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See 20th-century Britain in a whole new light

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SHOCK OF THE NEW: Children try 
a sun-lamp treatment at 
an NHS health centre in 1948
SHOCK OF THE NEW: Children try 
a sun-lamp treatment at 
an NHS health centre in 1948 Credit: Popperfoto

Vernon Bogdanor reviews The Rise and Fall of the British Nation by David Edgerton (Allen Lane, £35)

David Edgerton is an iconoclast among historians. He has the great advantage of having been trained in chemistry rather than history. This has given him rare insight into the significance of scientific and technological advance and its political consequences. It has also given him a talent for dismissing lazy generalisations such as the view that, in 20th-century Britain, scientists have been “sidelined and medical reformers brushed aside”.

For Edgerton the opposite is true. Indeed 20th-century Britain has been in the forefront of scientific and technological innovation. “We are,” declared Margaret Thatcher in her first speech as Conservative Party leader in 1975, “the people who, among other things, invented the computer, refrigerator, electric motor, stethoscope, rayon, steam turbine, stainless steel, the tank, television, penicillin, radar, jet engine, hovercraft, float glass and carbon fibres. Oh, and the best half of Concorde.”

In his earlier books, Warfare State (2005) and Britain’s War Machine (2011), Edgerton attacked the standard narrative that Britain, as well as being scientifically incompetent and inefficient, was in decline for much of the 20th century. The seeming paradox of high innovation and low economic growth is for him no paradox at all. “We should,” he asserts, “expect rich countries to grow relatively slowly and to innovate,” nor “in a world of shared innovations”, should we expect “national innovation to lead to national growth”. Edgerton has also attacked the conventional view that Britain was unprepared for war in 1939. On the contrary, Britain by 1939 was a “warfare state”, well equipped to face the worst that Nazi Germany could do.

The Rise and Fall of the British Nation is just as iconoclastic as Edgerton’s earlier books. He wants us to think about Britain’s 20th-century history in an entirely new way. The standard version suggests that the first half of the century was marked by liberalism, or perhaps liberal imperialism, which was to be superseded in 1945 by socialism or social democracy. Edgerton argues by contrast that: “The political story of the United Kingdom can usefully be framed as a contrast between two programmes or projects: the liberal-internationalist, free-trading one and the imperial protectionist one.” And there was a third project, nationalism, which has seemed “practically invisible, and insofar as it is seen, it is as a feature of the Second World War”.

Clement Attlee on the eve of the 1950 election in his Walthamstow West constituency Credit: PA

But nationalism has been, he believes, far more pervasive than that, and at least as strong on the Left as on the Right. Nationalism indeed was as important as socialism in motivating the Attlee government from 1945, a government whose policies were based on protection of manufacturing, subsidised agriculture and compulsory peacetime conscription, all classically nationalist policies. Indeed, the Labour government, dominated by Ernest Bevin, was at least as committed to power politics as any government of the Right would have been.

In place of the standard periodisation of 20th-century histories with sharp breaks marking the beginning or end of the two world wars, The Rise and Fall of the British Nation chooses as its first dividing line 1950. The period before that had been “concerned with the building of the new nation”, a project that culminated in the social reforms of the wartime coalition and the Labour government which succeeded it.

Edgerton regards the Attlee government, therefore, not as social democrats tend to do, as inaugurating a British road to socialism, but as the climax of British nationalism; and indeed, since 1951, the Labour Party has, with more or less success, been seeking to divest itself of Attlee’s legacy of large-scale nationalisation, protection, and suspicion of the project of European integration.

Edgerton’s second period from 1950 saw the consolidation of the nationalist project until after 1979 it succumbed under Margaret Thatcher to the pressures of globalisation, inaugurating his third period, which embraced not only the Conservatives but also New Labour, a phenomenon that Edgerton rightly sees as not “a response to Thatcherism but its child”.

Margaret Thatcher campaigning in the Isle of Wight, 1983 Credit: Peter Jordan/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images

The great weakness of The Rise and Fall of the British Nation is that it pushes plausible arguments to exaggerated conclusions. In particular, Edgerton over-estimates the importance of imperialism in British politics. Most leading politicians, far from embracing Empire, were wary of extending it, and all too frequently found themselves at the mercy of private companies and adventurers who had staked out claims and presented them to government as a fait accompli.

As for the British people, they were ostriches rather than lions, and on the whole indifferent to Empire. Before the Boer War, Joseph Chamberlain was fearful lest the British public would refuse to support a war for British supremacy; and, as late as 1949, when asked to name a single British colony, only 49 per cent could do so – though one respondent did suggest Lincolnshire.

Edgerton also exaggerates the prevalence of racism in the Empire. In Cape Colony, for example, there was a colour-blind franchise; while in the Transvaal one of the reasons why Chamberlain and Milner failed to achieve a peaceful settlement was Boer unwillingness to concede the vote to black Uitlanders. If the Empire had been as racist as its critics suggested, the multi-racial Commonwealth, membership of which is voluntary, with Burma being the only colony not to join, would never have come into existence.

Neville Chamberlain, second from right arrives in Munich in 1938. To his left are the German politician Gauleiter Adolf Wagner, German SA-Obergruppenfuhrer Franz Ritter von Epp and the German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop. To Chamberlain's right is the British Ambassador to Germany, Sir Neville Henderson Credit: Hugo Jaeger/Timepix/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

Edgerton also exaggerates the effectiveness of the British “warfare state”. Both in 1914 and in 1939, Britain’s preparations were barely adequate for resisting armed attack, but quite insufficient to deter aggression or to fight a Continental war, as Professor Michael Howard showed as long ago as 1972 in The Continental Commitment, a book absent from Edgerton’s long bibliography. Indeed, Britain’s defence inadequacies were an important factor behind the Munich agreement in 1938, since the Chiefs of Staff had been unanimous that Britain was in no condition to fight. Things were not much better a year later when Britain slithered unwillingly into war.

In seeking to give an all-embracing interpretation of Britain’s 20th century, The Rise and Fall of the British Nation attempts to cover too much ground, and the general effect is sometimes helter-skelter. Still, the book’s virtues far outweigh its weaknesses. It is beautifully written and can be read with pleasure by the general reader as well as the trained historian. Its errors are fertile and outweighed by its insights.

So, despite my qualms, this is the book that I shall recommend to my students together with David Marquand’s quite different ideological history of the 20th century, Britain Since 1918: The Strange Career of British Democracy. The Rise and Fall of the British Nation is often right, sometimes wrong, but always stimulating. Who could ask for more?

Vernon Bogdanor is Professor 
of Government at KCL

The Rise and Fall of the British Nation by David Edgerton
720pp, Allen Lane, 
£30, ebook £12.99