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Norman Angell
Samuel Brittan: Biographical Dictionary of British Economists 07/03


Ralph Norman Angell Lane was born on December 26, 1872 in Holbeach, Lincolnshire. He died on October 7, 1967 in Croydon, Surrey.

He was brought up in a well to do but unpretentious middle class household. His father, Thomas Angell Lane, had established a chain of local shops before retiring to become a gentleman magistrate with a taste for French classics. He quietly encouraged Ralph Norman in his precocious reading of political texts.

The young Angell attended elementary schools in England, but had the good fortune to be sent to a French Lycee at St Omer. Having escaped the confining influences of the conventional English public (that is private) boarding school, he found himself at the age of 17 editing a bi-weekly English language newspaper in Geneva, catering mainly for tourists. Simultaneously he was taking courses at Geneva University.

He was, however, essentially self taught. He happened to read John Stuart Mill's On Liberty during an illness at the age of 12 and this was for a long time his guiding light. But he also devoured the work of other "public intellectuals", such as Voltaire, Huxley, Spencer and Carlyle.

His family would gladly have financed a British university course, probably in Cambridge. But by the age of 17 Angell was so appalled by the lack of interest of so many of his family and friends in his ideas and so despaired of the rulers of Europe adopting rational policies that he decided to immerse himself in manual labour in California. Despite being only five foot tall and a frail appearance, he was physically very resilient. For seven years he worked as a vine planter, irrigation ditch digger, cow puncher, and smallholder in the new Western state. But eventually he concluded that life in the wilderness posed quite as many problems as life in a city. and he accepted offers to be a reporter first for the St Louis Globe Democrat and later the San Francisco Chronicle. It was not the physical hardships that made for unhappiness. "This came from the anxieties and uncertainties, the fear of debt, the presence of creditors whenever I should go to town."

He returned to England for family reasons in 1898 and then earned his living working for small journals, both in French and in English, in Paris. He was in that city during the Dreyfus case, where French anti-semitism made a deep impression on him, as had American aggressiveness in the Spanish American War and British jingoism in the Boer War. This led to the publication of his first book, Patriotism under Three Flags: A Plea for Rationalism in Politics (1903). This fell still born from the press; but in the course of occasional contacts he impressed Northcliffe, who appointed him as the first editor and manager of the Paris edition of the Daily Mail, a post he occupied from 1905 to 1912 . It was during this period that he wrote in his spare time the book for which he achieved lasting fame, and in some quarters notoriety.

The Great Illusion

It originated in 1909 as a short essay, issued it at his own expense, Europe's Optical Illusion, by "Norman Angell" a style he later legalised as his own name. Gradually news of it spread by word of mouth among the English establishment. It influenced people such as Lord Esher, the confidant of Edward VII and Chairman of the Imperial Defence Committee. This unexpected attention enabled Angell to expand the work which was republished in 1910 as The Great Illusion in which form it sold over 2 million copies and was translated into 25 languages. The Garton Foundation was established to promote his ideas. In his autobiography he described the book as "a publishing success but political failure."

From 1912 onwards he supported himself as a freelance writer,lecturer and journalist. In all he wrote 41 books - "too many" he afterwards wrote. It is for The Great Illusion that he will be remembered. He obviously had practical managerial and journalistic abilities. Otherwise Northcliffe would hardly have tolerated someone with opinions almost diametrically opposed to his own aggressive anti-Germanism as a collaborator. Indeed Northcliffe continued to see Angell after 1912 and offered him the hospitality of the Daily Mail for articles which took issue with his own positions.

Angell never seemed to have ambitions for an academic position and wrote mainly for the educated general public. He laboured at telling home truths which academic economists acknowledged but were too ready to take for granted. He was warmly praised for his efforts by Keynes. His chief sorrow was that the wider public, such as the mass readers of the Daily Mail, would not abandon their prejudices and perform a little rational analysis. It is perhaps as well that he did not live into the age of late 20th Century tabloid journalism, television and spin doctors. He was not a conventional pacifist but he advocated British neutrality during the period leading up to World War One. This brought him into the company of Labour leaders such as Ramsay MacDonald, who opposed participation in World War One and also of course intellectuals such as Bertrand Russell. The fact that most of his political supporters came from one wing of Labour party propelled him into that party and from 1929 to 1931 he was a Labour MP.

Doctrinally, he was from the beginning a classical liberal and a strong opponent of Marxist theories that war was the product of capitalism - theories that were influential even among Labour Members who disavowed Marx. Although his primary interest was international affairs, he was equally infuriated when such MPs took the view that nothing could be done about the gathering economic depression unless capitalism was abolished.

He did not stand for re-election in 1931 because he felt "better fitted to present the case for internationalism to the public direct, freed from party ties". He was knighted in 1931; and a dinner in his honour was presided over by the very same man, Lord (Robert) Cecil who had refused him a passport in 1916. He was far more pleased with the Nobel Peace Prize awarded in 1933.

In the interwar years, he was concerned to promote collective security against the dictators and he devoted some years of his life, before, during and after World War Two to trying to convince the Americans to come to Britain's side in defence of civilisation. He found himself having to fight on two fronts, against the right-wing isolationists and against the US left who, with some sympathisers in the Roosevelt household, wanted to back Stalin in his confrontations with Churchill. Not surprisingly he was later a strong supporter of Western defence efforts in the Cold War period. The urge to bury himself in physical activity never deserted him, even though from his 60s onwards he developed severe migraines which prevented him from getting more than four or five hours sleep a night. He was a keen sailor all his life and bought Northey Island, a small island on the Blackwater Estuary. As far as is known, he showed no interest in partners of either sex, and as he put it, craved his "daily bath of solitude". but was delighted to entertain his nephew and niece on boating holidays. Despite his health problems, he continued lecturing in the USA until the age of 90. He was too rational to believe that he could defeat mortality and he died in a Surrey nursing home at the age of 94.


