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

Thank my 955 mile Shanghai-Guilin train journey for this

“Very good” — Left Outside

Just as no British historian would dream of writing a history of the Soviet Union or Germany without ideology, militarism, nationalism, I.G. Farben, the Wehrmacht, Magnitogorsk and the Dneiper dam, no British historian should ignore British militarism and nationalism, Imperial Chemical Industries and the Royal Air Force. Page 14

The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland of the late 1940s, can usefully be seen as one of the new nations which arose from the dissolution of the one empire. Page 28

What if everything you think you know about Britain’s 20th century is wrong? That is the startling and surprisingly successful premise of David Edgerton’s book The Rise and Fall of the British Nation: A Twentieth-Century History.

Checking my notes, they start simply: “Very good.” But you deserve more of a précis. The traditional view of Britain’s 20th century history goes a little something like this: Unlike Europe, Britain had a relatively stable 20th century, never invaded, few major constitutional upheavals, no waves of nationalism, reluctantly militaristic (unlike the Hun). Despite all this Britain suffered a steady economic decline until the 1980s came and Britain painfully began to get its house in order. Never European and always slightly apart from developments on the continent, even Britain’s welfare state developed differently, waiting for the 1940s to be established unlike the Bismarkian model of the continent. Always a global power, but also one which stood alone against totalitarianism in 1940. Of course, all of this is false.

Not only does Edgerton dismantle the traditional story of Britain’s recent past, but he often sounds faintly disappointed nobody has done so before. Perhaps I’m imagining it, but I can’t help but read some passages in a slightly exasperated tone. For example, defence spending was at least four times health spending in the 1940s, but people have spilt far more ink discussing the mid-century welfare state than the warfare state. Here Tyler Cowen highlights some interesting facts from the book which I’ll replicate below:

  1. During WWII, British imports kept to their pre-war levels, with imports of munitions picking up the slack. The book stresses how much the British empire did in fact pay off, as Britain through a variety of mechanisms forced or induced its colonies to lend it resources during this critical time. Along some dimensions, the British economy became more global due to the conflict.
  2. In 1942, exports from Malaya (mostly rubber) to the U.S. were higher than UK exports to the U.S. at that time.
  3. Early in the 20th century, wheat in Great Britain was about ten times more expensive than coal. Britain was the largest importer of food, and in essence sold coal for foodstuffs.
  4. British coal was centered in rural areas, and this kept British country life economically vital. Furthermore this mining was largely horse-powered.
  5. From the end of WWII to the 1980s, more people left Britain than migrated to it.
  6. Goods trade as a percentage of gdp was about 32% for Britain around 1920, and then lower at about 20% in 2000

None of this stuff strikes me as hidden or difficult to discover information and yet it counters many of the common stories we tell ourselves about Britain’s history. Can’t you hear the sotto voce sigh of an academic waiting for his colleagues to catch up?

Instead of the traditional story of Britain’s 20th cenutry, Edgerton asks us to reconsider what was actually happening and to seek commonality with other comparable states, rather than seeking a British exceptionalism.

So, what was really going on? At the start of the century Britain was indeed a liberal, capitalist and anti-nationalist country. Describing the world before the Great War, and quoted by Edgerton in support, Keynes says “The inhabitant of London could order by telephone, sipping his morning tea in bed, the various products of the whole earth, in such quantity as he may see fit, and reasonably expect their early delivery upon his doorstep.” Likewise Britain was reliant on imports to feed its highly proletarianised population. And rather than being reliant on the empire for its global reach, early 20th century Britain traded extensively with its European neighbours. They were all large economies, and close, so why wouldn’t the world’s premier trading nation trade heavily with its near neighbours over its distant imperial possessions? If you’re hearing a subtext well….lets just say I don’t think its accidental.

Even through the 1920s and 1930s Britain’s commitment to free trade and globalisation was challenged but never overcome. Even the Labour Party of Ramsey MacDonald was committed to free trade. Even the Tory threat of imperial preference and tariffs on non-imperial trade never overcame the liberal hegemony and turned Britain inward or away from Europe. The trauma of war was to change all this, and by the 1940s Britain was transformed, turning inward and changing the state and society in important and far-reaching ways. I won’t go into it here, but Edgerton also offers an alternative history of the roles and ideologies of both the Labour and Conservative party through the century.

