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A peculiarly British nationalism? – book review

Labour’s attitudes to nationalism, Britain’s changing role in the global economy: myths of left and right are punctured in David Edgerton’s magnificent The Rise and Fall of the British Nation: A Twentieth Century History.

Image: Largest tanker built in Britain launching on Tyneside, 1969After its recent annual conference in Liverpool, the Labour Party released a well-received party political broadcast pitched squarely to the Leave voting working class electorate of Britain’s post-industrial towns. It painted a portrait of painful loss and redemption to come: a world of well paid jobs in factories and fishing fleets that had once given pride and purpose to communities, but which had been destroyed by forty years of neoliberalism and would now be rebuilt by a Labour government.

The makers of Labour’s broadcast might well have spent the summer immersed in David Edgerton’s powerful new work, The Rise and Fall of the British Nation: A Twentieth Century History. In it, Edgerton documents the rise and eclipse of a manufacturing powerhouse, able to feed, house and heat itself, led by a state with full spectrum capabilities and a vigorous, nationalist political class. Edgerton is an extraordinary historian who challenges established preconceptions of British history at every turn. Out go the myths of Britain as an imperial power in terminal decline, presided over by a gentlemanly class of capitalists and effete politicians living off the rents and fading glories of empire while squandering its industrial heritage. In their place is a portrait of a nation - drawn in the brute, material statistics of coal production, industrial exports, foodstuffs and freight - which prioritises warfare as much as welfare, and comes into its own in a productivist, scientific and industrial post-war period more commonly associated with relentless diminution and decay.

The myth of post-war decline

It was the very strengths of this British nation – in modernised nationalised industries, domestic food production and indigenous energy supply – that made Thatcherism possible, argues Edgerton. With North Sea oil and abundant agricultural production, Britain no longer needed manufacturing exports to pay for imported food and energy. This was an ‘epochal transformation’ that ‘has barely registered in political discourse or the history books’. The success of the post-war state, not its failure, provided Thatcher with a platform for restructuring the economy and society. The family silver had been thoroughly burnished in the 1960s and 1970s, making its sale all the more lucrative. The miners, dockers and factory workers made redundant in the shake out could be cushioned by a newly comprehensive and generous welfare state.

But if Edgerton punctures declinist myths and Thatcherite narratives of a nation crippled by strikes, saddled with inefficient nationalised industries, and sapped of its native entrepreneurial energies, Rise and Fall also takes aim at bromides of the Left. Far from creating a welfare state, the Attlee government inherited one: the United Kingdom ‘went to war in September 1939 with a welfare state already in place’, Edgerton argues. Beveridge simply rationalised what had already been put in place by the Liberal-Conservative and Conservative governments of the 1920s and 1930s and filled in the gaps. It would fall to later Labour governments to overhaul the welfare state once more, dealing with the parsimonious legacy of Beveridge’s flat-rate contributions and benefits. Remembered for creating a New Jerusalem, Attlee’s government in fact put ‘warfare spending well above welfare spending in its priorities. It rearmed on a huge scale, while imposing NHS charges at a trivial but politically significant level.’ It was profoundly conservative too, leaving largely untouched elite education and the core structures of class society.

Perhaps Edgerton’s most striking claim is that the Labour Party was a nationalist party in the post-war period, not a socialist one. It presented itself as the true party of the nation, not the tribune of the working class. It created a National Coal Board, a National Health Service, and a swathe of British nationalised companies. It was relentlessly focused on the development of a productive, export-orientated national economy. The post-war UK it helped to create ‘was in some ways better prefigured in the programme of the Tories and the British Union of Fascists (BUF) than that of the Liberal Party or the Labour Party.’

In arguing that the post-war Labour Party is better understood as a nationalist party, rather than a ‘weak carrier’ of social democracy, Edgerton is advancing a broader claim that 20th century Britain had a strong nationalist political tradition. It was a ‘peculiar nationalism’ because it had little overt presence. It was neither liberal nor imperialist, but a challenge to both. It developed in the 1930s and 1940s, as world trade slumped and nations retreated behind tariff walls. In Edgerton’s account, it rejected both the liberalism of free trade and global openness that had dominated the Edwardian era, and imperialist projects for the prioritisation and consolidation of empire. It contributed decisively to the development of idea of a single national economy in the post-war period: ‘one that produced, imported and exported’ and was ‘highly protected and controlled’. It was this national economy that was to be swept away in the 1980s, as Britain globalised once again. Thatcher presided over a profound denationalisation of the British economy: industries were privatised, exchange controls were abolished, and foreign direct investment flowed in. A recognisably British capitalism – the members of whose business class fill the pages of Edgerton’s work – disappeared.

