First posted on:
The Enlightened Economist, 8 July 2018
It has taken me a while to finish David Edgerton’s new book, The Rise and Fall of the British Nation: A Twentieth Century History. This is because of the packaging rather than the contents – it’s a heavy volume I’ve had to read at home propped up with cushions. So although I’ve enjoyed the book, I have a rather impressionistic take on it.
The chief impression is that there isn’t a single piece of received wisdom about Britain in the 20th century the author doesn’t challenge. Edgerton has challenged the ‘declinism’ thesis in his previous books and does so again. But there are other myths to bust. The welfare state wasn’t distinctively new after 1945 – a lot of it had been established in the 1920s. The Labour government of Harold Wilson wasn’t especially technology-friendly. It is nonsense to claim the Establishment consisted of anti-scientific art historians and classicists – there were loads of technologists and scientists in government. It is indeed refreshing to read such an upbeat take on the 1950s and 60s.
Above all, the book argues, the key phenomenon of the post-WWII decades was not welfarism or corporatism but the creation of a distinctive British nation – until Mrs Thatcher started to turn the country back into an internationalist capitalist one, as it had been in the early 20th century. Edgerton’s British nation lasts only from 1945 to 1979.
This makes for a refreshing read, there’s nothing like a bit of lively contrarianism. In fact, you can see Edgerton’s compulsion to be contrary in his challenge to both industrial declinism and techno-boosterism simultaneously, which – while surely the correct stance – is also pretty argumentative.
But not every bit of his myth-busting is wholly persuasive. On the NHS, for instance, Edgerton argues that most of the provision was in place prior to 1945, and those with low incomes did not have to pay for treatment. He offers some facts on the extent of municipal provision, the role of GPs, and so on. This surely greatly underplays the uncertainty and anxiety of getting medical treatment before the NHS. Even if it is true that people ended up being able to access treatment and not having to pay, I remember from my 1960s childhood the deep, deep financial worry illness caused older people, not habituated to the idea that you could turn up at a surgery or hospital and nobody would ask about your means.
The book is at its best on technology and industry, which is hardly surprising given Edgerton’s wonderful previous books on technology – particularly The Shock of the Old but also Warfare State and Britain’s War Machine. It ends with New Labour, and the attempt to define a forward-looking, techno-optimistic Global Britishness. In fact, it ends with Mrs Thatcher’s state funeral – the first accorded to a PM since Churchill’s:
“There were no cranes left to be dipped in respect by dockers in the unprecedented honour the London proletariat gave Churchill in 1965. In the old and distressed pit villages of England, Scotland and Wales, forgotten former miners celebrated bitterly. Tony Blair meanwhile was making money working for some of the vilest torturers and dictators on earth. Only satirists, not historians, could do justice to this turn of events.”
And then it stops. Hmmm. There were of course loads of cranes on the London skyline, constructing rather than unloading, and nobody chose to dip them for the funeral. Mrs Thatcher’s governments had indeed ravaged the country’s economy outside of the southeast of England – this book does far better than many histories of Britain in not being a wholly London- and Westminster-centric one, given its focus on industry – and the real criticism of the decision to give her a state funeral would surely be her divisiveness. It’s an unsatisfactory (lack of an) ending to a very interesting book.
An earlier chapter considers the emerging divisions in society but also within the main political parties from the 1970s on, and it would have been more satisfying to see this rounded out somehow with reference to current debates about the utter mess of Westminster politics, a devolving Britain, the polarisation over Brexit, and in the middle of all this ideas about industrial policy and the technology frontier. Unfair to ask a historian for comment on the present – but the idea of the British nation is surely at the heart of it all today?
Anyway, as noted, these are impressions. It isn’t just the bulk: there is a flavour of one thing after another, as sections plunge into detail – albeit always fascinating. This is well worth a read nevertheless (although in paperback maybe?)