- Interview by
- Daniel Finn
The outcome of the Brexit crisis has brought the very existence of the United Kingdom into question. Historians may look back on the current period as the beginning of the end for the British state.
David Edgerton’s most recent work, The Rise and Fall of the British Nation, is one of the most ambitious reinterpretations of modern British history for many years. Edgerton spoke to Jacobin about the central arguments he makes in that book concerning the development of Britain’s national economy and the light they shed on the political turbulence of the last decade.
David Edgerton is a professor at King’s College London, where his work concentrates on the histories of twentieth-century Britain and of global science and technology. This is an edited transcript from Jacobin’s Long Reads podcast. You can listen to the episode here.
In The Rise and Fall of the British Nation, you’re careful to specify at the outset that it’s not the rise and fall of the British economy or the British state that you’re discussing but rather the nation in particular. What is the significance of the book’s title?
British history has a problem with nationalism, and indeed the nation — they’re not supposed to exist, or they exist in very unusual forms. A central claim of my book is that something I call the British nation, corresponding to the territory of the UK, emerged after 1945, with a national economy, national politics, and a self-consciousness of itself as a nation called Britain. But it had a rather short life and was broken up from the 1980s.
I’m talking about a particular phase in history. Before the nation came both the empire and a set of places that were located in a global, free-trading space. What came after the nation? A fresh commitment to a globalist, and in particular European, liberal economic perspective.
I’m suggesting a discontinuity in British history, but it’s not necessarily, as I think you’ve suggested, a story of the economy. It’s not a moral story of the rise and fall of something good. It’s the rise and fall of something significant — although I have to say that the national period from the 1940s to the 1970s saw the fastest-ever rise in GDP in British history, so there is some correlation between the process of nationalization and the process of economic growth.
I have to admit to another reason for the title and orientation of the book. In writing a kind of national history, I recognized that this is a very conventional and widely read genre, a conventional frame, but one that I used to tell an unconventional story — a story about the British nation but also about British capitalism, the state, warfare, and political economy. It’s a particular frame that allowed me to get away with telling stories to audiences that might not otherwise be particularly receptive to them.
You put forward a critique in the book of the dominant framings of twentieth-century British history. What are those framings, as you understand them?
On the Left, I think there’s a strong sense that we have a theoretically informed approach, and all the rest of the historical accounts out there are merely empirics with a bit of dodgy ideology interwove. But those unsatisfactory accounts are out there, and it’s important to understand them. So what are they?
The most important is probably what I call social democratic welfarism. This perspective sees twentieth-century British history as the rise and fall of the welfare state. It has an extraordinary focus on welfare and also places an extraordinary emphasis on liberals and the Left in history, as if they were the only creative forces in the UK.
A second framing, also dating from the 1960s, is what I call a declinist framing, which conflates relative and absolute decline in very unhelpful ways. It seeks to explain whatever it is trying to explain — which is never quite clear — in ways that are usually wrong. This has led to an account which many people find convincing, but which is actually very weird, of the nature of the British elite, British business, British education, British expertise, and the British state.
Most recently, we’ve had a claim for the centrality of empire in twentieth-century British history, coming right up to the present. I think this very often involves a misrepresentation of what empire was, a failure to distinguish imperialism from nationalism, and an implicit continuity thesis that the empire as it was in 1914 remains a potent ideological force today.
There are many combinations of these framings. A very powerful one is to be found in the Nairn-Anderson theses. My book can and I think probably should be read as a critique of those theses, in their variants and those of others, or at least as a left alternative to the Tom Nairn–Perry Anderson type of history.
I found it very interesting that it’s rarely been seen as such, and certainly the New Left Review has chosen not to see it that way. But I think it speaks to the more general problem that we find it difficult to recognize framings in British history. I hope that one contribution of the book will be to ensure that we become much more aware of those framings and raise our conversational game around British history.
What impact did the possession of the world’s largest empire have on British politics and the British economy during the early twentieth century? Were the white settler colonies of Canada and Australasia more important in that regard than the African and Asian territories?
That’s a very important question. The imperialists certainly made the empire and in particular the white dominions central to politics and economics. In many ways, today’s anti-imperialists have followed them rather naively in this.
Empire was tremendously important to the politics of the British right into the 1940s. The Conservative Party wasn’t just unionist — it was also imperialist. The empire became the key polity for it. The central political-economic policy that it had was to create an empire economic block. National protection was also a policy of Imperial Preference and at the extreme, a policy of Empire Free Trade.
