The Rise and Fall of the British Nation
A Twentieth-Century History
Allen Lane 2018
David Edgerton’s The Rise and Fall of the British Nation: A Twentieth Century History (Allen Lane, 2018) argues the United Kingdom had a distinctive national moment characterized by a strong state, powerful military armed with advanced weapons, and dedicated to developmental economics. Far from repeating older claims that Britain did not have a nationalism or was not sufficiently nationalistic, Edgerton shows a country that is increasingly interventionist, militaristic, and devoted to science and technology in the wake of the Second World War. Britain’s nationalist project reaches its height in the 1960s with the expansion of essential resources like food and energy as well as significant public expenditure on innovative technologies like supersonic jets and nuclear energy.
Edgerton examines shifting interpretations of British capitalism, militarism, and the role of the state. He focuses attention on industrialists turned parliamentarians as well as public intellectuals, labor leaders, and scientists to provide a wide view of political economic thought. Debates about nation and economy are not simply drawn along lines of right and left, but rather in visions of what the nation could be or should be. Ideas are not static in Edgerton’s account, but rather grow and change in step with Britain’s socioeconomic and cultural transformation.
The British nation reaches the crisis point in the 1970s. Expected economic growth does not occur and the public begins to lose confidence in the government. The United Kingdom transforms once again in the 1980s towards an economically liberal and globalist orientation by the Thatcher government. The government lifts barriers to trade and the British nation ceases to be a coherent economic unit. The United Kingdom becomes a center for foreign investment, entrepreneurs, and the entertainment industry. Along with economic change, sub-national politics in Scotland and Wales return to challenge the authority of the nation-state.
Edgerton uncovers a forgotten materiality imbedded within Britain’s industrial past as well as the hidden role of capitalists, ideologues, and the military. Britain’s history is not one of inevitable decline or the development of the welfare state, but rather a story of power and change in line with other European nation-states like Germany or the Russia.