The idea of deep continuity in British history is absurd. We’ve always been in flux

From the Observer 18 November 2018

 There is something ridiculous about Brexit Britain. It is a Carry On movie set in the past: we are living not at a historic moment but one laden with trivialised history. Boris Johnson tells us that with Brexit the nation will find its bojo as it found its mojo under Churchill. Brother JoJo tells us Brexit is the greatest failure of British statecraft since Suez; the greatest crisis since the Second World War.

 Brexiters claim a deep continuity in British history betrayed by EU membership. Pro-EU people claim that the UK has never got over imperial delusions of grandeur. The reality is that both grotesquely over-egg continuity.

 The problem is not just getting history wrong, but that history is invoked at all. The UK today could not dream of fighting the Second World War, or even invading Egypt. In 1940, Churchill led a great global force, second to none in the world. In 1956, Anthony Eden was at the head of the largest and richest economy in Europe with armed forces which more than matched this.

 Today the UK is “just” another European power – a big Canada rather than a small United States, on a par with France and Germany, and on many measures behind them. Looking for past comparisons almost guarantees misunderstanding of this fundamental point, unless that is we look to Canadian history.

 British history is one of radical discontinuity, and not quite what it is supposed to be. In 1900, the UK was a cosmopolitan place. It was full of immigrants, from Europe. Food came in from all over the world, free of tariffs too, much from Europe. British coal was vital to both Baltic and Mediterranean nations.

 In turn, Britain depended on Swedish and north African iron ore; its eggs and its bacon came from Denmark and the Netherlands; Belfast linen depended on Baltic flax; the mines and railways on European timber. The newspapers and books were made of Scandinavian trees and North African grass.

 The gravity model applied then as it does now. Even in 1950 the British economy was different from the continental European ones, not least in its weak agriculture. Even in war, Britain couldn’t feed itself. That historical reality was profoundly changed by British national policy, which transformed the nation after 1945. In many, many ways, continental Europe and the UK converged, on a continental model of national self-sufficiency. By the 1980s the UK was nearly self-sufficient in food, something nearly unthinkable in 1945 or 1914. After 1945 it also became a modern industrialised nation.

 After 40 years in the EEC/EU, the economy has changed radically again. London is where world capitalism does business, no longer one where British capitalism did the world’s business, as before 1914. Foreign capitalists own the infrastructures and factories of the UK, rather than the other way around. The world owed the British rich a living – they now depend on the capital of foreigners. Politics have changed radically, too. The Conservatives were once the party aiming and failing to create a common market of the British empire. Yet in government at the head of the largest and most efficient economy in Europe, they turned decisively in 1961 into the party that applied for accession to the Common Market, having failed to get the EEC even then to budge an inch on its policies. Labour was the party of economic nationalism and of most anti-marketeers. Since then those positions have reversed.

Too many commentators have asserted that the Brexit vote represented an imperial throwback. A more plausible explanation is that it was an inchoate cry of nationalist rage from inner England, largely from those who grew up in a national age when there was national industry making national goods. There has also been far too much emphasis on the ideas of Brexiter politicians as imperialist or nationalist. Far more significant is a pining for Edwardian unilateral free trade. Rather than rebuild what is left of the British nation’s industry and agriculture, they would destroy it.

What Brexiters say about the British present deserves more attention. Where once there was a ludicrous declinism seriously underestimating British power, now a daft revivalism seems to be at the core of buccaneering Brexiter thinking.

They promise a global Britain, a global champion of free trade, a global innovation hub, a military power even in the South China Sea (but with low immigration). They pretend this already exists or is latent, as a leftover from before 1973, or as a product of the Thatcher revolution. This, too, is delusional, not least because there is no national British inventive effort, nor British national industry, nor even a national arms industry.

Brexit is not a portentous destiny that overhangs our politics. It is a mess of irreconcilable nostalgias. We shouldn’t grant to the Brexiters their own argument that they are somehow more in tune with the essence of Britishness as experienced through history, which we risk doing if we think they are helped by ghosts from the past. It is not a reflection on the realities of British life, of the present or of the past. It’s a very local phenomenon, which even if carried through, would barely register at European, much less global level. For the only power Brexiters have is to make us poorer, to inflict self-harm on the economy, and to damage further what little reputation British politicians have. Delusional as well as deluding, these banana-monarchy conmen and conduits for dark money want to trap us in a historicised never-never land.