However, it’s important to note that it conceived of the United Kingdom as part of the empire, not the owner of the empire. It was a genuine imperialist vision. For the Conservatives, the white dominions in particular were central. They provided an image of the empire as a brotherhood of free white nations — a very important part of the overall story. But it was also important because the white dominions really were the important bits economically. That was where the investment went, and where a lot of the food for the United Kingdom came from.
India is a different matter. That was a place, of course, with a massive population. It was an important market for exports, but it was in a different league from the white dominions, and both were in a quite different position from what were strictly speaking called the colonies. It is very important to remember that before the 1940s — that is to say, in the great age of empire — trade with foreign countries was greater than with “British” countries, to use the language of the time.
Liberals pointed this out again and again. They argued that the great glory of the British economy was not the empire but rather free trade. That meant trading with everybody and in practice trading a very great deal with Europe. That was where British bacon, British eggs, British iron ore, or British timber came from, and much else besides. Before the 1940s, the UK was a profoundly European economy, deeply integrated into trade and production within the European continent.
How important was the role of London as a world financial center at a time when Britain was also one of the great manufacturing powers? Was there a divergence between the interests of financial and industrial capital at that stage in Britain’s economic history?
If we’re talking about the years before 1914, the City of London was extraordinarily important in the world economy. It was a key conduit for overseas investment. UK investors were the most important investors in the outside world, in the United States, in Latin America, and the white dominions. It wasn’t particularly an imperial investment center.
The City was also crucially important in the financing of world trade. The UK was the largest trader in the world, the world’s largest importer, and the dominant market for all the key commodities in world trade. The City and trade were very, very important, but the idea that they were somehow in opposition to industry or industrial capital is not correct, I think. The UK was the largest overseas investor and the largest trader, but it was also the most industrial country in the world — far more industrialized than Germany or the United States at this time.
It was more industrialized precisely because it was more globalized. It didn’t need to grow all its own food. The City was investing overseas in UK-owned enterprises, whose business was often to supply food to the UK, directly or indirectly. That in turn allowed the UK to be industrial and indeed to supply the railways, the factories, and the ships that made all this trade possible in the first place. In fact, the relations between overseas investment and industrialization were synergistic, at least in this period.
You argue that standard accounts of the British welfare state as the creation of William Beveridge and the postwar Labour government are profoundly mistaken. What does that familiar story get wrong, in your view?
Two things, I think. The first is timing. The standard story goes like this: the pre-1914 Liberal government introduced elements of the welfare state, then the Liberal political economist, William Beveridge, came along in World War II and proposed a radically new welfare state, after which the Labour government of 1945–1951 introduced it.
The Liberal government did introduce some welfare measures before 1914, based on the insurance principle but essentially covering only health. However, what’s missing from the story is the fact that in the 1920s, the UK got a very comprehensive welfare state for the working class, based on the social insurance principle. We had unemployment benefits, sickness benefits, and other health services, as well as pensions, including payments for widows and orphans. The UK almost certainly had the most comprehensive working-class welfare state of any country in the world.
What Beveridge proposed was an extension of this working-class welfare state from 70 to 80 percent of the population to nearly 100 percent of the population and a rationalization and systematization that would bring it all together. What Labour was particularly important for was ensuring that the whole system was a nationalized rather than a semiprivatized one. That was captured rather well in Labour’s creation of the National Health Service, which involved the nationalization of charitable and municipal hospitals.
The second way this perspective misleads is through an assumption that the British welfare state of the 1940s and ’50s was especially generous. In fact, by comparison with West European welfare states, it wasn’t. One very important reason for that was precisely its Beveridgean nature. It was based on flat-rate contributions — effectively, a poll tax — and flat-rate benefits. The continental welfare systems often rested on contributions based on income and benefits that were also based on income.
What impact did the process of decolonization have on domestic politics and society in postwar Britain?
It partly depends on what one means by decolonization. Strictly speaking, decolonization is the granting of freedom to colonies, so that doesn’t include India or the dominions. But taking the term a little more loosely, it’s striking how little impact decolonization had. Take the cases of India and Palestine in the 1940s: there were no major convulsions at home — nothing compared to what was happening in France during the 1950s.
Another way of looking at it would be to say that there was actually a silent revolution brought about by “de-imperialization.” That was best exemplified by the extraordinarily rapid transition of the Conservatives from being the party of empire and Imperial Preference to being the party of free trade and of applying for accession to the Treaty of Rome in 1961. It is extraordinary that, just a few years after World War II, the Tory Party in government applied for membership of what was then called the Common Market.
That certainly doesn’t suggest, as many of the history books do, that there was a great reluctance to go European as it were, because of the prior and deep commitment to empire. I don’t think that was there, although there was no necessary contradiction between imperialism and the desire to join the Common Market, either in the British or the French cases.
