Books interview with David Edgerton: “We need to tackle British history as we would the turbulent story of Germany”

David Edgerton speaks to Ellie Cawthorne about his new book, which challenges the accepted narrative of Britain’s 20th-century history

Historian David Edgerton. (Photographed by Fran Monks for BBC History Magazine)

This article was first published in the August 2018 edition of BBC History Magazine

This article was first published in the August 2018 edition of BBC History Magazine

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David Edgerton is Hans Rausing professor of the history of science and technology and professor of modern British history at King’s College London. His previous books include Britain’s War Machine: Weapons, Resources and Experts in the Second World War (2011) and Warfare State: Britain, 1920–1970 (2005).

In his new book, The Rise and Fall of the British Nation, David Edgerton offers a bold new take on the history of 20th-century Britain. He argues that as Britain’s global influence diminished in the 1940s, the country turned away from liberalism and imperialism to follow a new national agenda committed to internal change in industry, economics, technology and politics. This lasted until the 1970s, when the UK entered the EEC and liberalised its economy.

In your view, how has the history of 20th-century Britain been misunderstood?

The stories we tell about our national past have become very confused, and no one much cares whether they’re historically accurate or not. They don’t resonate in the way they once did, and so we need to start writing a new kind of British history. I want people to see the story of the UK in the 20th century as a very complex one, in which fundamental ways of thinking about what it meant to be British changed.

The accepted narrative of 20th-century Britain was really created by the historians of the 1960s, and we need to be more sceptical about the claims they made. They generally focused on the rise of welfare and the Labour party on the one hand, and postwar decline on the other. But both of these narratives ignore the role of empire, the warlike capacities of the British state, and the role of global British capitalism. In doing so, they remove some of the most important elements of British power. I’m trying to put these elements back into the story.

Historians need to start tackling British history as we would the turbulent stories of Russia or Germany: to see it from the outside, and to think of it as a story of transformation rather than continuity. Instead of thinking about the history of Britain as a stock story of progress or decline, we need to interrogate it from many different angles.

How did ideas about Britain as a ‘nation’ change over the course of the 20th century?

In the first half of the century, Britain was dominated by imperialism – which encompassed lots of nations – and liberalism, in which the idea of nationalism was inherently repugnant. You couldn’t really be a British nationalist. It was seen as the ideology of Britain’s opponents, whether they were Nazis, Italian fascists, Irish republicans or Indian anti-imperialists.

But I contend that just as India, Australia or Canada gained independence from the British empire, so too did the UK. After 1945, a genuinely post-imperial British nation emerged. The UK became internally focused: economically, politically and ideologically. This lasted up until the 1970s, when thinking once again became much more internationalist, and there were determined attempts to integrate the British economy into the European free market. That was a very definite move away from nation, the effects of which really began to be felt in the 1990s.

In Britain, we’ve come to think about our national history in remarkably parochial ways

Coal provides a neat illustration of what this changing agenda actually meant in concrete terms. In the late 1980s, it would have been unthinkable – not to mention politically unacceptable – to net import coal [import more coal than than was exported] in order to run British power stations. But ever since the 1990s, that is exactly what has happened. The idea that Britain should be powered only by British coal mines has quite simply disappeared, and the fact that most of our cars, telephones and clothes are made abroad is simply the reality of the economy we now live in. I think that highlights the truly great transformation that has occurred.

Why did Britain abandon its national agenda in the 1970s?

I think that the move away from the national project in Britain arose partly out of the idea that it was always doomed to fail and that the old liberal way of doing things was much better. There was also a sense that it had failed in practice, as the British economy was not growing as strongly as its competitors.

You argue that we should see Britain’s story as one of upheaval and transformation – what were some of the key moments of change?

One problem with national histories is that by their nature they stress continuity over discontinuity. This is because they want to evoke a national essence, to distil what exactly it is that’s good or bad about a country. In the British case, the standard continuity which is emphasised is that from the Edwardian period to the present day. I challenge this idea, and insist that 20th-century Britain witnessed radical discontinuity.

