The Rise and Fall of the British Nation: A Twentieth-century History

by David Edgerton

Allen Lane/Penguin, £30

Review by Brian Morton

Regular reviewers know that it is considered bad form, when reviewing from a proof or advanced reading copy, to make negative comment about errors or omissions that will almost certainly be corrected before formal publication. Sometimes, though, interesting things pop up at the last-but-one stage that are worthy of comment. In the introduction to David Edgerton’s extraordinary revisionist study of modern Britain, there are several sentences in the proof from which the word “we” or “us” seems called for in context but is missing from the sentence. Perhaps someone had suggested replacement with the more neutral “one”. Either way, the omission points up something very important, for Edgerton’s aim here is nothing short of a radical repositioning of our sense of ourselves as a nation.

It’s a startling book, and an unexpected thesis, but it has nothing of the rhetorical think-piece about it. Edgerton marshals an almost overwhelming quantity of detail in every chapter, and much of it comes from unexpected quarters. Reviewers sometimes complain that working from early copies means they don’t see the intended illustrations. Quite literally the first thing one encounters in The Rise and Fall of the British Nation is a map of the country’s coalfields in 1910. The omission of the smaller but significant Kent sinkings might seem to count against Edgerton’s attention to detail but then one remembers that the Kent field, which was the result of test bores for a Channel tunnel (some valid symbolism there), was only developed from 1914 onward, and flourished in the 1920s and 1930s. Edgerton may be an iconoclast, but he is an extremely well-prepared iconoclast, who isn’t easy to challenge with counter-argument.

His thesis is that from the 1940s, the old imperial model, which was liberal, capitalist and genuinely global gave way to something new, which Edgerton calls (with emphasis on the adjective) the “British nation”. What this meant, as distinct from “English”, or “United Kingdom”, or “British Empire”, was quite specific and to a substantial degree enforced by the country’s relative isolation against the Axis powers. It was fated to be a relatively short-lived phenomenon, ending in the 1970s as the country became entangled in the European Union and in new and complex iterations of foreign capital. It’s probably too late for most of those involved in negotiating Brexit to take a weekend off to study what Edgerton has to say, but let’s hope that a few advanced reading copies have been rushed to the Cabinet Office.

Periodization is often a tricky matter in history writing. Cases can be made for almost any span or time, long or short, and termini are always artificial to some degree. Edgerton’s decision to begin – though he ranges back much earlier than this – around 1940, rather than 1914, say, helps point up some unexpected features of the national argument. Inevitably, one of the dates he does range back to is the start of the First World War, which Britain entered not under compulsion but very much by choice. Ideologically, as he states, it was a liberal’s war, fought against Prussian militarism and in the name of freedom and civilisation. And yet, “the British empire, not the German Reich, was allied to the world's most despotic, backward and anti-Semitic power – Russia – against the most philo-Semitic, scientific and well-educated – Germany.” Germany practised universal male suffrage; ordinary Russians were still de facto serfs. The Belgians, on whose behalf Britain ostensibly entered the war, had a spectacularly bad, and well-publicised record for human rights abuses – indeed, atrocities – in her main African colony. It’s already an odd picture, complicated by the tiny, almost tokenistic force that Britain sent over the untunnelled Channel in 1914. Her main role was intended to be naval and blockading. Circumstance forced a turn into conscription that would have a profound effect on subsequent national history.

Edgerton bases a main aspect of his argument on the relative emphasis given to empire in the national narrative. Conventional accounts emphasise the large proportion of the world coloured pink in 1914 and on the mutually beneficial trade taking place between “England” and her colonies. But Edgerton shows that this idealised mutuality between parent power and dependent possessions was only ever an ideal and not the reality, a goal for protectionists rather than a fact of free trade. It’s startling to discover that in 1928 our largest body of imports came from the USA, Argentina and Germany, and only then from India and Burma; the position is reversed when it comes to exports, though, with India and Australia coming top (by some distance), but with America and Germany again, and Eire coming next. As the century advanced, a new economic elite emerged whose main focus was exports, and whose dominance was sustained by a large conscript army (or the ability to create one), a system of nationalised industry and the national debt. Then, as before, Empire (or Commonwealth) free trade remained a pipe dream. “For the policy of the protectionists, in all parts of the British empire, was nation first, empire second, foreigners third. And that was the rub. It was never empire first. Nationalism trumped imperialism, all over the empire.”

In 1940, the King-Emperor, George V, speaking on Empire, was obliged to insist that the Empire was not imperialist, throwing back the term in the teeth of those who used it as an insult or who practised it under the swastika or the fasces. And yet it seems odd that a country which held an Empire Day should take such trouble to insist that no such –ism existed or was intended. This is in line with Edgerton’s other key insistence, which is that for all its apparent democratisation and social devolution, British politics has always been the preserve of distinct elites, both as practitioners and beneficiaries. This is hardly counter-intuitive, but it bears careful repetition.

In line with earlier books like his Warfare State: Britain, 1920-1970 and the even more startling Science, Technology and British Industrial ‘Decline’, 1870-1970, Edgerton leads us away from a welfare view of the British state and from a declinist model of British economic history which never squared with the facts of production and export. What he leads us toward is much harder to summarise. Churchill resoundingly redefined Britain as an island nation in 1940 and 1941 and yet there has always been something uncomfortable about that self-identification, particularly given the British dependence in two world wars on soldiery from the Empire. A Mrs Miniver-like housewife in a long forgotten wartime film makes a standard point about native decency and fair play when she murmurs “After all, we are Britishers”, but the word sounds alien, ironically more German than English. What is a Britisher? Was it traded in for “European”? Will it come back when we leave Europe? This isn’t a book about “identity politics”. Indeed, it steers rather far from that fashionable sub-discipline to maintain a focus on food control and energy, ideas and inventions in many fields that helped consolidate the idea of nation as a historically active construct.

The other thing reviewers routinely whine about when presented with a proof copy is the absence of an index. The Rise and Fall of the British Nation isn’t a book to fillet and cherry-pick, though. It’s a sturdily controversial narrative that needs to be read end to end, and either accepted or rejected in toto. The great advantage of having a proof is that one can cheerfully scribble all over it, turn down page corners and leave tabs of paper to help locate major points for future reference. My copy already looks like a graffitoed wall. I’ll be reading the finished version over and over, and for years to come.