I suppose this question would usually be discussed in relation to immigration, which is seen as the key domestic consequence of decolonization. But I think that image is misleading, for a number of reasons. First of all, immigration is in key respects not the right term.
There was a movement of people from the Caribbean in particular during the 1950s, but they were people coming from a colonial territory who had the same nationality as most people living in the United Kingdom. They were what were called “citizens of the United Kingdom and Colonies,” so they weren’t really immigrants. They were people moving within the space of British nationality.
Interestingly, there were more immigrants, in the sense of aliens or semialiens, coming from Ireland and continental Europe in the 1940s and ’50s. Indeed, the dominant movement of population from the 1940s right up into the 1980s was outward rather than inward. The UK was a place of net emigration in that period. A lot of that emigration was to the Commonwealth, and Australia in particular.
How did the profile of the British economy differ from the other advanced industrial states in the postwar decades? Why did many people have a sense that Britain was losing ground or falling behind its competitors during that era?
It comes as a surprise to many people that in the 1950s, the United Kingdom was still the most industrialized economy on Earth. This doesn’t fit with the “declinist” images that have so affected our understanding of this period in particular.
In terms of growth rates, poorer European countries and countries elsewhere were often growing faster than the UK economy — they were catching up. The German economy caught up with the UK and overtook it in terms of GDP per capita in the 1960s, and France did the same in the 1970s. But the overall result was that the West European economies, which had been quite different in 1945 or 1950, came to be very similar by the 1980s and ’90s or the 2000s when one includes poorer countries like Spain.
There was one very important way, which is hardly appreciated, in which the UK converged on a continental European model, and that was with respect to food. The UK had been quite exceptional in importing half its food supply right into the 1950s, but there was a very important decision taken after the war to maximize the domestic production of food and minimize imports. That was a long-term commitment that came to fruition in the 1970s and ’80s. It was not the product of the EU; rather, it was the product of a national policy — a nationalist policy as well.
In the 1970s and ’80s, the UK became broadly speaking self-sufficient in the foods that it could grow itself, much as Germany, France, and Italy were self-sufficient in food. What had been the great factor distinguishing the United Kingdom from continental Europe disappeared as a result of a fundamental change in British political economy. The UK became an exporter of beef and wheat, which would have been unthinkable not just in the Edwardian years but in the 1950s as well.
The image of the 1970s as a dark decade for Britain is arguably the most enduring stereotype in British politics. It only takes a single strike for journalists to start conjuring up images of rubbish piling in the streets and other familiar images from that time. What would you say are the main problems with that stereotypical view?
I think certain weird images of the World War II are likely to pop up a few microseconds faster in the minds of journalists than the 1970s. But you’re right — it does have a very particular place in British history. What’s wrong with this view? First of all, the strikes were not uniquely British. There was, of course, a general global strike wave from the late 1960s into the 1970s.
It also gets the causes of the strikes wrong — in particular, the strikes of the so-called “Winter of Discontent” in 1978–79. Those strikes were caused by a Labour government attempting to bear down on public sector pay in a context where it was not willing to bear down on private sector pay any longer. It was the government that was pushing poorly paid workers to take strike action to defend their standard of living. A conservative historiography has essentially created the image of bolshie workers getting uppity and taking on the government, when exactly the opposite was the case.
Another thing that’s wrong with this view is the timing. The strikes weren’t particularly a feature of the Labour government of 1974–79. There were very important strikes under the Conservative government of the early 1970s and in the period of the Margaret Thatcher government from 1979 into the early 1980s and the great miners’ strike of 1984–85. Indeed, curiously enough, if one looks at the monthly figures for strikes in 1979, there were fewer workdays lost in the “Winter of Discontent” at the beginning of 1979 than there were at the end of that year when the Conservative government was already in office.
The reality is that the 1970s saw a global crisis. There were important transitions and readjustments in the British economy. That decade was also a period of political radicalism and cultural inventiveness — a period of innovation, of a sort that conservatives didn’t like one bit. That’s essentially why the 1970s have this terrible reputation.
The British Labour left developed an approach in the 1970s and the early 1980s for going beyond the reforms of the postwar decades, which was known as the Alternative Economic Strategy (AES). That platform was defeated politically, both by the Conservatives and by internal opposition within the Labour Party itself, so the question of whether it could enact it in government didn’t arise in practice. But in principle, what do you think its strengths and weaknesses were as a program for government?
First of all, it was a very important program. It was part of the development of properly social democratic policies by the Labour Party for the first time in its history, I think. It went along with new ways of thinking about welfare — post-Beveridgean or non-Beveridgean welfare.
