In defence of the nation

David Edgerton offers a compelling analysis of the rise and fall of British nationhood.

Neil Davenport

Topics Books Politics UK

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In today’s crowded marketplace for books on modern British history, David Edgerton’s The Rise and Fall of the British Nation tries to stand out. It aims at being a bold corrective to standard-issue narratives, covering the origins of the welfare state and the decline of nationalism through to the formation of the postwar political consensus and the rise of permissiveness. Unfortunately, many of Edgerton’s key premises are deeply questionable rather than deeply original. Yet, buried within whole chapters of statistics on linen exports and food imports, there is a timely discussion of the nature of nationalism and the nation state. In particular, Edgerton shows how, in the process of abandoning its traditional social constituencies, the Labour Party has gone from staunch Euroscepticism to outright Europhilia.

The oddest part of Edgerton’s thesis is also central to his overarching narrative. He claims that before 1945, Britain was not a nation state in any meaningful sense. Rather, it was an administrative centre of a vast free-trading empire. Throughout the book, he argues there are key distinctions between an earlier ‘imperialist’ politics and a later ‘nationalist’ one. Even odder, he fails to see any connections between (expansionist) nationalism and imperialism. He even claims that, before 1945, British nationalism ‘had little overt presence’ in British society, a point that is more a dashed-off assertion than a historical fact. It seems Edgerton believes that Britain’s diminished status after 1945 led it to settle for isolationism, and abandon the global reach it had enjoyed with the Empire.

In the first half of the 20th century, Britain was still, despite the rise of America and Germany, the pre-eminent global power and the richest country in the world. But that did not mean the nation state was little more than a processing hub for its operations abroad. Since the Acts of Union in 1707, Britain became a nation state with territorial integrity and a clearly identifiable national consciousness. And as Edgerton’s copious notes on food imports from the colonies demonstrate, it was a nation state that was constantly strengthened by its imperial conquests. The idea that nationalist politics is distinct from imperialism doesn’t hold up. Indeed, Britain’s national identity was strongly informed by its sense of global superiority; proclaiming oneself an ‘imperialist’ was a badge of pride, rather than a term of abuse. Edgerton is right to suggest that racism and militarism have domestic roots, but to remove imperialism from the analysis altogether is one-eyed.

Ironically enough, Edgerton’s exploration of the period of 1900 to 1945 actually confirms how and why Britain was a nation state before the Second World War. He shows how the British bourgeoisie created institutions that fundamentally shaped the territory they governed. From universities and grand museums to enormous infrastructure projects, the nation state became the vehicle through which modernisation took place. If Britain was merely an administrative office behind the more important developments abroad, why did the ruling class devote so much energy to creating national institutions?

Governing what goes on in a distinct geographical territory is a key feature of the nation state, and in the early 20th century Britain’s ruling elite took important, though mostly soft, measures to consolidate its hold over society. Describing the rise of revolutionary activity between 1916 and 1920, Edgerton says that ‘in contrast to much of the rest of Europe, the state remained in control, and no serious repression by the state or ruling class was needed’. There was, of course, one exception: the state’s brutal suppression of the Easter Rising in 1916, when Irish republicans rose up against British rule.

Throughout The Rise and Fall of the British Nation, then, Edgerton’s own research undermines his broader thesis that the British nation state did not exist before 1945. This happens again in the context of his discussion of Britain’s warfare state. He rightly notes that many historians overplay the state’s creation of Britain’s welfare state while ignoring how the state spent far more on arms and the armed services. ‘The warfare state was always strong, and at the core of the state, and [it] shaped the United Kingdom, the rest of the Empire and much of the world’, he writes. He fails to explain how a country can develop a large military apparatus to protect and rule over its territory and not be classified as a nation state.

And yet despite these defects, The Rise and Fall of the British Nation provides a compelling analysis of how Britain differed from many other leading countries in the first half of the 20th century. Between 1900 and 1940, writes Edgerton:

‘the United Kingdom was the most proletarian country in the world. This was hardly the image it projected overseas, or within the Empire itself. Yet it had the largest and perhaps most uniform urban working-class. In no place other than the United Kingdom could it be said that up to 80 per cent of the people were known as the “working classes”.’

