The Rise and Fall Of The British Nation: A Twentieth-Century History, by David Edgerton, Penguin Books, 720 pp, £12.99, ISBN: 978-0141975979
The United Kingdom has reached a watershed: out of the EU after nearly fifty years, uncertain what economic principles guide a Tory government part-dependent on Old Labour votes after a banking crisis, Brexit, a pandemic, and alone in a hostile world without power, without influence. Without power, because it has withdrawn from or alienated those councils where its presence mattered and is no longer possessed of a military capable of fighting any war on its own. Without influence, because it lacks moral authority: people like to know that deals struck are intended to be kept. Above all, Brexit threatens to tip a majority of Scots over to a pro-independence position: the end of the United Kingdom. In the 1970s, the high point of British social democracy, an alternative ideology was waiting in the wings. Neoliberals had been organising, arguing, planning for a major assault on the postwar consensus for decades. The 1970s gave them their chance. It was a formidable reassertion of class interest. Brexit, in comparison, is an idée fixe rather than a strategy, a fantasy rather than a programme.
British withdrawal from the EU was campaigned for and implemented with no forethought, either on the EU or the UK side. No one saw it coming. Faced with the famous fork in the road, in hock to the hard Brexiters of the Tory Party, the UK took a far-right, hard-Brexit turn. No one can know where it will lead. It can however be inferred where many Brexiteers want it to go: a return to an idealised world of nineteenth century free trade where Britain gets on with business, unencumbered by wider realities. Whether this flight of fancy is compatible with the political requirement to erode the very deep English North-South divide, or to stem the ever-deepening secession movement in Scotland is, to say the least, questionable. Northern Ireland is dragged along in the wake, alienating many traditional Tory unionists to the point of indifference: “if the South of Ireland really thinks they can sort it out they are welcome to it” is not an uncommon attitude. Brexit gives overriding importance to the demands of a certain kind of English nationalism.
Given the scale of the crisis facing Britain, it is necessary to reassess some common assumptions about British history which have failed to predict – or even consider possible, let alone understand ‑ this outcome, and which were clearly not shared by a great many British people. For much of the time, there was what seemed a fairly widely accepted historical narrative of Britain and the world in the twentieth century. There had been the two great wars against German militarism. There had been the end of empire. There had been the move towards some kind of European role in 1973. All of this was delivered in suitably self-serving, anodyne and fanciful form: defence of small nations; standing alone against unspeakable evil; letting go so new nations could take their place in the world. And Europe? Never a single, simple narrative available. A replacement for empire, it might be –and was ‑ said. But it was also a rather desperate attempt to stem what was perceived as terminal economic decline.
David Edgerton’s The Rise and Fall of the British Nation is a major revisionist text, though Brexit does not feature as an organising theme. It challenges head-on a number of assumptions that have informed much thinking on British history since the Second World War. First, it challenges the idea that science, technology and industry were marginal to British governance and thinking in the twentieth century, a thesis most closely associated with the scientist and novelist CP Snow and his 1959 book The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution. For Snow, Britain was governed by literary sorts, trained in the classics, hermetically sealed off from science. Edgerton, a professor of the history of science and technology, shows convincingly that this was anything but so: the reciprocal assimilation of British elites was across business, scientific and humanist dividing lines. Second, Edgerton seeks to show how Britain was consolidated nationally in the postwar period by the creation of an infrastructure based on national planning and national institutions. Elements of this lasted until the 1980s, since which time they have been systematically dismantled by New Labour and Tory governments alike. This is the context of the North-South divide, and a Scotland edging ever closer to secession. Yet running through this narrative, more or less articulated at various times, was a deep sense and fear of declinism: Britain losing its place in the world relative to other European powers. First registered in the national neurosis by Joseph Chamberlain as a response to growing US and German power in the 1890s, it had become an article of faith accepted across the political spectrum by the early 1960s. Edgerton’s purpose is to show that the depth of decline, particularly in the 1970s, was overstated. The United Kingdom was starting from a much higher base, particularly compared to France and Germany in the postwar period, so any growth was likely to be relatively less. Britain certainly lagged behind the US, but in comparison with other European countries its performance was, more or less, on a par; it remained a major capitalist economy. This is perhaps his most contentious claim: the left explained UK decline by reference to the retarding effects of an outmoded class structure, with an industrial bourgeoisie subordinate to the landowning aristocracy and a low-tech industrial base incapable of adapting to a changing world. The right explained it through the corrosive effects of an over-large corporatist state in thrall to an over-powerful trades union movement. Thatcher’s programme relied heavily for its justification on this sense of decline ‑ if it was to be arrested and reversed, there was no alternative to her policies. Because many people shared her declinist belief, they promoted, colluded with, or tolerated her policies.
