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.