For example, I think that the election of 1945 represented an important political turning point. There was a dramatic difference between the Labour party that came into office in 1945 and the Liberal governments of earlier periods. I see Labour in this period not as primarily socialist or even social democratic, but national. Rhetorically, they put nation above class or capitalism. That was really at the core of their programme.

Another hugely important but misunderstood discontinuity is how the British nation came to feed itself. In the first half of the 20th century, Britain sourced its food from across the globe, from the wheat fields of Argentina and Canada to the abattoirs of Wellington and Montevideo. Foreign imports accounted for around half of what Britons ate. But between 1945 and the 1980s, there was a sustained national drive to make the country self-sufficient in terms of food. That marked a radical transformation in that it changed the UK’s economic partners, and the nature of its trade with the world.

Getting rid of empire was another momentous change. The speed with which the great imperial party, the Conservatives, decided that empire was finished is extraordinary. They moved to apply for membership of the common market as early as 1961, when decolonisation was still very much a live issue. The idea that Britain was held back from applying for EEC membership because of romantic notions of imperialism seems to be contradicted by this central political fact. It’s important to remember that the party that was most opposed to entering into the common market was in fact Labour. And that points to yet another discontinuity – that those positions have now been reversed.

The Second World War is often seen as a key turning point for Britain. Do you agree?

I certainly regard both the world wars as hugely important to British history, but I also want to challenge the often misleading stories that we tell about them. The Second World War is generally hailed as the ‘People’s War’, the origins of a welfare state and the beginning of a postwar consensus. However, I think that the great transformations Britain witnessed in this period were not of the sort described by this story.

The standard assumption is that a new British nation emerged in 1940, forged by Dunkirk and the Blitz, and given an ideology by Churchill’s rousing wartime speeches. But I see this idea as a postwar construction. It’s the sort of story that a new postwar nation tells about its origins.

For me, the war needs to be understood very differently – as the last moment when Britain, bolstered by empire, was truly a great global power. Churchill was not at the head of a weak, underdog nation that he made strong, rather he came into office as the leader of the world’s greatest fighting machine. Britain was waging an internationalist war between 1939-45 – they were actively engaging with the whole world. Therefore, we shouldn’t see 1940 as the moment when Britain made the big break out of empire and the world economy, but 1945.

You question the idea that the rise of the welfare state transformed postwar Britain. Why?

The idea of the ‘rise of the welfare state’ is an interesting example of a stock narrative that needs re-examining. I find it extraordinary that so much has been written about this, as if the entire nation was transformed into a welfare state. In fact, the story of Britain as the rise and the fall of the welfare state is the standard account that most history students receive. This narrative – of Labour cementing the welfare state after the Second World War and Thatcherism demolishing it during the 1980s – is remarkably resilient. But, as many historians have shown, it’s also misleading. We tend to see the 1940s as the golden age of welfare, but the state was actually remarkably ungenerous at that time. The real moment of its glory was the 1970s, and today, welfare spending is higher than it has ever been, both in absolute and relative terms.

If you look more closely at the first half of the 20th century, you’ll actually find that the great bulk of government spending went not on welfare, but on warfare. In the early 1950s, 10 per cent of gross domestic product was spent on the military, which was an unprecedented amount for peacetime. Waging wars and paying for their consequences is very expensive. The procurement and maintenance of arms was central to the British government’s activities at this time, and we need to start taking that more seriously.

How much time needs to pass before historians can reflect accurately on their own country’s recent history?

The question here isn’t one of time, but how we think about our national past. One of the problems is that Britain’s history is discussed in terms derived from contemporary politics. We’ve come to think about our history in remarkably parochial ways, but that certainly isn’t the only way to approach it. Indeed, a number of interesting historical works have broken out of that mould. So while I don’t think that time is a crucial variant, I do believe that other kinds of distance are needed.

Ultimately, we need to stop taking Britain’s history at face value and begin to rethink it from the outside.

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The Rise and Fall of the British Nation: A 20th-Century History by David Edgerton (Allen Lane, 720 pages, £30)