As far as Europe went, things could stand as long as public policy wasn’t dependent on private delusion: no political party had ever become the undisputed champion of Europe; both the main parties had a sizeable tranche of Euroscepticism. Tories shouted it from the rooftops, but pro-Europe Blair scuppered a united Britain-France-Germany response to Bush’s Iraq folly, while Gordon Brown vetoed British membership of the euro, something that would have precluded Brexit in perpetuity. But a majority of MPs on both sides kept quiet, and supported EU membership. The constitutional implications – the gradual ceding of sovereignty ‑ were suppressed from the beginning, something used to good effect by Brexiteers during the referendum. Politicians, they could claim, had always been dishonest about the true meaning of EEC-EU membership. But for most of the time, as on an issue like hanging, public opinion could be quietly sidelined. Meanwhile, a hostile print press could ascribe every discontent, from the weather to chilblains, bad diet to worse beer, to the malevolent interference of Brussels bureaucrats. The travails of a brutish neoliberalism were accepted as the inevitable price of a grossly maldistributed national wealth that assured Britain’s place in the world. David Cameron underestimated the polarising effects of a referendum on EU membership in a country already fractured beyond reason, not least by savage public spending cuts imposed by his government, with backbench Tories openly expressing their contempt and loathing for working class people (some of them are now senior government ministers).
All liberal democratic polities are sites of contested ends: the United Kingdom is no different; all achieve more or less popular support. The identities states claim to embody, multiple in the case of the United Kingdom, may be more or less certain, more or less problematic. The operant political economy will produce more or less social cohesion. More than twenty-five years ago, the respected centrist contemporary historian and Social Democratic MP David Marquand wrote that Britain in 1995, in comparison to thirty years previously, “is much less legitimate, the identity or identities it claims to embody are more contentious and problematic, and the political economy is less prone to generate social cohesion”. Britain was fracturing. That was two years before the election of New Labour. If it was true then, how very much truer is it today? England-Scotland, rich-poor, North-South, young-old, nationalist-cosmopolitan, more-less educated, the divisions all crystalising around pro- and anti-Brexit. For English Brexiteers, leaving the EU was a return to an essence: England was restored to what it had been for a thousand years: independent, sovereign, self-determining, free to pursue its own interests without regard to external regulation and restriction, the language if not the practice of Thatcherism. For English remainers, it was the triumph of conservative reactionaries in league with borderline racists and worse. For Scots remainers, it was an event: one more instance of their wishes being ignored by the dominant nation in the polity. It has posed, in no uncertain terms, a choice between unions: with Europe, with England.
Edgerton’s emphasis on the creation of a postwar British national state is borne out by Scotland’s experience of the union in that period: national infrastructure, national institutions, a national ideology, including a national economy and economic policy, pulled the two parts of the union together as never before. The postwar period is also often remembered for the inception of the national welfare state; Edgerton makes a powerful case for calling it the “warfare state”, given the very high levels of military-related spending including, for the first time, a standing conscript army that lasted until 1963. Had Northern Ireland undergone major internal reform in the 1940s and ’50s, allowing the development of “normal” democratic practices, perhaps it might have gained the modicum of legitimacy conferred by British national health and educational policies necessary to offset its own tendency to self-destruct. But Northern Ireland never registered in Westminster.
