The Rise and Fall of the British Nation: A Twentieth Century History, by David Edgerton

Book of the week: A. W. Purdue on an argument that relocates the roots of modern Britain in the post-war period

June 28, 2018
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David Edgerton’s reassessment of 20th-century British history is billed as “bold” – and it certainly is. He sets out to transform the landscape of Britain’s 20th century by eradicating the concept of a British nation and self-identification as British from two-thirds of it, claiming that “‘The British nation’ emerged out of the British Empire and out of a cosmopolitan economy, after the Second World War.”

To substantiate this astonishing statement, he embarks on a massive exercise in spring cleaning “to take the Britishness out of British history”. Out go the views of major historians and long-held tenets of popular belief: the common identity and patriotism seen as emerging from the Napoleonic Wars, late Victorian jingoism and even the notion of Britain fighting the Second World War as a “People’s War”. The first chapter is, indeed, titled “The country with no name”, and it points out that the dedications on war memorials tended to be for those who died for “King and Country” (rather than for “King and Britain”). Edgerton even refrains from using the word “Britain”, “except when the actors did, which was often”.

The most contentious part of his thesis is his dismissal of pre-1945 British consciousness. There is certainly a case for considering that consciousness as complex, often contradictory and difficult to disentangle from empire, power and economy, which he sees as separate entities. In addition, there was the need to keep in balance the separate or joint identities of the trinity of nations that composed Britain when the English made up the bulk of the population. The British consciousness of the early 20th century cannot, however, be dismissed. No doubt, that consciousness or patriotism was vague, multifaceted and, in part, imperial, and it drew on nostalgic and often contradictory versions of history, but there is much evidence that it existed and that the pride in being British we find in Edwardian literature permeated politics and popular culture.

Where Edgerton is most persuasive is in his argument that, as its global position collapsed after the Second World War, a new, more nationalist and more insular Britain emerged with a sense of identity and purpose, very different from its predecessors. Whether this was the birth of a nation or a qualitative change in the nature of an existing nation can be debated, but his argument, that a successful nation state was created by Labour and continued by Conservative governments that was more state-directed, insular and centralised, and had a more national and nationalistic British identity, is compelling.

Most accounts of British history in the 20th century see the world’s greatest power exhausting itself in two world wars, losing its empire, responding inefficiently to economic challenges and ending the century in a much-diminished position. This depressing tale is brightened by a parallel story of a slowly improving standard of living for the bulk of the population, an improvement made possible by the gradual provision of greater security and better health through the development of a welfare state. Edgerton will have no truck with either account. He finds little evidence for economic decline, arguing that the country’s success in maintaining a prosperous economy was a considerable achievement, given that other states were inevitably going to catch up on its commanding position in 1900. He has no time for the long, drawn-out moans from declinists who, generation after generation, have bewailed industrial decline, whether from Marxisant historians such as Martin Wiener, who have seen British industrialists as copying the lifestyle of the land-owning class (rather than behaving like a proper bourgeoisie and sticking to their capitalist lasts), or from the Conservative Correlli Barnett, who has attacked the post-1945 Labour governments for spending too much on welfare in the search for a “New Jerusalem”, rather than on industrial restructuring. With a wealth of evidence, Edgerton rebuts such charges, demonstrating that the record of the British economy and British capitalism is largely a story of success and pointing out that Britain was at its most industrial around 1950.

What some will find a horrifying heresy is the dismissal of that familiar tale of the development of the welfare state, which sees the great achievement of the post-war Labour governments as their welfare reforms. The Attlee government of 1945-51, it is often suggested, picked up from where the pre-1914 Liberal government had left off and, with its ethos as the workers’ party, extended the Liberal social reforms of Lloyd George and Churchill, a continuity personified by Beveridge’s role in the Liberal legislation and his report of 1944, while the demand for such reforms emanated from the “People’s War” that typified Britain’s struggle in the Second World War. To the contrary, Edgerton argues that Labour, following the example of all previous British governments, spent far more on the “warfare state” than the welfare state and prioritised armaments production, and that the “People’s War” was a post-war myth, while the importance of the welfare reforms, largely a tidying-up of extensive previous provision, has been exaggerated and neglects the significance of legislation brought in by governments of the inter-war period.