The Alternative Economic Strategy was important for two reasons. One is that it was about getting back to the economic policies of the 1940s and 1960s but in such a way that they might at least work more effectively. The great strength of the AES was in understanding that the state required more control over business, especially in a context where capitalism and the nation were coming apart. There was a focus on the need to have more ownership of business and more generally to control business and democratize it as well. There was also a recognition that British capitalism was relatively weak in some crucial areas or was becoming so. It had to be reorganized and modernized.
What were the downsides to this program? There was an overarching declinism, which overdid the weakness of British capitalism. I don’t think it ever faced up to the difficulties that there would have been in developing such a program. I don’t think the party was prepared for those difficulties, and I don’t think it faced up to the possible negative economic consequences of the kind of strategy that was being pursued.
The AES implied and sometimes directly meant supporting things like the design, development, and production of very inefficient British nuclear reactors, or the Concorde supersonic airplane. It had a deeply nationalist, technocratic streak that I think was very unfortunate. It was in many ways more of a nationalist than a socialist program, in fact.
Margaret Thatcher succeeded where the Labour left had failed, first in taking control of her own party, and then in using that as a launchpad to push through a radical new program that transformed Britain. What impact did Thatcherism have on the British economy, especially its manufacturing sector? How would you assess the importance of two economic factors in her political triumph: the revenues from North Sea oil that came on tap in the early 1980s and the existence of the financial sector as an alternative to manufacturing?
She did transform the British economy, but it’s important to note that she did not increase the underlying rate of growth. Since 1979, the British economy has grown more slowly on average than it grew between 1945 and the 1970s. In that sense, she most certainly did not reverse the British decline. Nor did she reverse the British decline in relation to all the other major economies in the world, although that would have been impossible, of course.
In terms of manufacturing, while manufacturing employment did go down very radically, manufacturing output remained high. Indeed, peak manufacturing output in British history came in 2008 — it wasn’t the 1970s, let alone the 1870s.
What made the experiment successful, as indeed it was, in transforming the nature of British economy and society? North Sea oil was certainly important because, together with the new self-sufficiency in food, it meant that the UK no longer had to import the two things that had dominated its import bill in the past: food and oil. That meant that the UK no longer needed to have a surplus in the manufacturing balance, which went negative in 1981.
British consumers could now enjoy freely vast quantities of foreign manufactures. Quite soon, you had a permanent negative balance of trade in the British economy — a quite extraordinary thing. A tiny negative balance of trade was the stuff of politics in the 1950s and ’60s, yet in the more recent past, a permanent deficit of 4, 5, or 6 percent of GDP has no impact whatsoever.
What made this deficit sustainable? The emergence of a new kind of City of London. It was not the City of the Edwardian years. It was something quite different, like an enclave, which was about bringing money into the UK as much as taking it out. It was precisely those net flows of capital into the UK that allowed it to sustain the negative balance of trade.
The City was also of fundamental importance in changing London. London started growing again from the early 1980s. It became an extraordinarily cosmopolitan city — “swamped,” you might say, as Thatcher did in the 1970s, by foreigners. London — indeed, Britain for that matter — was not the place that Thatcher had in mind in the 1970s. It became something quite new and distinctive.
The most important thing Thatcher did, apart from opening up the economy to Europe and the world, was to encourage the increasing inequality between capital and labor and between the regions. There was an extraordinary reversal of the move toward greater equality of income, wealth, and regional development that had been taking place from 1945. There was also an elimination of the sense of an economic nation in which we were all in it together and would all be buying British goods and eating British food. For all her cultural nationalism, Margaret Thatcher was a radical economic internationalist.
Your book concludes with an assessment of Tony Blair and the New Labour project. What do you think were the principal legacies of Blair and Gordon Brown from their time in office?
Institutionalizing Thatcherism, or perhaps we should say “Majorism” — maintaining these great new divisions between the rich and the poor and deepening the Thatcherite reorganization of the welfare state. The welfare state didn’t go away — it actually grew — but it changed. We saw an extension of means-testing, increased amounts of benefits being given to people in work to supplement appallingly low wages that the market generated, and a continuation of privatization and marketization, not least in the health service. It was the politics of continuity.
There was also a distinct revivalism that came in, putting aside the declinism of the past — at least in the case of Blair, much less so in the case of Brown. “Cool Britannia” was a slogan in the late 1990s. There was a sense that the country was back — it was “global Britain” (a term coined by Brown, actually). The Blair government saw the planning of two aircraft carriers — an interesting development — and of course it saw British involvement in a number of wars, culminating in Iraq and Afghanistan.