In any case, English history is full of the unexpected rising to the surface after a period of long invisibility to confound the existing order. But Thatcherism flattened older traditions of English dissent into a shrill economics and a shriller nationalism. All nationalism has an element of fantasy: many English people live in an imaginary, insular, exclusively anglophone sphere; Scotland is where the queen goes on her holidays, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa places where they have relatives with whom they are no longer much in touch, while the North of Ireland barely exists in this village-green world of friendly folk and ever-open taverns, where the sun is permanently setting over Waterloo. The riots of 2011 that left London burning end to end, are something that never happens, not even in London, at least not their London. Better-off English retreat from the city to live in “villages”: here, in this idealised world cut off from reality, everyone should die of old age in their bed surrounded by kith and kin, and knife crime is no more than a mis-cut cucumber sandwich. Unreality, like “mother’s little helper”, makes the intolerable tolerable, if also incomprehensible. It is a world where a political rhetoric that chimes with televisual images of a monochrome, class-conflict-free past of untold prosperity, power, security and deference finds favour. Occasionally, an elliptical reality intrudes, but it can only exist tangentially in the past, never the present. Past wars fill the emotional vacuum at the heart of a great many lives; there was something very moving about the spectacle of nearly a million painted ceramic poppies planted outside the Tower of London to commemorate the First World War dead; it told of the unspoken grief of the millions of people in the present who went to look at them.
But it is a grief –a loneliness ‑ grotesquely accentuated and manipulated by the frigid individualism cultivated over forty years by the deeply impersonal logic of a neoliberal economics ruthlessly pursued by descendants of the hard-faced men who looked as though they did very well out of the First World War: the Tory patrons who did well out of Covid who never miss an opportunity to turn tragedy to farce, or the muck of Flanders fields to brass. In this world, pathos comes with grandad’s untimely death in the first war; heroism with the same grandad’s derring-do in the second. And all of it suffused with the exotic aromas of empire, usually in the shape of the Indian takeaway around the corner, but sometimes on “a trip up west”. The Empire Cinema will do. This is a world where reality treads lightly: in one survey, 25 per cent of respondents thought Winston Churchilll a fictional character; in another, a respondent thought Lincoln an imperial outpost. Princess Diana is the ultimate symptom of this delirium – thirty million people watched the funeral. An abiding image is of a lady bobby in uniform, silly hat on silly head, tears running down her cheeks as she stares in grief and incomprehension at the empty mausoleum that is Kensington Palace –in her s eyes every bit as beautiful as the Taj Mahal ‑ mourning a woman she has never met: the living embodiment of a delusional state. All sentimentality instinctively lurches to the right, something Tony “the people’s princess” Blair understood, as he put on the pair of trousers Mrs Thatcher had left for him in a cupboard in No 10. Fake news is a meaningless category in a world where there is no reality, something Boris Johnson understands.
In an essay on the nationalisms of the British Isles, published in 1991, Victor Kiernan ended by saying that in a sense the most acute national problem of all is that facing England: could it be expected to survive in any recognisable physical or moral shape, not so much on account of issues of race or creed, residues of empire, as its unwholesome social-economic structure, and with it the resulting reckless fouling of air, water, landscape and culture; the depredations and greeds of a peculiarly English capitalism. Wales and Scotland, he continues, will not do England any good by continuing their actual existing relationship with it. Home Rule all round when it was being proposed for Ireland would have been the optimum solution; now, he suggests, a federated United Kingdom within a Europe moving towards a federal union might allow the constituent states of the kingdom to reinforce one another for the very first time. Brexit has put paid to that: English nationalism, fortified by a unique in Europe winner-takes-all parliamentary electoral system, and with issues of race and creed to the fore, is rampant; there is no sign it will draw in its horns before the whole edifice comes crashing down. The only thing that might stop it is a seismic revolt within the Tory parliamentary party. The present makeup of that party makes that unlikely.
Anti-cosmopolitan English nationalism, in its least banal and most assertive form, insists on English exceptionalism: the English nationalism activated and disseminated by the Brexit debates is, if often unacknowledged, the English nationalism of Enoch Powell. Powell could talk directly to a significant stratum of the pro-Brexit vote: the inheritors of the mantle of a once mighty imperial people who now feel that they have become marginalised and overlooked within their own society and culture. Theirs is an essentially Edwardian concept of the English nation: a deep and ancient heritage expressed in a recognisable set of habits and practices formulated in a unique set of legal and political institutions; those not born to it cannot be of it. Sovereignty and the unique English constitutional arrangement of the crown in parliament are integral to this: they cannot be bartered away to meet the exigencies of changed times.
