The Rise and Fall of the British Nation aims to dispel the myths which, David Edgerton claims, envelop his subject, chief among them the notion that Britain’s relative decline after 1945 had its roots in the anti-industrial culture of a gentleman-amateur governing elite. Today, a much diminished Ukania cannot possibly go it alone, Edgerton insists. Post-war Britain, on the other hand, was sufficient unto itself, and far more successful than standard accounts allow. The record of one of the capitalist world’s most prodigious economies lies ‘buried in mountains of evidence of what supposedly thwarted it’. Despite a largely positive critical reception for Rise and Fall, neither the historian David Kynaston writing in the ft nor the journalist and commentator Neal Ascherson in the lrb could quite reconcile its depiction of a technological forcing house with their impressions of the period.
A historian at King’s College London, Edgerton has spent much of his career self-consciously swimming against the tide of British historiography, a reflection perhaps of his insider-outsider status. He was born into an Anglo-Argentine family in Uruguay in 1959, and the fragment of autobiography contained in the Acknowledgements indicates a liberal-imperial expat upbringing split between Montevideo and Buenos Aires, magnets for pre-First World War British capital export to Latin America. ‘Without realizing it, I knew the land of my father (born 1903) from the design of railway stations, visiting Royal Navy warships, Senior Service cigarettes, the airmail edition of the New Statesman.’ His arrival in Britain in 1970 at the age of eleven—‘out of time, as if a leftover from an older order of things’—opened up a world both familiar and strange. Rather than the dull and decrepit nation castigated by journalists and opposition politicians, he saw ‘so much to admire and to be amazed at’.
Edgerton dates an interest in British history to reading Keith Middlemas’s Politics in Industrial Society (1979), presumably while an Oxford undergraduate. Middlemas dissected a succession of crisis-averting brokerage arrangements between Whitehall and co-opted business and trade-union organizations between the 1920s and 60s—a ‘corporate bias’ falling just short of a stable corporatist system. Edgerton remembers it as ‘an extraordinary rethinking’ which ‘shifted attention from open parliamentary politics to behind-the-scenes secret orchestration of the interests of capital and labour by the state: it was here that one needed to understand real politics, and the real nature of the state’. He completed his PhD in 1986 under the supervision of Marxist historian of science Gary Werskey at Imperial College London. Werskey’s The Visible College (1978), a collective biography of five Communist Party and left Labour scientists of the 1930s—physicist J. D. Bernal, geneticist J. B. S. Haldane, zoologist Lancelot Hogben, mathematician Hyman Levy, biochemist and historian Joseph Needham—argued that the historiography of the cpgb had incorrectly seen the typical Party intellectual as a ‘politically inexperienced poet’. In fact, the modernizing ethos of the Old Left’s scientific cadres would carry through to Wilson’s Labour. Edgerton treads a similar path to Werskey, incorporating not just committed intellectuals of the left but also of the right, such as aero-designer Sir Roy Fedden, who blisteringly attacked the ‘something for nothing’ culture of the post-war welfare state.
Published in 1991, Edgerton’s first book was England and the Aeroplane. By studying the centrality of the aeroplane to English history and culture, Edgerton argued that British militarism through to the Second World War was a ‘liberal militarism’. That is, it placed a premium on labour-saving machines and technology against the Continental pattern exemplified by conscription and mass standing armies. ‘The commitment of England to the aeroplane exemplifies a commitment to armed force, science, technology and industry.’ What was important about Ukania changes from this vantage point: not ‘a welfarist nation lacking interest in technology, but a warfare state which gives a remarkably high priority to technological development’—a proposition he would further develop in Warfare State (2005) and Britain’s War Machine (2011). Far from being ‘an island alone’ after the fall of France, the uk was a technological colossus with an Empire and a global trade network behind it. Churchill’s begging of Roosevelt for American military hardware through Lend-Lease wasn’t symptomatic of the weakness of the country’s industrial base but ‘an attempt through a division of labour to maximize the exploitation of common resources’. Standing somewhat aloof from his other work, Edgerton’s most popular book, The Shock of the Old (2006), offered a ground-clearing global history of technology, eschewing invention and early adoption to look at ‘technology-in-use’—well-established devices such as the steam engine and the rickshaw accorded as much priority as the computer and the hydrogen bomb.
