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

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

The lat­est re­leases re­viewed, plus David Edger­ton dis­cusses his new sur­vey of mod­ern Bri­tain

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.

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

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

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.

Pho­tog­ra­phy by Fran Monks

David Edger­ton, pho­tographed at King’s Col­lege Lon­don. “Just as In­dia, Aus­tralia or Canada gained in­de­pen­dence from the Bri­tish em­pire, so too did the United King­dom. Bri­tain be­came in­ter­nally fo­cused: eco­nom­i­cally, po­lit­i­cally and ide­o­log­i­cally,” he says

Putting up Labour party posters ahead of the 1945 elec­tion. Labour’s land­slide vic­tory that year “rep­re­sented an im­por­tant po­lit­i­cal turn­ing point”, says David Edger­ton

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