To Improve, First Lose

Nazi and British flags together on a hotel in Jerusalem, 1933

Most people believe that British society has changed greatly since the 1930s, what with the Second World War, the creation of the welfare state, the triumph of capitalism, the onset of mass immigration and the transformative impact of new technologies.

They are wrong. Our society has changed very little in the past century. If you read the text below and then note its source, I think you’ll see what I mean.

“The not inconsiderable upper class consists of rich families as well as the old and new aristocracy, whose assets together make up the main part of the nation’s wealth. Next, with its own elaborate internal hierarchy, comes the extensive middle class, whose members enjoy sizeable incomes and considerable prosperity; in general, they have a more comfortable lifestyle but lower level of education than in Germany.

There is also a lower class, fairly substantial in size, of workers on poor to average pay and the long-term unemployed, who have a surprisingly low material and intellectual standard of living. They inhabit the slums with their poor sanitary conditions, filth and at times morbid forms of social existence (e.g. child poverty), in a state of poor health and in some cases long-term malnutrition. Some of these negative developments must be put down not to undeserved poverty but wholly or in part to insufficient competence in domestic matters, specifically among women, as well as to a lack of mutual encouragement.

The most striking features displayed by the more disagreeable section of this class include a lack of personal ambition, indifference to the demands of community and nation, and interests that stop with sport and frivolity, the sensations of city life.”

(Translated from the German general staff’s August 1940 report on the military geography of England, as republished in 2007 by the Bodleian Library, Oxford, under the title, “German Invasion Plans for the British Isles 1940”.)

When I first read that text, I was amazed at how accurately it describes modern Britain and at how little our society has changed in the 80 years since it was drafted.

Above all, it is profoundly disappointing. As John Lennon said in one of his more hard-hitting songs, “You think you’re so clever and classless and free, but you’re still just fucking peasants as far as I can see.”

As we drift towards Brexit on our national ship of fools, I do wonder what it would take to really improve our society. Despite the advances of 1945-50, all we seem to have accomplished since is a gradual degradation. Profound and sustained improvement is evidently beyond our collective will and ability.

Could it be that we would have benefitted more as a nation if we had gone the way of France in 1940 and been forced to confront our shortcomings, rather than wallowing ever since in the myth of having “won the war”?