Book review: The Rise And Fall Of The British Nation, by David Edgerton

I am, by nature, amenable to controversy, to books that subvert presumptions and always in favour of engaged debate. So the introduction to David Edgerton's book whetted my appetite. He makes a number of propositions which I wanted to know more about. If there were a one sentence summary of this book it would be 'Danny Boyle got it all wrong at the Olympics Opening Ceremony'.

The Rise and Fall of the British Nation
The Rise and Fall of the British Nation

He begins with certain contentious propositions. His most interesting observation is the way “The Empire”, “The Commonwealth”, “The United Nations of Great Britain and Northern Ireland”, “Great Britain”, “Britain” and especially “England” were ambiguous zones of meaning. The Queen, for example, talked about Empire in South Africa, but was “Queen of this Realm and of all her other Realms and Territories, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith”. Note the absence of any reference to Empire.

At the same time, the author is critical of what he calls declinism. Whatever one wishes to call this area of the world, it did lose substantial amounts of territory during the period usually referred to as decolonisation. Liberation might be a better word, given that Edgerton provides many examples of the effort put into the Second World War by Indians, Australians, New Zealanders, Canadians, Caribbeans and various African countries. So the idea of an “island Britain”, stoutly and solely standing against the Nazi war machine was basically always propaganda. Or as some would call it, bunkum. Dad’s Army is not mentioned, but encapsulates the mentality of plucky Brits, a bit daft, standing alone, while their coffee and tobacco and sugar came from other parts of the world. So far, so good.

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The second major argument is about the persistence of elites. Of course elites existed, but the idea of a singular elite seems underthought. Clement Attlee and Harold Macmillan went to private schools and Oxford, but hardly shared a common view of society. The difference between the elite of education and the elite of landed gentry is never made clear.

The third argument – and it is a catchy slogan – is that Britain was as much a warfare state as a welfare state. We used to put coal out and buy beef and cheese in, and the turn to austerity, munitions and self-sufficiency changed that. This impacts on the depiction of the Thatcher Era – not a revolution of downsizing the state, but building on what had gone before. Thatcher may have won the Falklands, but the British Navy lost three times to Iceland during the Cod Wars.

There is a great deal of data here, but far less narrative. I now know a great deal more about the scale of coal production compared with agricultural endeavour than I might ever need. What might have been a slender stiletto of polemic instead is a bruising broadsword of facts. I cannot believe that even a graduate student studying economics would thrill to such detail as: “Its currency, the pound sterling, was divided into twenty shillings – with ‘silver’ coins for the five shillings (the crown), two and a half shillings (the half-crown), two shillings (the florin), and the sixpence – each of which was divided into twelve pennies – there were ‘coppers’ for the threepenny, the penny, halfpenny and farthing (quarter of a penny); the guinea (twenty-one shillings) was the unit of account for elite professional services and luxury goods”. Anyone who wants to know about this probably has access to the internet.

By focusing on the technocrats, engineers and capitalists of the period Edgerton does provide an alternative story, but it is at the expense of making the characters actually seem alive. Again, if I really need to know who was the head of BOAC in 1976 or the head of the TUC in 1954, I am sure that information is retrievable. But who were they? What motivated them? It is curious indeed to read a book on Britain in the 20th century where the index has no mention of Profumo but does take time to discuss the National Amalgamated Society of House and Ship Painters. Yet this is supposedly about the elites?

In terms of culture, Edgerton is on shakier ground than when he is dealing with the statistics about the aluminium trade. A roll-call of Lessing, Naipaul, Pinter, Carter, Ballard, McEwan and Amis is hardly a proper reflection of the culture of the time, nor is it a reflection of the critical establishment that promoted the authors. Edgerton has a bit of a bee in his bonnet over CP Snow and his science versus arts contention, but rather than saying that the fact that Conan Doyle studied medicine proves the Snow’s arguments were “risible”, one might ask how much Virginia Woolf knew about mechanical engineering.

Readers of this book in Scotland might be justifiably surprised that this story of Britain – which takes in so many overseas territories – has very little indeed to say about Scotland. The shipbuilding, the second city of Empire, the rise of nationalism merits little. One fact, since this is such a fact-y book: in England there are “Thankful Villages”, where every soldier came back from the Great War. There are even ones that are doubly thankful, where everyone survived the Second War. There are none in Scotland at all.

The Rise And Fall Of The British Nation: A Twentieth Century History, by David Edgerton, Allen Lane, £30