The role of warfare in 20th-century Britain has been ignored because historians have asked the wrong questions, David Edgerton tells Huw Richards
David Edgerton is well accustomed to people mishearing the title of his new book, Warfare State . He explains: "They hear 'welfare state' and politely say 'how interesting'." Most writers would find this decidedly irksome, more irksome still the incident when New Left Review printed "welfare" in an index entry for his article on "Tony Blair's warfare state".
But for Edgerton, professor of the history of science and technology at Imperial College London, such misunderstandings underline his thesis. He believes that in seeing the British state as a civilian operation focused on welfare, historians have failed to notice the greater influence of military considerations and the science, technology, institutions and commercial operations associated with them.
In setting out to redress the balance, he is challenging most generally received versions of 20th-century British history. Warfare State , he emphasises, is "a critique, not an indictment. This is not a mirror image, attempting to replace previous versions with something completely opposed to them. Welfare was clearly enormously important, and to claim that it was not would be as wrong as the currently accepted versions that take no account of warfare." He is asking for a strand of history that is at least as important to be acknowledged alongside it.
While his book will certainly have an impact among historians, it will not come as a great surprise to them. Edgerton, 46, offered a clear indication of his doubts about the received version as long ago as 1991 in England and the Aeroplane: An Essay on a Militant and Technological Nation . In the years since, Edgerton has worked at Manchester University, and in 1993 he joined Imperial. His argument has deepened and broadened with time, developing detail and nuance. It would, he readily agrees, be fair to see Warfare State as a distillation of his academic career so far.
His inaugural lecture at Imperial summarised the thrust of his argument, pointing to two "missing elements in the historiography of 20th-century Britain: the military and its associated civilian apparatus - the warfare state for short; and the non-academic and non-socialist parts of the British research enterprise". He adds: "A key part of my story is the significant overlap between the warfare state and British research, and thus my work has been in part about putting the state into the history of science and technology, to produce a new account of science and the nation."
In so doing, he assaults a number of widely held beliefs. He argues that Britain did not disarm between the wars, but that it retained expenditure at historically high peacetime levels. He adds that, counter to the influential thesis argued by Correlli Barnet, keeper of the Churchill archives, military and technological capacity was not sacrificed to the demands of welfare by postwar governments; that military spending, research and innovation have had a far greater scientific and economic impact than is generally understood; and that C. P. Snow's two-cultures theory about the British elite's disregard for science and technology was spectacularly misguided.
He is also highly sceptical of the "declinist" tradition in British history. He points out that Britain could not possibly have retained its former proportions of world output and trade once other nations industrialised. And he argues that the belief that other countries gave higher priority to science, technology and those qualified in them is rooted more in assumptions than in evidence.
How, one has to wonder, did British historians miss the story? Edgerton alleges neither grand conspiracy nor collective incompetence. What he suggests is that underlying assumptions made them ask the wrong questions.
"One of the things British historians have not been good at examining is their own assumptions," he says.
Getting national stories wrong, not least through misplaced comparison with other nations, is not an exclusively British failing. Our self-image as an, in essence, pacific nation that wages war reluctantly has echoes in modern assumptions among Americans about themselves. Edgerton says: "Britain is good at warfare and it had what Americans term a military-industrial complex - with a close relationship between the state, research and a large, successful military industrial sector - some time before they did."
The preoccupations of British history do not help. "It tends to be interested in policy, biography and parties. There is less interest in science and business, in Whitehall as opposed to Westminister, and in what is actually happening as opposed to what the policies say should happen."
He singles out social historian Keith Middlemass's Politics in an Industrial Society as an exception. "It asked questions about Britain that are normally asked only about continental countries, where it is assumed that the state has a significant role."
The warfare state was seldom in the political front line, so it rarely attracted the serious attention of high-profile ministers. Edgerton cites the Ministry of Supply in Clement Attlee's immediate postwar Labour Government. Economically, it was hugely important, yet it was headed by second-division ministers. First was John Wilmot. He was sacked with laconic brutality and, when he asked Attlee for an explanation, he was told he was "not up to it". Then came the wealthy leftwing maverick George Strauss. The ministry's press officer felt Attlee had created "the most important ministry in the country". Attlee saw the ministry as "purely administrative", yet its purchasing power and influence on research policy were huge. Edgerton suggests Attlee, generally regarded as Labour's best prime minister, did not understand the role of the state, and he gives a better rating to the much-criticised Harold Wilson.
The oddity is that the peace movement did not make more of Britain's military-industrial complex, but Edgerton points out: "The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament was focused on nuclear weapons rather than on wider issues of the state, what it did and who influenced it." But he credits E. P. Thompson with having been more perceptive than most on these issues.
Thompson is now slightly out of fashion, as is Snow, as a novelist at least. But Snow's two-cultures concept continues to enjoy wide currency.
Its continuing credibility exasperates Edgerton. "It is believed because it is what the political elite wanted to believe, rather than because there is anything in it. Snow's own career, as a scientist who was accepted in the literary world and enjoyed considerable access and influence in government, refutes his own thesis," he insists.
Edgerton, a historian in a predominantly scientific institution, is unimpressed. His next project will be The Shock of the Old , a history of 20th-century technology that looks at perceptions of science and technology and argues that in overemphasising innovation we miss what is really important. He says: "Old industries and technologies are at least as important in our lives and for economic development as new ones." He is also planning a book for Penguin on science, technology and industry in Second World War Britain. This will enable him to go into further depth on how the warfare state performed the task for which it was intended.
Warfare State, Britain: 1920-1970 is published by Cambridge University Press in December.