Edgerton provides numerous examples of how the organised working class succeeded, at times, in improving its living standards through trade-union pressure. Likewise, he notes how working-class agitation was responsible for the extension of the franchise. The nation state was crucial here because it provided the arena and the mechanisms through which people were able to hold the nation’s rulers to account. Today, glib globalists have belatedly discovered that the nation state has its faults, but Edgerton highlights how vital it remains if the masses are to exert any pressure on, let alone control over, ruling elites.

He also sheds light on the real role of the Labour Party, and its relationship to the key conflict between the ruling class and workers. ‘At issue was not the parliamentary power of Labour’, he writes, ‘but the industrial power of labour… The elite did not need to accommodate socialism, or even technocratic Fabianism, but workers. The fundamental politics of industrial society was not the politics of Westminster, but the extra-parliamentary politics of capital-labour relations.’ And he provides many examples of how the Labour Party actively restrained the most militant sections of the labour movement, and failed to provide parliamentary support for the working class when it mattered most, with the Miners’ Strike of 1984 being the most damning instance.

Edgerton argues that the postwar Labour Party was ‘the party of the nation’. Examining the 1950 Labour Party manifesto, he writes that it:

‘makes two references to socialism and one to social democracy, but these were far outnumbered by references to Britain, the nation and so on… Labour’s nationalism helps explain many things. It helps explain the choice of the term “nationalised industries”, and the National Assistance and the National Health Service were also new. So were the National Coal Board, the British Transport Commission and British Railways.’

Indeed, Labour’s nationalism also explains the old Labour left’s hostility to the European Union’s forerunner, the European Economic Community (EEC). Though not averse to tariffs and controls on British imports and to trade measures against rivals in overseas markets, the Labour left viewed the common market as a ‘capitalist club’, and felt the UK should look outwards to remain truly internationalist.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has long shared these old Labour views of the EEC and now the EU, but he has fudged the line on Brexit for fear of alienating the Labour Party’s middle-class Remain voters. To his credit, Edgerton also charts the left’s journey towards upholding closer economic and political integration with Europe. After the 1983 Labour General Election manifesto, which committed the UK to withdrawal from the EEC, Edgerton notes that EEC withdrawal was not mentioned in the 1987 election manifesto. It was then abandoned altogether after the electoral defeat in 1987. The election of Tony Blair as leader in 1994 completed the trajectory towards full-blown support for what had then become the EU. Although young Labour activists in and around Momentum today see themselves as a returning to old Labour values, they tend to ignore old Labour’s opposition to the EEC.

A key argument for left-wing Remainers is that Brexit is a hard-right, Tory plot designed to increase levels of privatisation and austerity within the UK. Edgerton offers a welcome counterargument, explaining that, even in the early 1960s, ‘the majority elite view, not least of the Conservative Party, was that the United Kingdom should align itself with Europe… There was British opposition to entering the Common Market, but it lost against a determined elite which was in favour.’ Margaret Thatcher’s opposition, in the 1980s, to European integration was a threat to key Conservative Party interests and to the business elite. As a result, writes Edgerton, ‘she was forced out’.

None of this is revelatory, and activists on the left undoubtedly know about senior Labourites like Tony Benn and Michael Foot opposing the EEC, and about Blair’s revisionism. They argue, however, that the Brexit vote merely expressed xenophobia and racism. That view betrays their disappointment with working-class voters, whom they blithely dismiss as a uniquely ignorant section of society. Whereas Labour’s role was once to constrain working-class radicalism, it is now tasked with containing the perceived threat of working-class racism. Overturning the EU referendum result, so the logic goes, is necessary to prevent ordinary people’s lurch toward fascism. Left Leavers, or Lexiteers, are now presented as being ‘handmaidens to the right’, or as flirting with reactionary nationalism.