The Anglo factor

Analytically, there is much to be gained from Edgerton’s foregrounding of British nationalism and the rise and fall of a British nation. It is rich and arresting account that is likely to be the central reference for historiographical debates on 20th century Britain for a long time to come.

But there is a price to be paid too. The continuities of Britain’s political economy, and the co-evolution of its economic model with a majoritarian, first-past-the-post democracy and liberal welfare state, are necessarily downplayed by a global-vs-national analytical framing. Viewed from a “Varieties of Capitalism’ perspective, Britain is a liberal market economy which has never had the institutions that coordinate business and labour interests typical of central and Northern Europe, nor the structured representation of those interests in a PR electoral system. Its corporate governance is shareholder, not stakeholder; firms compete on price in lightly regulated labour markets; vocational training is weak and less important than general education; and finance has a bigger, less patient role in the economy.

These institutional features have endured across Britain’s recent political-economic history, despite the profound differences in the role of the state documented by Edgerton. They are shared in large part by other countries in the Anglo-world, which together constitute a distinctive liberal-market economy grouping. Instead of distinguishing ‘global’ and ‘liberal’ from ‘national’ economic policymaking, it is perhaps more useful to analyse different eras of economic policymaking as successive ‘growth regimes’ pursued by coalitions of interests in the context of an institutionally liberal economy.

Edgerton also argues that the British nation was created when ‘it emerged out of the British Empire, and out of the cosmopolitan economy, after the Second World War.’ A corollary of this argument is that the United Kingdom had once been part of an empire, but now possessed (a much reduced) one. Historians of the British Empire are likely to challenge this, since by implication it diminishes the centrality of the English (and then British state), and the political elite at the Westminster Parliament, to the growth and control of empire. It is not accidental that late Victorian political theorists argued for a Greater Britain, and sought to understand how the power of the British could be sustained in a world of large, multi-national empires and political federations, like those of Russia, Germany and the USA.

Reconstruction, empire, and New Labour

A Britannic nationalism was also at work in these discourses, one that stressed the ties of ‘kith and kin’ between Great Britain and the white settler dominions, and which persisted well into the 1960s in what has come to be called in recent years the ‘Anglosphere’. This was not an imperialist project to be contrasted to British nationalism, but one that projected a national identity and commonality of interest into a wider Anglo-world. It was sharply structured by racial hierarchies but cannot simply be equated with diehard imperialism.

The nations of this Anglo-world were also vital to the reconstruction of the UK after the Second World War. As Edgerton notes, commerce with the independent dominions was more important to the UK in this period than in the Edwardian era, since the war had destroyed much of her European trade, and Canada aside, the dominions were members of the sterling area, and thus critical to the UK’s external position. But this in turn points to the centrality of the global economic context to the project of developing the post-war national economy and the absolute imperative of boosting manufacturing exports. The 1944 Bretton Woods Agreements created an international monetary regime in which exchange rates were fixed to the US dollar, which was linked to the value of gold. That meant that Britain had to earn its way in the world and do as much trade as it could in sterling. Unable to float the pound, and short of dollars, British policymakers were forced to focus on maximising competitive manufacturing exports and imports of raw materials that could be paid in sterling. The national economy was constructed in this global geo-political framework.

Similarly, the economic importance of empire did not therefore come to an end with Indian independence in 1947, or the independence of the dominions. Instead, as A. G. Hopkins points out in another recent, monumental work of historical scholarship, the empire was repositioned to focus on its dollar-earning and dollar-saving parts in Malaysia, the Middle East and Africa (rubber, oil and minerals and foodstuffs). It did this successfully until the 1960s, when Britain finally called time on its military commitments East of Suez and the Sterling Area was wound up, prefiguring the long-anticipated entry to the EEC.

Edgerton reserves his most vituperative prose for the New Labour era, which he considers a continuation of Thatcherism (as implicitly do the makers of Labour’s recent party political broadcast). As another reviewer has noted, he largely ignores its social democratic achievements in reducing child and pensioner poverty, investing in public services and creating the first National Minimum Wage. It is an unbalanced end to an otherwise remarkable book. But he can be forgiven this. Edgerton has given us radically new perspectives on 20th century British history. Written with bracing élan, Rise and Fall generates insights at every turn. Edgerton set out to rattle ‘the cage of clichés which imprison our historical and political imaginations’, and succeeds magnificently.

About the author

Nick Pearce is professor of public policy & director of the Institute for Policy Research, University of Bath, and former director of the Institute for Public Policy Research.

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