- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 19, 2003

The 1950s and 60s were a strange era in modern Britain. The nation had never before been so prosperous and happy and it was also at peace. "You've never had it so good," Prime Minister Harold Macmillan told the British people and they wholeheartedly agreed with him. Yet at the same time, Britain was going through one of the most vast and rapid losses of power that any nation has recorded in history. The British empire, which as late as 1947 still ruled one quarter of the human race and one quarter of the land surface of the planet that they lived upon had literally disappeared only 20 years later.
Nor was this was this astonishing retreat from empire the result of grudging defeat or humiliation in wars. Britain had just triumphantly and gloriously won the greatest conflict in her long history the epic struggle for survival against Nazi Germany from 1939 to 1945. And unlike its neighbor and 20th-century ally France, Britain did not lose 100,000 of its best young lives in futile struggles against inexorable fate to hold on to a colonial empire whose people were determined to throw off its rule come what may.
The small but superbly professional British Army won every tactical guerrilla insurgency it had to fight from Cyprus to Malaya and from Aden to Kenya. Yet humiliation came anyway in a military operation where British forces hardly fired a shot and suffered no losses Prime Minister Anthony Eden's traumatic back down in the 1956 Suez Crisis with Egypt.
History is filled with complexities and contradictions. But even in Anglophile Washington the ironies and subtle meanings of Britain's strange retreat from empire and even more unexpected late-20th century resurgence under Margaret Thatcher are understood only in outline, not in essence. David Cannadine's splendid "In Churchill's Shadow" should do much to correct that.
Combining masterly political history with an unexpected touch for cultural nuances, written with impeccable scholarship yet couched in a deceptively accessible, effortlessly flowing style, the book is a joy to read. Not since the late Roy Jenkins' mellifluous and occasionally even tongue-in-cheek sympathetic biography of Winston Churchill two years ago has any work of British history suggested itself as such warmly sympathetic company for long trips or the beach, or, in this grim new world, endless lines of airport security checks.
The wonder of British history in the 20th century was not how rapidly the nation lost the awesome power it enjoyed at the era's beginning, but how rapidly and well it adjusted to that change in fortune. And from the perspective of the start of the 21st century, the wonder of those 10 decades is not that the nation was bled by the human and material costs of fighting two world wars and weathering a great depression to boot. But, rather, that Britain still ended the century as the fourth largest economy in the world and one of the top four or five nations in effective global power projection.
Given the endless jeremiads about inevitable decline and fall that, as Mr. Cannadine documents, went all the way back to the Victorian era, this resilience and renewal is truly astonishing.
Much of the credit goes to the two titanic figures that tower over the British century Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher. And one of Mr. Cannadine's most original and thought-provoking chapters is the comparisons he draws between them and an earlier figure, Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlain, father of the better known Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain. Like Churchill and Mrs. Thatcher, old Joe went through the political equivalent of a spiritual reawakening in mid-life to become an impassioned charismatic prophet warning of decline and promising renewal.
If anything, Mr. Cannadine's one weak point is the degree to which he underestimates the achievements of Churchill and Mrs. Thatcher. It is true, as he points out, that they both failed to arrest Britain's relative decline in the world. And he rightly points out that the slow, apparently inevitable process of subsuming and dissolving British national sovereignty in the ever-growing European Union has arguably reduced British national independence and the authority of the legendary Parliament at Westminster more than either world war or both of them combined.
However, Churchill and Mrs. Thatcher both confronted literally catastrophic conditions when they first took office as prime minister in 1940 and 1979. And both of them rescued their country from crises that at the time appeared to make national dissolution within mere months unavoidable realities. Because Britain has enjoyed nearly six decades of security since 1945 and more than two decades of revived national prosperity and economic stability since 1980, it is far too easy to forget or overlook how impossible and unattainable these goals had appeared before.
But Churchill and Mrs. Thatcher did not operate in a vacuum, as so many of their impressionable worshippers in modern America thought. The subtle resilience of British society had a lot to do with keeping the nation afloat in bad times and helping it rapidly take full advantage of the good ones. (Just note, for example, the vastly superior track record of British banks and other overseas investors in the 1980s and '90s compared with their German and Japanese rivals during that time.)
Mr. Cannadine quite simply is without peer as he delves into familiar and beloved icons of classic British culture and shows how the most apparently immobile and unchanging of them in fact skillfully adapted in the most radical yet unobtrusive ways to changing times and circumstances.
Thus, the beloved comic operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan had a subversive and satirical liberal cast to them when they first appeared. And they were also boldly radical and revolutionarily innovative in terms of their format and stagecraft. Yet by the 1920s, they had become as immutable, ancient and unchanging as the megaliths of Stonehenge. In the freewheeling and newly confident Thatcher and post-Thatcher era, their staging has loosened up again.
Similarly, the magnificent Palace of Westminster itself was not, as so many still assume, an unchanged artifact from the halcyon days of Richard the Lion-hearted. It was only built in the 1840s and over the generations since has repeatedly symbolized different values in different eras. Indeed, as Mr. Cannadine points out, if William Ewart Gladstone or Churchill were to return to their beloved Mother of Parliaments today, they would be bewildered and appalled by the radically different way it now functions.
Parliament operates through committee systems more redolent of Congress than Benjamin Disraeli. And it has divested many of its powers to either the European Parliament in Strasbourg or the new Scottish Assembly in Edinburgh. Even James Bond, that archetype example of Swinging Sixties British cool still flourishing in the 21st century had his roots in the more stereotypical old Clubland heroes of empire and good form like Bulldog Drummond and Richard Hannay.
Bond's contradictions, Mr. Cannadine shows, reflected those of his creator Ian Fleming, simultaneously an admirable old English gentleman, dashing naval officer and sex-obsessed sleazy cad. It was the sweetest of times, it was the bitterest of times. It was the richest of times, it was the gloomiest of times. National decline seemed inevitable, yet national regeneration came. A vast empire was smoothly divested, yet the nation bounced back to the rank of global leaders, no longer a superpower but right up there with and often ahead of the rest.
To begin to understand the strange and subterranean yet quietly constructive forces that brought these ends about, one cannot do better than turn to Mr. Cannadine's admirable new work.

Martin Sieff is managing editor, international affairs, for United Press International.



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