For Edgerton, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland of the late 1940s can usefully be seen as one of the new nations that emerged out of the dissolution of the empire: the union became a single unit, calculating its war dead alone, excluding the empire that had actually stood with Britain in 1940; the Battle of Britain and the blitz had forged a nation. “Britain standing alone” in 1940-41 is a postwar invention. As Edgerton says, this new national Untied Kingdom did not declare itself a new formation: overhangs from the past – liberalism, internationalism, imperialism, among others ‑ allowed a story of continuity to be told. Nationalism at the heart of empire could be problematic. So too English nationalism at the heart of the union could be problematic. Like Austrian nationalism in the Habsburg empire, it kept its voice down, for fear of scaring the periphery: English reserve as a strategy for continuity.
But it was there. For Powell, the end of empire revealed England in all its stark, heroic resilience, unaffected by its past foreign adventuring and associations, “almost unconscious of the strange fantastic structure built around her”. As the “looser connections which had linked her with distant continents and strange races fell away”, revealing the “continuity”’ of her existence to be “unbroken”: the “unique” institutions of the crown in parliament had preserved the “homogeneity of England”. Speaking to an eve of St George’s Day audience in 1961, Powell could say: “We today at the heart of a vanished empire, amid the fragments of a demolished glory, seem to find, like one of her own oak trees, standing and growing, the sap still rising from the ancient roots to meet the spring, England itself.” In a deft sleight of hand, empire is reduced to sideshow, a trifle in the essence of English greatness. Not so the colonial and commonwealth emigrants arriving in Britain since the British Nationality Act of 1948; they became the all-too-visible enemy within that must be curtailed or expelled, a mortal threat to the motherland. Never overtly stated or questioned, because Powell’s acolytes never thought to question his first premises, degrees of Powellism became an unspoken assumption informing immigration policy on the right to the present. The mortifying treatment of the Windrush emigrants from Jamaica, many of them returning aircraftmen who had served in the war, by vicar’s daughter Theresa May, is testimony to that.
Describing the atmosphere that permeated Scotland during the run-up to the independence referendum in 2014, TM Devine could just as easily been writing about the Brexit referendum south of the border two years later: “Never before had the nation engaged in such a long and intensive dialogue about its present and future. Animated discussions took place within families, among friends and colleagues at work, in pubs, coffee bars, restaurants, in the streets, schools, universities, and churches. Most often they were friendly but some ended in disharmony and disagreement between relatives and close acquaintances. Indeed it was not at all unusual to find families split down the middle on how they would vote as the day of reckoning approached.” Like the old school experiment where scattered iron filings are polarised in an electric field, two referendums North and South of the border have made identity the defining element of British politics: pro- or anti-union; Scottish,
Scottish and European, Scottish and British; English, English and British, English, British and European. Nationalism, nationality, never secondary considerations, have displaced older class affiliations and programmes, not least as the industrial base on which they rested has become a distant memory. The pro-independence campaign in Scotland sought to create a wide base of support, bridging ideological and identity divides: in the end, Scottish voters’ attachment to Britain won out, though a majority of those voters born in Scotland voted leave, English-born voters living in Scotland tipped the balance in favour of remain. The Brexit campaigners sought to mobilise a less diverse base of already sympathetic voters, whose attachments to Europe were already either non-existent or very weak. Britain mattered more to more Scottish voters than Europe did to English. Like Scotland, the North of England saw its industrial base decline catastrophically and rapidly in the 1970s and ’80s; poor areas in England voted decisively to leave. Cities, university towns, better-educated people, particularly young people, as well as “ethnic minority” voters, voted remain. In the 2019 general election, areas where the Labour vote in the North of England had been hollowing out over decades finally voted Tory. In Scotland, Labour voters have gone over to the SNP. Remainers in England have largely resigned themselves to Brexit as a fait accompli; the independence referendum result had hardly been announced in Scotland when the nationalists were on the march again. Brexit has put a gale force wind behind them. Most Scots would have been prepared to accept a Scotland-Britain in the EU: a majority of Scots seem unwilling to accept a Scotland in Britain alone; a majority of English voters would ditch the union with Scotland to preserve Brexit.
