certainly not backward-looking (1997). Indeed, it is worth asking just how many pre-First World War
English people, let alone Scots, Welsh and Irish, were in fact preoccupied by a rural-nostalgic approach. Enthusiasts for such an approach can be found, but it is doubtful whether they were truly representative. In particular, two central points emerge from the extensive controversies generated by the provocative claims of Barnett and Wiener. First, even if the arguments about British culture were conceded, and there is considerable doubt on this point, could one demonstrate beyond reasonable doubt the connection between such features of British culture and the retardation of economic growth? No wholly convincing causal connection has yet been established. Second, if relative British failure is to be substantially explained by recourse to cultural explanations of this type, then it is necessary to demonstrate that Britain’s rivals were less flawed by such supposed cultural hindrances. Attacks on the cultural critique have frequently focused on the fact that Britain’s competitors were at least as likely
to exhibit the same cultural tendencies as those which supposedly inhibited British competitiveness. As Bill Rubinstein has rightly pointed out, modern industrial economies have been built in cultures containing many anticapitalist elements; indeed, British culture may well have been less hostile to industrial development and entrepreneurship than that of its rivals (1993).

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