The Rise and Fall of the British Nation, by David Edgerton, which appeared three years ago, met with well-deserved success. In the extensive literature on the subjects with which it deals, the book delivers a stand-out synthesis of trenchant ideas and arguments. Coming from a historian whose professional interests have been principally economic and technological, its range is remarkable: covering not just industrial, but political, military and cultural matters with confidence and fluency. Characteristically, all these are enlivened by an excellent eye for detail. The book is filled with striking local facts and figures, recounted in a lively, vigorous prose.
Attractive too is the iconoclastic bent of Edgerton’s writing, a general impatience with what he takes to be conventions of one kind or another. The leading pay-off of this temperament is a remarkable demystification of the history of British welfare systems. Beginning with a demonstration of the contrast between Lloyd George’s reforms before the First World War and the bonanza enjoyed by rentier holders of the National Debt afterwards, the book proceeds to the striking difference between inter-war Conservative expenditures on welfare and defence, and Labour outlays on these after the Second World War, which reversed their emphasis, Attlee by comparison spending much more on weapons and less on social services than Chamberlain; exposes the meanness of the much-touted Beveridge Plan of war-time vintage; and ends with the ‘minimal generosity’ of New Labour, refusing to restore earnings-related pensions that Thatcher had cut. Intellectually, the reader encounters a writer who is cheerful, equable and original; politically, one for whom the world of the far left holds few mysteries, and arouses no phobias.
Against the very considerable merits of the book must, nevertheless, be set a number of limitations and inconsistencies. Telegraphically put, the first of these is a want of conceptualization. Historians rarely take much interest, or feel at home, in conceptual questions—the vast majority are theory-naive or theory-averse. But if they are otherwise skilled at their trade, this usually doesn’t matter overmuch. In the case of The Rise and Fall of the British Nation, on the other hand, it does matter, since the organizing burden of the book is that no such thing as a ‘British nation’ ever really existed in what was a liberal, cosmopolitan empire before the Second World War, yet which arose after 1945 as a ‘new nation’ comparable to those emerging out of decolonization, before being in turn extinguished in the eighties under Thatcher. In developing this ambitious construction, however, Edgerton never stops to explain what he means by a nation, despite the abundant literature on this question. Amidst this consistent avoidance of conceptual reflection, conspicuous is the way the premier theorist of the issue in the uk is treated.
Tom Nairn is cited fifteen times in the book—I would guess, although I haven’t made an exhaustive count, more often than any other single authority to which it refers (there are a further dozen or so references to texts in nlr, ulr or The New Reasoner). Yet at no point does Edgerton show much sign of having understood or engaged with Nairn’s work as such, as opposed to picking passages to suit him from The Left against Europe and The Enchanted Glass, and (once) ‘The Nature of the Labour Party’. The Break-Up of Britain is ignored entirely. One might even say: it has to be, since it is so much at variance with Edgerton’s strained alternative. For Nairn, the Anglo-British state came into being in the late seventeenth century in a society that would see the first agrarian, then industrial capitalism in the world, in the process acquiring the largest empire on earth. That huge early developmental success meant that it was never forced to pass through the gateway to modernity in the nineteenth century that was the normal experience of every other advanced capitalist society, the emergence of a powerful nationalism—remaining instead a composite ancien régime yoking England, Scotland and Ireland together in a monarchy that was constitutional rather than absolutist, imperial rather than territorial.
In so far as this structure generated any equivalent of a modern nationalism, it was never just ‘British’ since the state on which it was based was not ‘Britain’ but Great Britain. The fact that Edgerton only intermittently alludes to this standard, official and popular, term for the country speaks volumes. There was never at any stage a purified ‘British-only’ nation, detached from its imperial cast, as Edgerton’s own account of post-war Labour makes only too clear. The structure of the Ukanian state precluded one.
A second limitation of the book lies in the absence of comparison that is a mark of the work. The mental world of Rise and Fall is essentially self-contained, a universe in which no other advanced country, apart from—very passingly—the United States, features in either the narrative or the analysis of the book, whose bibliography is entirely monoglot. The premise of the book is that ‘the success or otherwise of British capitalism was the central issue of British politics through the century’.footnote1 But at no point is any sustained attempt made to measure this success or failure in the only terms that, of necessity, matter in a capitalist world economy—its performance compared with that of its competitors. The work is full of economic statistics, most of them interesting, many striking. But nowhere is to be found, in over 500 pages, a single table of comparative inter-country performance.
Another index of this blankness is the absence in Rise and Fall, otherwise so impressively broad in its domestic range, of foreign policy. Security, as it would now euphemistically be called, features graphically—the military record of Ukania’s relation to the outside world. But of its diplomatic history there is little or nothing. This resulting gap in Edgerton’s narrative means that he cannot say anything meaningful about Ukania’s relation to Europe—why exactly it entered the Common Market; how far it benefited from doing so; what the evolving structure of European integration meant for the British political order once inside it; why there was such strong resistance to Europe in the Labour Party in the seventies and early eighties, and then in the Conservative Party in the nineties and onwards; or why this should initially have been thwarted and finally have prevailed. Though plainly central to any discussion of a British nation or nationalism, in this work Europe seems to lie beyond Edgerton’s ken. Two examples may serve as illustration. Revealingly, in his solitary appearance in the book, De Gaulle is represented as vetoing British entry essentially as contrary to the interests of French farmers, with no mention of his geo-political concerns at the potential role of the United States behind it.footnote2 Surprisingly, too, Edgerton can write that after Maastricht, ‘trade within the European Union was as free as it was previously within national economies’,footnote3 whereas in fact there is no single market in services, which account for three-quarters of the Eurozone’s gdp.