The reconfiguration of British politics is far from over. Whether existing structures can accommodate it is another matter. The English pride themselves on the quiet efficiency of their mode of governance: another delusion to add to all the others. If repeating the same act over and over again and expecting a different result is a test of madness, then the British political elite fail the test. In 1948, they passed the British Nationality Act, expecting only a handful of people to take the opportunity to move to Britain; that proved something of a miscalculation. When former communist Eastern European countries joined the EU, Britain gave workers from those countries open access, in contrast to other EU countries that imposed a time delay. Only thousands were expected. That too has proved something of a miscalculation. When time came to count EU nationals living in Britain so they could remain after Brexit, there was expected to be about three million. That too was something of a miscalculation: the figure was much closer to six million. For ten years of savage welfare cuts, no provision whatsoever was made for three million people living in some of the worst-off parts of the United Kingdom: schools, hospitals, clinics, all put under unbearable strain. No wonder a lot of badly off people had had enough.
When the UK applied to join the EEC in the early 1960s, it tried to open unilateral negotiations with individual member countries: the EEC pointed out, tartly, that the UK was negotiating with the EEC. When Boris Johnson opened Brexit negotiations with the EU, he tried to open unilateral negotiations with individual member countries. The EU pointed out, tartly, that it was the EU he was negotiating with. On neither occasion did the UK get the deal it wanted. One could go on. Thatcher, Blair, Cameron, May, Johnson, all had significant election victories, all succumbed to what Evelyn Waugh described as the “pride, the hubris which leads elected persons to believe that a majority at the polls endows them with inordinate abilities”. In Britain, a major part of the problem is an electoral system which produces a dangerously distorted representation for the winning party in a hidebound House of Commons. No prime minister, enjoying the power it confers, will reform that. No opposition can force them. There is an irony here. If Westminster operates on a democratic deficit, it is one certainly no greater –and in many ways a great deal less ‑ than the democratic deficit the EU operates under. Right now, questions as to whose law, EU or national, is paramount remain unresolved within the EU. Poland is asserting national sovereignty and rigid adherence to treaty texts: the Commission should not be allowed make it up as it goes along. The question is would the United Kingdom have been better able to resist EU encroachments on sovereignty from within the EU, in alliance with other member states resistant to Brussels’ encroachments, or is it more vulnerable outside? Either way, the die is cast.
The empire – a scrappier and less complete project than the grandeur of the title sometimes implies ‑ still throws a shadow on Britain: it would be strange if something that lasted three hundred and fifty years or so did not. But it plays no part in contemporary calculations: Rhodesia/Zimbabwe and the Falklands/Malvinas were the last time it had any domestic impact; ten years later, the flag came down in Hong Kong for the last time. The only remnants are offshore tax havens that would rather not draw attention to themselves. There was ardent opposition to empire but most English people believe it was a good thing, domestically and overseas. It might also be said that they know practically nothing about the matter. It speaks to their sense of exceptionalism. Most peoples, particularly those who believe they are possessed of world-enhancing values and insights – the Americans, the Russians, the French, for instance ‑ believe they are exceptional. The Chinese, I have read, believe they are exceptional, but these qualities are non-transferable. In some ways England was exceptional: it did things that nowhere else could. In particular, it developed a finance and banking system that outstripped its rivals for a time that allowed it do things they couldn’t. In this nationalist vein, the myth grew that it was the Pax Britannica that maintained peace in Europe for much of the nineteenth century. That is not the case: Europe was at peace because it was too exhausted to go to war: the UK capitalised on this and extended its empire. But it is that idealised post-1850 world of free trade, fiscal order and unbounded power that Brexiteers want to recreate. It is reflected in the historically skewbald manifesto Johnson and the Tories stood on in 2019. And then along came Covid.
