It seems somehow symptomatic of David Edgerton’s style as a historian, of a certain wilful singularity, that even his book’s title requires explanation. On the face of it ‘the rise and fall of the British nation’ seems a comforting enough notion, but when Edgerton deploys the term British nation he is not talking about any long perspective, but a very specific, post-imperial, nationalist project of internal reconstruction that rose and flourished between 1945 and the 1970s, only to sink back into the global system from which it had emerged. ‘Making the national explicit’ in this way, he writes,
allows us to notice the non-national features of earlier and later periods. Recognising its temporary existence allows us to also write what might seem paradoxical — a non-national national history. For while nationalism has not been important in the history of the United Kingdom, a certain methodological nationalism which assumes away the nation and nationalism overtly, but covertly makes both central, has been. Taking seriously the nationalism of a national period allows us to see that, in the first decades of the 20th century, cosmopolitanism and imperialism were central.
If this is hardly a paragraph to set the pulse racing, it is an approach that opens up fertile ground, because for much of the 20th century Kipling’s ‘what should they know of England who only England know?’ would remain a pretty fair question. During the third quarter of that century, a nationalist Britain would turn increasingly in on itself; but go back 50 years and Britain was at the heart of global trade, the world’s biggest exporter and importer, an industrial and imperial power whose capital and tendrils reached way beyond the confines of empire, its dominant philosophy internationalist and its people — Edgerton quotes H.G. Wells — a ‘world people’. ‘British capitalism,’ Edgerton writes,
as well as geology, made the United Kingdom the largest exporter of energy in the world down to 1939, as well as the largest exporter of manufactures. British multinational enterprises operating overseas supplied the United Kingdom, the largest importer in the world... Ships of many types, ports, docks and warehouses were as central to it as factories.
It was this Britain, imperial and global in scope, that fought the Great War; and it was essentially this same Britain that faced Hitler’s Germany in 1939. In some respects, in fact, interwar policies had left the country better placed than it had been in 1914. But if the country that went to war was still indisputably a global power, with all the resources and manpower of empire to call on, the Britain that emerged out of it six years later — its old export industries gone, its shipping decimated, Lend Lease ended and deeply in debt — found itself alone in a very different world.
‘Churchill inherited a global empire,’ as Edgerton puts it, ‘and emerged as the leader of a nation’; and it was that postwar ‘nation’ and the political and social challenges it faced — together with manufacturing and the Cold War — that is the central theme of the second part of Edgerton’s story. Its line necessarily follows all the key issues of welfare, infrastructure and nationalisation that one might expect; but in the teeth of the kind of historical readings that postulate a ‘deep-seated’ malaise in British manufacturing, Edgerton sees instead a period of radical and successful change, of ‘economic development of unprecedented speed, of the creation of an economy more focused on industry than ever before, of a developmental state, a warfare and welfare state’.
This surge could not last — it was only a matter of time before fast-growing foreign competition outstripped domestic manufacture — and with European integration and a new globalisation, the death knell of the ‘British nation’ was sounded. In his last chapters, Edgerton takes his narrative up to the late 1990s, but long before that time, the ‘nation’ that gives this book its title — the same nation whose achievements had made the Thatcher revolution possible — had expired, dead and buried with the defeat of the miners’ strike that for Edgerton marks the end of ‘economic nationalism’.
It had enjoyed a short life and an even shorter purchase on popular memory — Thatcher had come to bury the state and not to praise it — but no bare précis of this kind will quite capture the texture or tone that Edgerton brings to his narrative. He tells the story in a series of brief and pungent chapters rather than in a chronological order. But the exasperating thing about this book, or the exasperating thing at least about writing about it, is that the more one finds oneself describing it, the more one rehearses its structure or contents — Suez, the car industry, foreign investment, coal, immigration, whatever it is — the further one actually gets from whatever quality it is that gives the work its peculiar, bruising and exhausting energy.
While this comes in part from Edgerton’s sense of the crucial importance of history to public life, it is hard not to feel that the driving force behind much of the writing here is his determination to give ‘the cage of clichés which imprisons our historical and political imaginations... a long overdue and good rattling’. There seems no good reason to question the motives that lie behind this ambition, but if ever a man was spoiling for a fight; if ever a man had armed himself with Gradgrindian thoroughness to smite the ‘declinists’ with the facts and figures of British manufacturing output; if ever a man enjoyed ruffling leftist feathers with a reminder that Lloyd George’s famous People’s Budget funded the Dreadnoughts or liked to muddy the conventional pedigree of Labour’s postwar programme, it is David Edgerton.
The dust jacket promises us a ‘grown-up unsentimental history’, and whether it is abiding myths of a ‘people’s war’ — so memorably evoked in Mrs Miniver — or the notion that Britain ‘stood alone’ during the second world war, Edgerton is there to oblige. There is a danger in all this that a proper historical stringency tips over into something less generous. One watches Edgerton slalom his way down the error-strewn slopes of British 20th-century historiography. And yet if at times one wonders whether anyone else has ever got anything right, there is an integrity here, a commitment and scope that more than makes up for it.
Whatever else it is, though, and despite the odd football reference (he is wrong about English teams in Europe in the 1950s; the Football League did all it could to stop them playing) or cricket (ditto — Edwardian cricket was anything but a ‘middle-class’ game; six of the England XI in Jessop’s match in 1902 were professionals), it is hardly a populist pitch in the sense that Stig Abell’s How Britain Really Works is. At the beginning of this book I thought we were back to the good old days of Bluffer’s Guides and Coles Notes. But it’s both more jokey and more serious than that: an idiosyncratic and oddly random trawl through the hospitals, schools, prisons, media institutions, politics and preoccupations of modern British life that looks fondly back to Bill Bryson and forward to who knows what?
Bryson he isn’t, but then nor is anyone else. What Abell is, though, is a practising journalist, with a first-hand knowledge of what he’s talking about. He is also, more importantly, a father with – pace Leadsom vs May — a strong stake in his children’s and Britain’s future. And it is this thought that adds a certain sobriety to what first seemed a fairly lighthearted romp. ‘Is it time to abandon hope?’, he rather wearily asks at the end of the final, statutory chapter on ‘identity’. No, is his answer, no, but only just. Perhaps: but if he is right, it will be, in the best British tradition, a damn close run thing.