The British left has always preferred to flaunt what it imagines is an internationalist outlook in a manner that leaves the man and the woman in the street, at best, bemused. Rather than addressing the concerns of citizens, the left has always preferred to ingratiate itself with Cubans, Palestinians and the government of Venezuela. Yet genuine internationalism means mounting an alternative to the foreign policy of our own rulers. This is very different to simply having a position on current events in, say, South America. Reportage on and analysis of events far away is not the same as internationalism.

Although globalisation and immigration do confer an international character on the working class, Edgerton shows how mass political opposition is possible within the nation state in a way it is not in Brussels or the UN. The framework of mass political opposition largely exists within the nation state. A desire to strengthen citizenship is, therefore, very different to promoting an exclusivist national identity. Left Remainers argue that any focus on ‘popular sovereignty’ discriminates against economic migrants; but portraying non-citizens as ‘just the same’ as citizens renders the whole idea of citizenship meaningless. Citizenship is about protecting and exercising rights. To ignore what makes citizenship significant is to reject political decision-making and political accountability.

This leads us to what is perhaps the most interesting but, sadly, the least developed part of Edgerton’s thesis: namely, that a globalised economy has undermined national sovereignty, and that the British nation now ceases to exist. Edgerton rightly outlines how stagnant the British economy has become since the erosion of its national content. ‘The average rate of growth of the economy was higher and steadier in the years 1948-79 than between 1979 and 2000’, he writes. ‘Before the 1970s the British economy was in fact generally in surplus on the current account, while in the last decades of the 20th century it was generally in deep deficit.’ Edgerton also discusses the ‘displacement of national elites, old and new, by a new cosmopolitan elite’, which is largely uninterested in the nation state or its citizens.

Edgerton could have gone further here. After all, nearly the whole of the British elite favours the elite clubs of the EU or even the intrigues of the UN over national institutions. He does offer a scathing portrait of the outlook to which today’s ruling elite is wedded: ‘To call the new order neoliberalism is to flatter it, for there was little original or new or liberal about it. It was a culture which was increasingly global in its sameness and its lack of political contestation.’

Edgerton’s trenchant criticism of Marxism Today’s long-forgotten ‘Post-Fordist’ thesis also hits the mark. Marxism Today’s old Communist Party thinkers announced that a monolithic society of ‘Fordist’ manufacturing had, by the late 1980s, given way to a ‘Post-Fordist’ epoch of flexible production and variegated lifestyles. Edgerton points out that their ‘technological determinist’ theory ‘failed to identify the social phenomena they sought to explain’. Furthermore, in places such as China and Brazil, the weight of manufacturing in national economies was increasing, not decreasing. Lastly, he is also wise to show how, from the late 1980s, ‘the working class disappeared from the public sphere. The poor, the unsuccessful, were stigmatised in the media in ways which would have been unthinkable earlier.’ An examination of how the demonisation of the working class has intensified since the Brexit vote could have been even more damning.

There is one striking omission in what, after all, is a book about the past and future of the British nation, and that is the impact of devolution, which began in 1997. When Blair and his allies attacked the nation state from within, they did much to undermine the cohesion and unity of Britain. And when the Scottish National Party began to have success in presenting Scotland as victims of Westminster, it effaced Scotland’s key role in creating the British Empire – in an attempt to portray Scotland as a nation of progressive social democrats compared to the nation of reactionary Tories down south. However, the poor turnout in elections for the Scottish Parliament, established in 1999, shows that most people view regional assemblies as having no real power to make meaningful decisions.

The turnout for the European Parliament elections has been even lower. Which is hardly a surprise given how many view the European Parliament, and the EU in general, as aloof and unconnected to ordinary people’s lives. That in 2014 Scottish voters rejected independence, and in 2016 British voters decided to leave the EU, shows that the majority of British citizens still see the nation state as the best political form for decision-making and democratic accountability.

Edgerton’s separation of nationalism from imperialism may be unconvincing, but his focus on the conflict between Britain’s old ruling and working classes shows us how and why the nation state has mattered – and still matters today.

Neil Davenport is a writer based in London.

The Rise and Fall of the British Nation: A Twentieth-Century History, by David Edgerton, is published by Allen Lane. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

Picture by: Getty Images.

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Topics Books Politics UK


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