Rise and Fall gathers together and systematizes much of this previous work. Yet there are important new additions to the story Edgerton tells. His primary goal is to account for the rise of a ‘national-developmental’ British state shortly after the Second World War. This structure was then dismantled, its death throes coming in the miners’ strike against Thatcher. The narrative isn’t organized around any of the conventional turning-points: 1914, 1945, 1979. Instead, Rise and Fall divides Britain’s twentieth century down the middle, at 1950, the last full year of the post-war Labour government. Thematically organized, each of the opening nine chapters roams between Edwardian England and the Attlee years, surveying the structures of parliamentary and imperial rule, the development of social welfare, patterns of international trade, the military-industrial complex, currents of intellectual life, and ruling- and working-class culture. They stress the exceptional character of the fin-de-siècle uk in all instances where the comparison is to national advantage. Britain was remarkable for its openness to trade, a ‘place of plenty’ in a world of general scarcity. Mountains of goods could enter the country without tariff or duty, trade with an unprecedentedly populous Empire forming merely a part of a larger commercial nexus. The country had a ‘rich, confident and distinct’ ruling elite, including not a few productive capitalists and technically educated public servants, as well as the world’s largest proletarian society. Coal exports made it the ‘Saudi Arabia of 1900’. The manufacturing sector had plenty of forward momentum, the scale of research-and-development broadly equivalent to Germany, if not the us. Innovators were somewhat thin on the ground, but not entirely negligible.
The picture that Edgerton subsequently gives of Britain at mid-century is of an unfamiliar place. Contrary to popular understanding, post-war Britain remained a warfare, not a welfare, state. Rise and Fall pushes back against the depiction, which it associates with A. J. P. Taylor, of 1939–45 as a ‘People’s War’ in which Labour’s management of the home front pushed the country leftwards, allowing for the creation of a welfare state under Attlee. Far from witnessing ‘the takeover of the state and nation by a mobilized people’, the war economy was run by the likes of newspaper baron Lord Beaverbrook and department-store executive Lord Woolton. Labour’s earliest years had been marked by a decidedly liberal global-economic outlook. Down to the early 1930s, it could proclaim that it had ‘no confidence in any attempt to bolster a bankrupt capitalism by a system of tariffs’. Yet in 1945, the incoming Attlee government accepted protectionism as well as conscription. This had nothing to do with any sort of broad political consensus. ‘Butskellism’ was vastly overstated, with the Conservatives more market-oriented than Labour, whose focus was on state planning. But in strategic-technical fields, ‘parliamentary politics was not relevant—a deeper state and administrative culture was in control’. The largest increase in state expenditure between the 1930s and early 1950s was not on social services or the creation of a National Health Service but on the armed forces, including the continuation of national service.
Edgerton traces the strengthening imprint of a national-economic unit resulting from the sell-off or destruction of two-fifths of British business assets held abroad; Labour’s nationalization of major industries, placing the state in charge of half of domestic investment; and the erection of tariffs and other controls which reduced the country’s trade-to-gdp ratio. Truman’s abrupt termination of Lend-Lease in 1945 left the country economically isolated. The export drive mounted by Stafford Cripps, Attlee’s appointee to the Board of Trade, encouraged ‘a more national and technocratic conception of the economy’. However, the British nation was not just an economic space, but a distinct political-cultural formation emerging out of the broken shell of an imperial past. After the fall of Singapore in 1942, the imperial slate was wiped more or less clean. Post-war counterinsurgency operations elsewhere were trifles by the standards of the American onslaught in Vietnam; Indian Partition isn’t even worth mentioning. Ukania belonged to the Empire as much as running it, and decolonization therefore left behind a successor state, ‘one of the new nations’. Rise and Fall contrasts the 1951 Festival of Britain—the Dome of Discovery, a vast inverted saucer of aluminium filled with examples of Britain’s technical might, squatted beside the Skylon, a gigantic shard of steel appearing to float above the South Bank—with the imperial spectacle staged in Hyde Park a century earlier. The Victorian Great Exhibition had spawned a series of smaller ‘Empire shows’ through to the late 1930s. By 1951, however, much had changed in the official presentation of Britain. Not only had the Empire been downgraded, but taking centre stage for the first time was the nation: still dynamic, but now looking inwards upon itself rather than out towards its dominions overseas.