One way in which the 1940s did not constitute a fundamental break with the past is the welfare state. This sounds like a fever dream, perhaps even a heresy, but again Edgerton convincing argues that rather than Labour building on Beveridge they really built on the Conservative welfare reforms of the 1920s and 1930s. The inter-war period saw great modernisation of outdoor relief, health and social insurance and the 1940s saw a bedding-in and nationalisation of those popular, but decentralised reforms, rather than a new generation of welfarism. One area the situation was utterly changed was the warfare state.

Prior to the second world war Britain’s military was indeed different from those of the continental powers. Conscription was seen as a terrible burden to impose on the young. Instead Britannia played to its strengths: its wealth and its navy. Britain had, and retained into he 1940s a highly mechanised military. It relied on an all powerful navy to protect its global interest and defend the Empire’s island base. Likewise, the Royal Air Force, which recently celebrated its centenary, was the most technologically advanced airforce in the world in the interwar period. But the time the United Nations triumphed over Hitler, Britain had exhausted the wealth it used to maintain its powerful navy and liquidated the global investments which made the navy necessary in the first place. In its place came a conscription army which oversaw the dissolution of empire and engaged in actions across the world where once Britain could have relied more on its imperial recruits.

The country broke decisively with internationalism after the second world war and by the 1970s the world’s once most global country had become self-sufficient in food and more industrialised than ever before. Rather than being a globalised economy the British economy has swung back and forth

I could go on, as Edgerton offers further examples and descriptions of the changes of pre-1945 Britain in the first half of the book — and indeed, if you just want to read a book to learn interesting facts, and ignore his argument, there’s more than enough to keep you happy — but I think these examples illustrate well a core argument of Edgerton’s; that 1940s Britain represented a critical rupture with the past. What was built in place of this old, cosmopolitan, laissez faire Britain? Edgerton argues that the post-war consensus was not, in fact, the mixed economy and welfare state, but the productionist state, the national economy and the maintenance of the warfare state.

Talk of a national economy grew in 1920s and 1930s as techniques to measure it were developed. GDP was enthusiastically adopted but wasn’t a necessary precursor to a national economy. Both Alexander Hamilton and Frederich List developed strategies for the national economies of the USA and Germany far prior to the development of modern statistics. Prior to the 1940s Britain rejected this ideology in favour of a global pose, argues Edgerton (leave aside whether a mechanised navy counts as a successful development strategy for a globalised economy or not), but after 1945 Britain consciously adopted a strategy of developing a national economy.

Within this national economy were nationalised utilities like electricity, rail, water, gas and coal. Alongside this was a conscious policy to encourage British industry. It was not the 1850s, when Britain was the workshop of the world, which saw Britain as its most industrialised, it was post-war Britain. In this context Harold Wilson’s white heat of the technological revolution and Britain’s relatively stingy welfare state make sense.

Britain’s imports and exports also radically changed in the period. Prior to the second world war Britain was the world’s premier energy exporter in the form of coal. Likewise, “ghost acres” in the new world fed Britain like no other country. Britain was not remotely self-sufficient in food, and thanks to the Royal Navy’s rule of the seas, wasn’t worried about it. Of course that changed after the 1940s. Coal’s decline as an export market with oil and gas’s increased use tolled the end of Britain’s spell as the coal world’s Saudi Arabia. Likewise, the trauma of rationing and war time deprivations meant that important substitution and the expansion of Britain’s agriculture were priorities for Britain (Another sacred cow slaughtered by Edgerton is the idea that the war might have been bad in general, but rationing and a sense of camaraderie were actually good for the nation’s health. In fact maternal deaths ticked upwards in the first year of the war, just as in the first year of the great war, interrupting their otherwise steady downward trend).

Through all this there is a popular story which is wrong, and an unspoken story which is true. The first is declinism. That British business, that the British economy, had been in decline ever since…oh, you pick the date, the 1870s, 1900s, 1918… Over taken by German chemicals firms, American mass manufactures, Australian living standards. Whatever. Edgerton pushes back strongly against this. Britain has spent essentially all of history as one of the world’s most technologically advanced countries. While Germany enjoyed a period of catch-up growth and the US had vast tracts of land to exploit to boot, Britain has been slogging away since the 1600s about as wealth per capita as any other country on earth. Britain has done things the hard way. In addition, for all the talk of decline and industrial idiocy in the post-war period, Edgerton paints an alternative picture. As I said, manufacturing reached its peak in the post-war period, and while many firms hit difficulties in the 1970s they left behind them many important innovations and long records of commercial success. Likewise, the nationalised utilities have a bad reputation, but, to offer just one example, the Britain of 1950 was powered by coal; heating, electricity, industrial, household; but by 1970 the transition to gas was largely complete. It is easy to dismiss 1970s Britain as backward and dated, but the transformation from the 1950s was real enough. The 1970s crisis wasn’t a British one, it was global.