But as reality bites, cloth will be cut to size, delusions dispatched, and the huffing and puffing will end. Brexit cannot in reality really happen. The explaining of realities will have to begin – that our productivity is low and stagnant, our health outcomes not the best, our people not the best educated or most enterprising, our entrepreneurs hardly the most important of the age. Any real politics of improvement will recognise we are not in the Premier League but in the lower divisions, and that football long ceased to be a game foreigners did not play.


Preface to the Japanese Edition of Warfare State (Nagoya UP, 2017)


I am delighted that Warfare State is appearing in Japanese.  Although Japan is barely mentioned in the book, it was a case I had in mind when writing it.  For Britain and Japan were both industrialised islands, reigned over by emperors, just off the coast of mighty continents. Both were major naval powers.   Yet Japan became militaristic on the Prussian model in ways Britain generally did not.  Of course its Navy was influenced by the Royal Navy, and neither British nor Japanese navalism was pacifist.  The comparison thus argues against straightforward economic or geographical determinism. Politics and ideology matter!  This becomes even clearer when we consider changes over time.  After the Second World War Britain and not Japan had a conscript army (at least for a while) and Britain spent vast sums on the military, whereas Japan spent relatively little. 

It is now ten years since the work appeared in English, sufficient time to reflect on how it has been received and how I might now rewrite it.  I must admit to some surprise that some have chosen to interpret my argument as being that Britain was a warfare state rather than a welfare state; indeed some criticise me for implying, in their view, that welfare was not part of warfare.  But it is clear from the text that I argue that it was a warfare as well as a welfare state, and that I am concerned with the relation between the two. What was misleading was the view that Britain became a welfare state and that this was sufficient description of the state and explanation for its expansion.  As I show the relations of welfareness and welfareness changed over time, and that in the period most associated with the rise of welfarism, it was warfarism that in fact advanced.  My study thus reaffirms the importance of the shift to welfarism in the interwar years, and from the 1950s. 

Another disappointment, a related one, is that not much attention has been paid to the last two chapters, where I look in some details into how the warfare state was written out of the history of modern Britain. They are important because they set out the deep reasons the history of Britain came to written from a decidedly civilian perspective, which systematically downplayed the role of the military and military institutions. These historiography chapters are, unusually, at the end rather than at the beginning of the book and perhaps it is for this reason

that they have been overlooked.   There are there because the argument would have seemed forced or irrelevant had the reader started the book there. I first needed to establish that there was a very major set of omissions from the historiography that required explanation.  

The structure of the book is also unusual in that I have a chapter in the middle which deals with the work of two scientific intellectuals – Patrick Blackett and C P Snow. I have been astonished to find that Snow is well known in the East at least in scientific and related communities, as he is in much of the rest of the world, for his deeply misleading concept of the ‘two cultures’.  But Japanese intellectuals have shown great wisdom in ignoring his arguments, for he was significant because of his fame, rather than famous for his significance.  Surprising as it may seem Snow’s work has been hugely influential in Britain, or rather he expressed particularly clearly and memorably, a standard declinist thesis about the place of science and technology in British life.  In criticising Snow so robustly I am criticising not only a series of his works which have been influential, but standard historical arguments, very widely invoked and believed.  Blackett is much more interesting and important figure, though alas much less known.  His connection to Japan is that he was the first, in 1948, to claim, very seriously, that the atomic bombing of Japan in 1945 was not necessary to end the war, but was rather the first shot in the Cold War.

I have some regrets about the presentation of the argument.  For example, I foolishly did not mention Harold Perkin’s Rise of Professional Society (1989) for when I first read it I missed the extent to which it illustrates the deep influence of welfarism and declinism. For his account of the ‘professions’ was centred to an extraordinary degree on the welfare professions, and he attributed decline to the lack of technical and industrial professions he didn’t discuss!   I also regret not saying more about the period before 1920 – I assumed that it was well understood that the British state was in the period very obviously a warfare state, with some half of central government spending going to the Navy. Furthermore the role and vision of the navy in this period has been brilliantly discussed, for example in Avner Offer’s The First World War: an Agrarian Interpretation (1989). But the welfarist and approach to Edwardian history has been much more influential than I then realised. Many accounts still claim that Lloyd George’s ‘People’s Budget’ of 1909 was needed to finance an emergent welfare state, ignoring that it was equally needed to fund the procurement of dreadnoughts. I also

underestimated the extent to which historians still want to believe that scientists were not concerned with the armed forces before 1914. I should have added some more detail to make clearer how much of the interwar military-scientific complex was in place before the Great War.