The great achievement of the post-1945 governments was, rather, the creation of a successful national, almost a nationalist, state. This used the adjective “National” for the myriad state-controlled organisations it founded or nationalised, such as the Coal Board and the Health Service, or, alternatively, the adjective “British”, as with British Airways and British Steel. The result was certainly a nationalisation of much of the means of production, but otherwise, it is argued, “the actual post-war United Kingdom was in some ways better prefigured in the programme of the Tories and the British Union of Fascists than that of the Liberals or the Labour Party”. It sought to remake Britain as a major economic and military power and, when the latter proved too expensive, made alliance with the US the cornerstone of British diplomacy.

In what some have seen as a period of consensus, succeeding Conservative governments left much of the structure and character of this rather national Britain unchanged until the 1970s, when the consensus began to fall apart. Margaret Thatcher’s governments achieved what Edgerton describes as a “rulers’ revolt”, and the British economy became more like that of the first decades of the century, with its markets open to foreign trade. The governments of Thatcher, John Major and Tony Blair, he argues, “did not revive a decaying British national capitalism, but rather brought the benefits of international capitalism to the United Kingdom”. By this time, Britain had, of course, joined the European Economic Community, which Edgerton (rather oddly, in view of its protectionism and subsidies) sees as having proffered an economic liberalism and a free trade alternative to economic nationalism. His penultimate chapter is titled “A nation lost”. But which nation, the post-1945 nation or the older Britain, with its patriotism as opposed to nationalism, which was seen as a rather alien concept?

There will, no doubt, be horrified rebuttals of this unsentimental and rigorous rewriting of British history. Its great strength is that it looks beyond the froth of political debate, takes business seriously and analyses government as much from Whitehall and administration as Westminster and politics. Edgerton casts aside clichés and myths and, if few will accept his revised history entirely, many will enjoy this mass slaughter of sacred cows and will reconsider the established account of Britain’s fortunes, failings and achievements as it prepares to leave the European Union.

A. W. Purdue is a visiting professor in history at Northumbria University.

The Rise and Fall of the British Nation: A Twentieth Century History
By David Edgerton
Allen Lane, 720pp, £30.00
ISBN 9781846147753
Published 28 June 2018

The author

David Edgerton, Hans Rausing professor of the history of science and technology and professor of modern British history at King’s College London, was born in Montevideo, Uruguay. He lived there and in Argentina until he came to England in 1970. After a first degree at Oxford, he completed a PhD in history at Imperial College London, while based in the department of economics and sociology. The experience made him “aware of the historical significance of both science and technology and the social sciences, and my own work was much influenced by political economy and theories of the state”.

Although England and the Aeroplane: Militarism, Modernity and Machine (1991), The Shock of the Old: Technology and Global History since 1900 (2007) and Britain’s War Machine: Weapons, Resources and Experts in the Second World War (2011) largely focused on science, technology and warfare, Edgerton was glad to address even broader themes in his new book: “Politics and economics were always central to my thinking, so this was a natural extension. But that earlier work was important in alerting me to the systematic exclusion of so much from our histories, the dangers of relying on interpretative frameworks established by historical actors, and the naive and ideological way in which the material world is treated.”

Asked about the relevance of 20th-century history to a Britain facing up to the challenges of life after Brexit, Edgerton responded that “The problem with Brexit is not a lack of history but the wrong sort of history – for example, fantasies of 1940 as the first Brexit…

“Brexiteers might ask themselves why it was that the UK’s great imperialist and capitalist party applied for membership of the EEC barely 15 years after the end of the war, when it was still the richest and largest national economy in Europe.”

Matthew Reisz 


Print headline: How the country with no name came into its own

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