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A useful study with some blind spots and hobby-horses.
on 24 September 2018
This is an ambitious survey of the history of the United Kingdom since 1900. It wouldn’t be suitable as an introduction to the subject, but readers familiar with the broad outlines will find a lot of interesting material, including well substantiated arguments questioning some common ideas about the UK in the 20th century.
The author convincingly challenges a number of these myths – the idea of Britain as a nation of amateurs, unwilling to concede authority to scientists, engineers and other specialists in forming policy, especially as compared with supposedly more technically savvy nations like the Germans; the belief that the UK stood alone and unprepared at the beginning of the Second World War; the widely held conviction that the history of modern Britain is one of decline.
I found the account of the welfare state particularly interesting. Edgerton shows that before the war the UK already had an impressive system of healthcare and welfare provision, not funded and managed by the state, but a mixture of municipal, charitable and private provision. The post-war Labour government did not spend any more on healthcare – chiefly because it spent so much on the military, including a secret and expensive nuclear weapons programme. Instead it simply abolished this variety of provision and brought everything under the control of the state. Edgerton might have commented on the irony that one of the main reasons the healthcare systems of many continental European countries are superior to the NHS is that they did not turn them into monolithic state enterprises, but instead managed to combine state funding (usually supplemented by affordable private insurance) with a varied and more flexible and competitive system of provision.
I thought the book had some quite serious weaknesses. If I understand it correctly, the author’s key thesis is that after 1945 a new ‘British nation’ was created – ‘a distinctive economic, political and social unit within the borders of the United Kingdom’. Driven by ‘post-imperial nationalism’ and the need for ‘the internal rebuilding of the nation’, this new Britain was a radical departure from the liberal, imperial and cosmopolitan Britain that (Edgerton argues) existed before 1939. It lasted only until the 1970s, when ‘the many barriers between the British nation and other nations were pulled down…, a process which in part meant a return to the situation existing at the beginning of the century.’
I wonder if this novel thesis is meant to serve a covert purpose, as an oblique rationale for UK membership of the EEC/European Union, conceived as a return to some supposedly natural, internationalist order of political and economic affairs. The period after the war was ‘post-imperial’ only as a matter of degree. When you think about the Malayan emergency (1948-60), the Suez fiasco (1956), and the Mau Mau emergency (1958-64), the boundaries of this time when the new un-imperial British nation was supposed to have flourished begin to dissolve. Perhaps uncomfortably aware of this, Edgerton is forced, improbably, into describing the Suez operation as ‘not an imperial war, but a post-imperial, national war’.
The historical narrative ends on an odd note, with an overheated rant against the New Labour administrations of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown (1997-2010), and a bilious glance forward to Margaret Thatcher’s funeral in 2013. The acknowledgements are dated January 2018, and one of the internet references is dated as having been accessed in February 2018, nineteen months after 17.4 million British people voted to leave the EU. In a book that makes so much of ‘the British nation’, one might have expected, at the very least, a supplementary chapter on the events and issues surrounding this earth-shaking development, which looms distractingly over the latter part of the book like the proverbial elephant in the room.
The author’s studied silence on the matter is consistent with the evasive way that EEC/EU membership is treated throughout – presented as if it were part of the natural order of things, requiring no justification, but simply a situation to be welcomed by all right-thinking persons, whereas ‘euroscepticism’ is absurdly dismissed as part of ‘a new politics of private wealth’. (Edgerton needs to get with the program; after the Referendum, the standard Remainer complaint was that the result had been swung by the votes of ‘the ignorant white working class’.) There is no hint that the very concept of ‘the British nation’ might be compromised by the absorption of the United Kingdom into a supra-national body among whose declared aims is the abolition of the nation-state. In the entire text there is no mention of the European Court of Justice, or of EU law and the extent to which it has come to supersede national law. The issue of sovereignty is raised in relation to the opposition of Tony Benn and others on the left to EEC membership in the early 1970s, but only to be dismissed with the remark (exploiting a common confusion between sovereignty and power) that the USA presented a greater threat in this respect. There follows a long discussion of the Suez crisis and the role of the US in bringing it to an end, and the issue of sovereignty and the EEC is simply forgotten.
The author’s political leanings are very much towards the left, and his pronouncements sometimes have the ring of the campus anarchist: ‘The British warfare state was able to unleash great violence on the world…. In Europe, as in the Empire, it inflicted far more violence on its enemies than it was forced to endure.’ To his credit, however, he doesn’t usually allow his politics to get in the way of his historian’s respect for facts and evidence. The myth of post-war British decline, which he demolishes, is particularly cherished by left-wing enthusiasts for the European Union.
Edgerton was born in Montevideo to British parents, and he tells us he came to the UK in 1970. A more self-aware author might have used this British-but-with-a-difference perspective in creative and insightful ways. But he has some strange ideas about modern British social history. Older readers will be surprised to learn that membership of the European Union brought about ‘a continentalization of British food tastes. With imported Mediterranean foods, from citrus to tomatoes to avocados, aubergines and courgettes, the British diet became varied and interesting.’ Leaving aside the bizarre idea that the EU introduced us to oranges and tomatoes, it was Elizabeth David’s revolutionary series of cookery books, starting in 1950 with A Book of Mediterranean Food, that began the ‘continentalization of British food tastes’. When I got my first job in the mid-1960s, spaghetti bolognese was a staple in our house, with Suleiman’s Pilaff (‘one of the most comforting dishes imaginable’) an occasional treat when there were some lamb leftovers – topped with real yoghurt from the Polish delicatessen. Besides, a parallel and arguably even greater revolution in British eating habits arose from Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi immigration, which is why restaurants run by and for English expats in Normandy advertise Chicken Tikka Masala.
The British have always been more open to the wider world than many other European nations – try booking a flight to Australia through a French travel agent, or buying or exchanging foreign currency in France (better still, forget it). The British were embracing package holidays to Spain and the opportunities afforded by cheap air travel before we joined the EEC. Family camping holidays in Brittany and the Dordogne were not a boon graciously bestowed by the European Commission, but a consequence of increasing wealth and car ownership. Membership of the EEC/EU is more a manifestation than a cause of post-war British cosmopolitanism.
In all, a useful reference book on the period, but with some major blind spots and hobby-horses, and to be treated carefully.