His lifelong sorrow was the frequent misrepresentation of The Great Illusion. He was alleged to have said that war was impossible because of its great expense, a misrepresentation still current in the 21st century. As he so often remarked, he would hardly have gone to the trouble to write and promote this book if he believed that war could not happen or would fizzle out very quickly. On the contrary the illusion which he tackled was that wars could be economically advantageous. He was writing against a background of the German drive to build battleships and acquire colonies. In a curious way these German beliefs were supported by British jingoists who believed that the Germans were bound to break out in search of Lebensraum and that a coming clash was therefore inevitable.

The Great Illusion did not, of course, contain equations and was quite sparse in statistics. But it gave illustration after illustration to show the fallacy of treating nations as if they were individual people. He cited for instance the "German" acquisition of Alsace Lorraine after the Franco-Prussian war. Did it give the German people access to steel and coal? No. They had to buy the products of former French provinces just as they did before. Another example was the British conquest of South Africa. The gold and diamond mines remained with their original owners and the British had to purchase their products as before. He also cited the case of small countries such as Norway and Switzerland which attained high standards of living without colonies or conquests, simply by trading in the open market. War was a waste of resources - or as later economists would put it - a negative sum game.

The basic Angell thesis stands the test of time pretty well. An opponent might cite the success of cartels in forcing up the prices of key commodities for periods of years. But such cartels have never been a main feature of the world economy. The period when the oil producers' cartel (OPEC) did most harm -- after the Yom Kippur war of 1973 -- was also a period when inflationary overheating in all in the main industrial countries was in any case pushing up the market price of fuel and gave Opec its opportunity. Given the role of Middle Eastern wars in acting as a trigger for such cartel action, it would have been ludicrous to suggest that Western economies would have benefited from a punitive expedition to Saudi Arabia which was the lynchpin of Opec.

War victors have sometimes implicitly supported the Angell thesis by trying to force the defeated governments to cover their wartime losses of the winning side. An indemnity was imposed on France after the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71 and a reparations burden was imposed on Germany after World War I. The French indemnity was never more than a tiny fraction of the imperial German national income; and it was notorious that German reparations were never paid, as Keynes, along with Angell had warned they could not be. A more telling criticism might be that Angell assumed too readily the moral standards of 19th century capitalism under which a victorious government continued to buy on world markets and did not just seize the assets of the defeated country. He took for granted, for instance, that the British government would not have wished to destroy its international credit rating by seizing the South African mines after the Boer War. The Soviet Union did not of course always accept the rules of capitalist trade -- notoriously so when the Red Army simply seized machinery and industrial plant from the eastern part of Germany which it occupied after World War II. But again the benefit, if any, of this captured material to the USSR was far less than the horrendous economic damage inflicted by the German invasion.

The Angell argument is more vulnerable when the enemy is not a conventional state but international groupings of, say, religious fundamentalists who purport to despise the materialism of the West and regard death in terrorist action against the US and its allies, is the most honourable fate that can befall a young man. This was not of course a new phenomenon. There had been the kamikaze Japanese pilots in World War II; and for centuries in Europe the feudal code treated honour as infinitely superior to worldly riches. Shakespeare's plays contain numerous speeches on these lines, as well as, on the other side, the famous dismissal of honour put into the mouth of Sir John Falstaff.

Neither Angell or any other political economist can "refute" such codes of honour. Indeed Angell was careful to point out that he did not regard economic rivalries as the only cause of war, but wanted to dispel them as a contributory factor. Nor was he worried by the assertion "you can't change human nature". He did not dispute this, but argued that human behaviour could be changed by the equivalent of a Hobbesian sovereign in international affairs. He gave numerous instances where barbaric practices such as duelling, judicial torture or burning religious nonconformists had been eliminated or forced to the margin inside individual countries. He did live long enough to see how easily this moral progress could be put into reverse even in domestic politics and was thus -- to the pain of some of his earlier friends on the left -- one of the first to argue for rearmament against Nazi Germany and for an alert western defence against the Soviet threat. Indeed the limited part that reason plays in human affairs makes it all the more important that this should be true reason rather than the false arguments of the geo-politicians against whom Angell fought all his life.

The fallacies he fought continued well into the 21st century. One example was the frequent belief that the US desired or needed to dominate the Middle East for the sake of oil without realising that Middle Eastern countries needed to sell the oil as much as the West needed to buy it.

A Card Game

Angell made one venture into economics, more narrowly understood, when he invented a card game, described in The Money Game (1928). This was an attempt to explain matters such as deflation and inflation in visual terms which the ordinary person could understand. It could be regarded as the precursor to the National Income Machine which A.W. Phillips invented at the London School of Economics after World War Two, in which the flow of spending through the economy was shown by means of coloured water with taps that could be turned on and off.

Such devices went out of fashion with the increasing mathematical complexity of economic models which were more difficult to illustrate by visual devices. Opponents also said that such teaching devices ignored the subtle complexities introduced by the vagaries of human nature into the workings of the economy. But the more sophisticated mathematical models were even more mechanistic and the governing principles were more difficult even for their inventors to discern. If there were ever a serious attempt at mass economic education there would be a case for returning to the Angell-Phillips tradition, so long as it was made clear that these devices can only illustrate guiding principles and cannot encompass the institutional variety of actual economies.


Angell, Norman, The Great Illusion: London 1910
Angell, Norman, The Great Illusion Now: London 1938
Angell, Norman, After All: The Autobiography of Norman Angell, London 1951
J D B Miller, Norman Angell and the Futility of War, London 1986.


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