The other story is that of the warfare state. This gets much less press that the welfare state, and yet for most of the period defence spending outstripped health spending. Indeed, it is only the slow decline of defence spending rom 1940 that allowed health spending to expand. Today 8% of GDP is dedicated to health and 2%, including Trident (!) and pensions(!!) to defence. In 1945 those percentages were reversed. Britain was militarised in peacetime as never, ever before. I am less well qualified to speak to this topic, as I haven’t even read Edgerton’s Britain’s War Machine (yet). So you should wait, like I am, for Duncan Weldon’s upcoming review.

Where I would criticise the book is in its focus on political and economic history. Edgerton’s use of a Keynes’s quote to illustrate the cosmopolitanism of early 20th century London for wealthy gentlemen is telling. He bolsters it by emphasising the high foreign component of the food and clothing and tobacco consumed by Britain’s proletariat, a proletariat who represented something like 80% of Britain’s population. But I do question the degree to which the global Britain imagined by Edgerton in the first half of the 20th century was present in most people’s everyday lives. Sure the wheat for your bread was grown in Australia, but would you ever think of it? Sure the wholesaler bringing it in cared, but did even your baker really ponder it, so long as wheat and bread were available? Did this value chain from port to table think it helped define them? I am left curious, but as yet unconvinced. Likewise, Edgerton argues for a sort of reglobalisation of Britain in the 1980s and 1990s. The strange death of liberalism then and the success of Brexitism now suggests the defining globalism which he identifies as British didn’t have the strong foundations Edgerton assumes.

Likewise Edgerton’s later chapters on New Labour leave much to be desired. Thatcherism destroyed the national economy which had been built up in the post-war years. Unlike the decline of horses — replaced by something better, the motor car — the destruction of Britain’s national economy was not because there was a better offer in place. The miners were not drawn into factories as they had been in the 1950s and 60s, they were thrown onto the dole. Edgerton is rightly scathing about the damage done by Thatcherism and the false narratives of decline and disaster they created to justify their policies. But to play New Labour as continuity Thatcherism is to also create a false narrative. New Labour abandoned the productionism of Harold Wilson and the technocratic optimism of Tony Benn but you can’t pretend that they didn’t build new schools and hospitals, spend loads on health and welfare, create tax credits, seek a British sort of multiculturalism. These are not minor departures from Thatcherism! Although education and tax credit spending were couched in terms of global competitiveness they were still nationally focused policies. We all think New Labour was disappointing in a myriad ways.

I also think Edgerton errs when he blames Blair and Brown for the rise of our new era of vacuous nationalism and the rise of British nationalism again as a negative force. Brown’s British jobs for British workers and New Labour’s weird harping on about identity, was and remains a bad idea, but they didn’t help Orban, Duterte, PiS and Trump too, did they? Its tempting to find country by country explanations for the nationalist and populist tide, but its is a dead end. Global phenomena require global explanations.

Likewise, although I know this is a history of the twentieth century I can’t help that Edgerton is a bit of a coward. The book couldn’t be more about right now and yet Edgerton doesn’t even give us an epilogue on May, Corbyn and Brexit, global Britain and taking back control? Come on! Pull the trigger, settle some scores, enjoy yourself! Likewise, the schema he’s developed should tell us something useful about the future. Its a fascinating way to view British history and to know how this way of thinking informs his predictions about the future (and predictions about the present!) would be useful too. So I’d argue Edgerton enjoys his iconoclasm slightly too much and slightly too little.

Overall though I can’t recommend this book highly enough, and it should kick start the sort of conversation we had when Piketty’s Capital came out. Its that rich, and interesting and thought-provoking. There’s been a secret history of Britain that — for all the fashionable talk of Britishness and Englishness and Scottish and Irish nationalisms — we have missed. Its high time to discuss it, if its not already too late.