Impassioned but impartial English history
The Decline of Power 1915-1964, by Robert Blake. New York: Oxford University Press. 462 pp. $19.95 This most recent volume in the Paladin History of England, of which Lord Blake is general editor, traces the fortunes of the British nation through the troubled middle of the 20th century. Its title reveals the effect of all that assailed Britain during that period, but perhaps does less than justice to the dominion that this still great power continued to exercise in the world.
Beginning with the collapse of the Liberal Party and ending with the election of Britain's fourth Labour government, this volume encompasses wars, defeats, triumphs, strikes, social revolution, and crises aplenty, whether political, economic, or governmental.
A distinguished historian and Oxford don, Robert Blake has written widely and authoritatively on many aspects of British history, but has made a particular specialty of the Conservative Party and its leaders.
His classic biography of Benjamin Disraeli was said to have been Richard Nixon's favorite book in the palmy days of his first term, when he fancied that he, like the 19th-century statesman, might transform his conservative party into a force for Tory progressivism.
Yet no one could fairly accuse Lord Blake of allowing his special closeness to the Conservative Party to swing the balance of his book away from doing full justice to the people and policies of the other great political movements of this time. Making no attempt to disguise his prejudices, he has nonetheless produced a work that is profoundly unprejudiced.
A man of strong opinions, firmly held likes and dislikes, he is writing the history of his own times, chronicling events through which he lived and about which, we can have no doubt, he argued forcefully with his contemporaries.
Yet in this book, he has managed to retain the white-hot passion of his opinions while achieving that analytical clarity and wisdom so hard to find in works of contemporary historiography. We feel the shock of the events he recounts with the immediacy of a bystander even as we watch them fall into the context that subsequent history has provided for them.
As befits a practiced biographer, Lord Blake is an especially skilled portraitist. Whether he is advocating the lesser known strengths of Andrew Bonar Law (the ``Unknown Prime Minister,'' to call him by the title of Blake's biography) or analyzing the less attractive qualities of Stanley Baldwin or David Lloyd George, this historian is adept at presenting history's personalities as well as its ideas and issues.
Even in his portraits of H. H. Asquith and Winston Churchill, great prime ministers who are clearly not to his personal taste, Lord Blake is scrupulously fair in weighing their undoubted flaws against the more massive achievements of their careers. It is absolutely typical of this book that the reader can be in no doubt as to either the author's personal feelings or the judiciousness of his summing-up.
Perhaps the book's most memorable protrait is that of Harold Macmillan, this despite the additional complication of his still being very much alive!
Devious and deft, witty and complex, opportunistic yet shrewdly farsighted, Macmillan seems to combine the qualities of Machiavelli's ``Prince'' with the Renaissance ideal of sprezzatura, the art of doing the most demanading tasks with seeming nonchalance.
Few readers could finish Lord Blake's account of Macmillan's revitalization of both party and nation in the wake of the divisive and demoralizing Suez crisis without a freshened understanding of the multifaceted skills exhibited by Macmillan at that time.
The microcosms of individual debates and by-elections are strikingly illuminated in this book, with the result that the macrocosmic picture of Britain's body politic is unusually subtle as well as remarkably textured.
One might expect that a book entitled ``The Decline of Power'' would make for sad reading. In fact, the opposite is true. The energy of its writing, the force of its author's intellect, and the many positive aspects of British society illuminated in its pages make it a book that is as uplifting to read as it is informative. One finishes it with a sense of wonder at what it was possible to achieve amid decline, and with a certain measure of confidence in what Britain may still manage to accomplish out of
all proportion to its actual power.