While this book stands on its own I had in my mind at least prepared the ground for it with a number of publications which outlined elements of its central theses, notably in book called England and the Aeroplane (London, 1991), and a paper called ‘Liberal Militarism and the British State’ of the same year, which as well as proposing the ideas of the warfare state and liberal militarism, also attacked what I labelled declinist approaches to modern British history, which were then dominant.  I kept the reiteration of these arguments to a minimum in this book, insisting that this was not an anti-declinist or anti-welfarist argument, but rather a post-declinist, and a post-welfarist book.  Of course, this is not how it felt to the many readers of this book unfamiliar with earlier discussions and still used to the dominant welfarist and declinist accounts.  I now regret not saying more about such issues.

Declinism, which I defined as the erroneous conflation of the notion of relative decline with failure, was a very marked feature of writing about many aspects of the history of twentieth century Britain. That is now a cliché, but what is much more rarely understood is that declinism was not simply a matter of a negative evaluation of the performance of Britain – it also led to very particular characterisations of institutions, ideas and people, including the personnel, the nature, and the character of the British state and British industry.   It is those the book challenges, but from a position which takes it as read that the broader declinist position was untenable.

In the decade since Warfare State appeared much new research has complemented its findings.  Particular mention needs to be given to George Peden’s, Arms, Economics and British Strategy: From Dreadnoughts to Hydrogen Bombs (Cambridge, 2007), by an author who did so much to establish the economic history of warfare.   Other work has confirmed, for example, the strength of the interwar arms industry, and much work has insisted on the centrality not only of liberal internationalism in thinking about foreign relations but the importance to such thinking of using the very latest techniques of warfare.  In my own work I have developed points in Warfare State at some length, notably the idea of British strength in 1940-41, and the importance of its being

at the centre of a global trading network.  I have also extended the notions of a new nationalism appearing after 1945 and its impact on historiography in the same work, and in others. 

Finally, I must record my immense gratitude to Dr Takeshi Sakade for taking an interest in my work, for inviting me to a stimulating workshop at the University of Tokyo, and most of all for taking on the task of translating Warfare State


David Edgerton 

London 2014


One of the most profound unnoticed oddities about the United Kingdom is that is has, except on the extremes, no nationalism. That is, it is supposed not to have any. To be sure, there are many who complain about xenophobia, racism, little Englandism, exaggerated patriotism, delusions of grandeur and so on. But typically that is put down not to nationalism, but to imperialism. The legacy of imperialism is seen by many on the left as the cause of many of the problems a progressive politics faces.

Of course nationalism is not wholly absent from understanding of Britain. For the left, a good Britishness was central to the politics of 1940, summed up in the invented notion of the ‘people’s war’. Much of the New Left critique of post-war Britain argued that this promising national feeling was dissipated in the face of continuing liberalism and imperialism – so much so that British nationalism was unviable, and subnational nationalisms, Welsh and Scottish should be promoted.

There are also traces of what is seen as bad nationalism – historically, usually limited to the rather special cases of Enoch Powell (who rejected Empire and Commonwealth and immigration) and Margaret Thatcher (who led the nation in recapturing the Falklands).

Nationalism is thus either the dissipated hope of the war, the nationalisms of Scotland and Wales, and Ireland, or a hard-right essentially English nationalism. But – as I argue in my book - in order to understand post-war United Kingdom one must understand that by previous standards it was in many dimensions nationalist, and that the Labour party was the party that most clearly articulated a nationalist programme of national renewal.

Before explaining further it is worth reflecting on why the term nationalism is so poisonous for British intellectuals. Since the first half of the last century, nationalism, in British liberal elite understanding, has been the main enemy of the United Kingdom, and of the Empire. Nationalism was the disease continental countries suffered from, leading to economic protectionism and militarism, and threats to the United Kingdom. Secondly, the secessionist movements from the British empire were self-proclaimed nationalisms. There was Irish Nationalism, the Indian National Congress, the African National Congress, all in existence before 1914. Nationalist after nationalist ate at the empire which proclaimed itself way above such tawdry ideologies. Welsh and Scottish nationalists have had to contend not so much with British nationalism, as with the British idea that nationalism itself was a bad thing.