I think those wars were very, very important. The loss of trust in government that arose from the obvious, systematic mendacity of the Blair administration around Iraq had and continues to have profound consequences. It generated a new, deep cynicism in politics. It was focused on process, not outcome. It was focused on the newspapers rather than what was happening on the ground.
I think it continued the disabling of the capacity of the state to act in a rational and reasonable manner. There was a kind of manic energy and ambition that looking back, compared with today’s Labour Party, looks rather exciting, but it didn’t lead to anything particularly creative. In fact, by depoliticizing so much, it allowed the growth of a radically politicized Conservatism.
It’s striking that the Conservatives have increased their vote share in every election since 1997. The idea that Boris Johnson suddenly transformed the fortunes of the party is quite wrong. That’s one legacy of Blairism — not just Brexit, but also a new, revived, and dangerous Conservative Party. If Thatcherism begot Blairism, I think Blairism begot “Johnsonism” by a very different process.
In a 2019 article for the Guardian, just as the Brexit crisis was reaching its crescendo, you argued that Brexit was made possible by the transformation of the British economy in the late twentieth century. This is a quote from the article:
Today there is no such thing as British national capitalism. . . . Brexit is the political project of the hard right within the Conservative Party and not its capitalist backers. In fact, these forces were able to take over the party in part because it was no longer stabilized by a powerful, organic connection to capital, either nationally or locally.
That raises a lot of fascinating questions about the British economy and about the relationship between political and economic power. There could be a full-scale research project embedded there, or even several research projects. But briefly, if you could, what would you say that Brexit taught us about those questions?
It taught us a lot. One point I was getting at with that quotation was that there was a time when nearly every important business in the country had its representatives in the House of Commons. I don’t mean trade unionists — I mean the owners. The Conservative Party was the party of British industry. My favorite example is the owner of Meccano, a very important Liverpool toy company, who was the MP for Everton in Liverpool for many years. But one could repeat that example again and again. It applies to many prime ministers, especially Stanley Baldwin.
However, in the recent past, things have been very different. The UK has been a place where global capitalism does its business. There’s relatively little we could straightforwardly call British capitalism. The FTSE 100 share index tells you very little about the health of the British economy or British firms, for example.
What does this mean in practice? It means that there aren’t the sort of connections between business and the Conservative Party that there would have been when they were all the same people. There are, perhaps, connections between particular kinds of business and the Conservative Party — particular hedge funds, for example, or Russian oligarchs. Between them, they’re pushing the Conservatives to be a party that’s pressing for an even greater degree of tax-haven status for the British economy, making it even more of a rentier, liberalized economy than it already is.
That essentially has been the project of the hard, ultra-Thatcherite right of the Conservative Party. It’s a policy of liberalization and globalization. It has ironic consequences for free trade and all the rest of it, but at its heart is a belief in a very radical version of the free market. The Thatcherite program, combined with a revivalist view of the British economy, has been extraordinarily powerful in recent British politics.
However, there’s another side to this, which I think is very important, and not sufficiently appreciated. Brexit was never thought through by these people. They never had a plan for it. They never really knew what Brexit was going to be or what it would take to make it happen. There was no preparing of the people, no preparing of business, and no preparing of the infrastructure.
There were systematic self-delusions and lies about the impact of Brexit, as we see in what I fear will be a tragic unfolding of the Brexit fiasco in Northern Ireland — an absolutely scandalous set of developments, with the unthinking, brutal unionists of the Conservative Party pushing this, together with the Democratic Unionist Party. We have an extraordinary politics, in which a particular fraction of capital, allied with hard-right elements of the Conservative Party, are pursuing a policy that they don’t really understand and can’t really come to terms with.
That is something radically new in British history. We’ve had great programs of political-economic change, from mobilization in World War II to going into the European Economic Community. But those were planned and thought through — there weren’t any great surprises. This one hasn’t been. It hasn’t even really been improvised. It has just been a very peculiar mess.
The other aspect is that the politics of the Brexiteers themselves aren’t the politics of Brexit voters. The Brexit vote is an old vote, just like the Conservative vote. One has to credit the Conservatives with realizing that their vote was an old one and doing everything they could to sustain that vote — for example, by keeping NHS spending and pension spending up, systematically targeting welfare at the elderly and taking it away from the young.
But many of those old people were in effect “Lexiter” protest voters — people who wanted national industry back and perhaps national agriculture as well. They were expressing an entirely legitimate disapproval of where the economy had been going for the last forty years. But instead of voting out the powers that be in London, they were convinced that they had to vote out the powers that be in Brussels. I think that they made, from their point of view, an appalling mistake, and that’s going to add to what I think will be a most incendiary time in British politics.