Empire trade, as Edgerton notes, was at its height in the 1940s and ’50s, when France and Germany were on their knees: Britain didn’t join the EEC in 1956 because it didn’t need to; didn’t believe it would work out, and it didn’t need the Ruhr’s coal or steel, having plenty of its own. Suez catalysed an Atlantic rather than a European turn. All of that is very much in the past: but the empire lingers on in some minds because it speaks to English popular notions –a kind of Calvinism of national and racial superiority, an outward sign of being God’s chosen people above all others.
This notion never found favour with the elite, who required no such justifications for amassing as much of other people’s wealth as possible, but it might explain why empire, whose impact on Britain was uneven and diffuse, spatially and temporally, could nonetheless enjoy widespread popular approbation among people who knew and know next to nothing of it. But for Brexiteers, empire is irrelevant: their ideal is a Britain untramelled by empire or Commonwealth operating in a world of unrestricted free trade. Under such conditions, Britain’s –England’s ‑ true national genius can be released and true greatness once again attained: great power delusions. Meanwhile, the pitch-and-toss school spivs line up to fleece completely deregulated domestic markets, while pursuing every shyster deal that comes their way abroad: “buccaneering” – modern-day piracy sanctioned by the state. That’s the hope: others are well-placed to put a spoke in their wheel; even under imperial preference, the Dominions protected their infant industries. British manufactures did not have unimpeded access: nation first; empire second; foreign third, was the rule. There is a view that Australia did a lot better out of a recent trade deal with the UK than the UK did.
By the mid-1950s decline was back in vogue, associated with imperial overstretch: the fall-off in empire enthusiasm became part of a declinist outlook: purpose, energy, resolve were considered on the wane: declining imperial and great power status visible manifestations. The old order looked outdated, permeated by nostalgia: the angry young men and the satirists blew it off the stage. In its place, the EEC began to take on the shape of that which was forward-looking and modern: it was embraced with enthusiasm by a Conservative leadership. By the 1970s declinism was an article of faith, as inflation ran riot. As Edgerton says, declinism too was a part of a great power delusional mind set – the vain hope of restoring an older order. Other powers, inevitably, were rising: Britain was going to have to adjust to its new place in the world; what was extraordinary was how it had ever attained the predominance it did, not its current place in the world.
For the rich, Thatcherism is an unbounded success: they have never been as well off; forty years of compound accumulation. For a lot of ordinary Britons, it has been a very rough and unnecessary ride: certainly, the state was not “rolled back”: the warfare state of the 1950s is now well and truly, in quantitative terms, a welfare state; there have also been very significant increases in in-work and housing benefits. Growing supports for employment have gone along with a very extensive growth in supports for the private sector in the form of corporate tax breaks and subsidies. In one estimate, between tax breaks and explicit subsidies, total expenditure on business subsidies by the state exceed corporate tax payments. It is worth burrowing beneath the rhetoric of Thatcherism to see more precisely what it has actually entailed.
Overall, acknowledging the enormous regional and class disparities in wealth, in GDP terms Britain is probably where a country of its size, resources, and commercial expertise might expect to be. Edgerton puts that in historical context:
In 1914 British capital owned the infrastructure, the banks, the ships, the communications of half the world: it was flush with the income from these investments. But in 2000 London was not a centre for the export of capital, but a tax haven attracting it. The United Kingdom was, to an extent not known before, owned by foreigners –the big City institutions, the service companies, the infrastructure operators, the car makers, even the chocolate makers were now owned abroad. Global capitalism was unleashed into the United Kingdom, but British capitalism itself suffered. What had been unleashed was not British entrepeneurial genius, but that of foreigners.
A closer look at the UK over the last forty years reveals a far more ambiguous picture than the high priests of a certain kind of economics would like to admit: a Britain transformed, but deeply divided as rarely before. Power at present rests on an odd alliance of nobs and yobs, but demography is on the side of the progressives. British politics right now is very different from the traditional Labour-Tory binary that most of us take for granted. To understand it therefore requires a real change of focus: as to how it will all work out, anyone’s guess is as good as another. We have reached the end of one era with no serious idea as to what the next will look like. That is a dangerous place to be.
Eoin Dillon does not have an identity.