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New Left Review I/185, January-February 1991

David Edgerton

Liberal Militarism and the British State

The British contribution to the Gulf war, the Cold War rhetoric of Margaret Thatcher, and the fresh memory of the Falklands war remind us of the military propensities of the British state. [*] I would like to thank Roger Cooter, Colin Divall, Peter Gowan, Philip Gummett, Jon Harwood, Paul Heywood, Frances Lynch, Brendan O’Leary, John Pickstone, Geoffrey Price, Judith Reppy, Helen Roberts and Steve Sturdy (who suggested the useful term ‘liberal militarism’ to me) for comments on earlier versions of this article. Yet Britain has not had conscription since the fifties, its generals keep out of political life, and its armed forces have been held to suffer from amateurism and neglect. Memories of the interwar period still inform contemporary perceptions, and the spirit of appeasement is frequently perceived to be a live danger. In this article I will question conventional pictures of the British state and its military policies shared by Right and Left alike. I will show that the war-fighting sector of the state has been well funded and deeply suffused with the scientific, technological and industrial spirit. There was a good reason for this: the ‘British way in warfare’, which I label ‘liberal militarism’, has relied on technology; and creating this technology required a technically expert state machine. I will argue, furthermore, that Britain’s war-fighting strategy is ‘modern’: Britain’s weapons have been directed not only at the armed forces of enemy nations, but also at their civil populations and industry. Britain is not so much a ‘caricature of an exterminist formation’, [1] E.P. Thompson, ‘Notes on Exterminism, the Last Stage of Civilization’, in New Left Review, eds., Exterminism and Cold War, London 1982, p. 23. rather it has pioneered a distinctively modern militarism.

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