But while the term nationalism could not be used for the United Kingdom, a British nationalism of many dimensions became important after 1945. Contrary to many writers I don’t see the war itself as nationalistic – rather, it was ideologically a war for freedom against nationalist militarism, which was fought by the Empire, and allies, and then from 1942, the United Nations.

After the war things were very different. Labour came to office in 1945 with a manifesto with no mention of the term ‘welfare state’, minimal references to socialism and to the empire, and a flood of references to the nation, Britain and British. Labour presented itself as the truly national party, the party which put the ‘national interest’ - a key phrase – first. In office it created a National Coal Board and National Health Service - nationalised industries and services. National import controls, and a nationalist policy for food, were aimed at reducing imports. Indeed, into the late 1960s imports decreased as a proportion of GDP – far from liberalising, the economy was becoming more national.

As the historian Alan Milward emphasised, the UK’s entry into the common market should be seen not as one of free trading global economy becoming protectionist, but the reverse. A protectionist UK was seeking to find the largest free markets it could – and they were in Europe. It is little wonder then that the opponents of entry were mostly found in the Labour Party, and argued that entry would undermine the UK’s national economic development. In 1975 the Labour left were the most important of the Brexiteers.

The nationalism of Labour and the left is plain to see, if one is willing to see it. Thus on resigning from the Labour government in 1951, the leader of the left, Aneurin Bevan, claimed that “This great nation” had, by the end of 1950 “assumed the moral leadership of the world . .”. He spoke for nation, not class, or party, and the context was criticism of falling in with the demands of the USA. Indeed amongst the very last words ever spoken by Old Labour from the government benches, were astonishing in their nationalism. Replying in the debate on the vote of confidence in March 1979, which led to the downfall of the Callaghan government, minister Michael Foot declaimed: “We saved the country in 1940, and we did it again in 1945. We set out to rescue the country – or what was left of it – in 1974. Here again in 1979 we shall do the same –“. The country, note. But it is hardly surprising – socialists everywhere argued for putting the nation over the interests of capitalists. Democracy without nationalism is in fact rather difficult to imagine.

Democracy without nationalism is in fact rather difficult to imagine.

Indeed, most of the writing of left in analysing the British condition and British history was nationalist, though without the term being used or the position being acknowledged. Left political economy was dominated by the idea that British capitalism was global and imperial and thus not concerned with national economic development, as can be seen in work by Bevan, by Eric Hobsbawm, by the historians of empire Peter Cain and Tony Hopkins. British histories from the left wrote out the empire, and told the story of the creation of the nation in the people’s war.

How do we make sense of this? Perhaps we should see the post-1945 United Kingdom as itself one of the new nations which emerged from the British empire, alongside Canada, Australia, Ireland and India. This new nation created a new restricted British nationality between 1948 and the early 1960s, a new national rather than imperial monarchy, and promoted national agriculture and industry, just like any other new nation. Imperialism, the policy of the Conservative party, died astonishingly quickly. The Conservatives , once the party of Protection and Empire became the party of Europe and Free Trade. Labour, once a party of Free Trade, became the party of the national economy and Protection. The problem was it could never say what its truly was and ached to be – not a socialist party, but the party of the nation.

This post first appeared in June in OpenDemocracy


My new book, The Rise and Fall of the British Nation, I am pleased to say, has more on the military than probably any other history of the twentieth-century United Kingdom.   The neglect of the military in most general British histories is I believe an intellectual scandal. I don’t mean by this that that the military don’t get the glory they deserve, nor that wars are not covered. Rather, it is to say that the dominant traditions of writing simply see no serious place for the military, even in war. For even the story of war is told as the story of the rise of the welfare state. In short standard British histories are premised on a weird view of the British state, and a weird view of war too.

This has as much to do with so-called ‘military’ historians as it does to their social or cultural counterparts. For those historians keen on the military have typically sought to explain why the British military were never as strong as they should have been. They have made British culture out to have been much more anti-military than was in fact the case, and the strength of the military and its prominence within British society has been made almost to disappear. There is also the problem that a generation of historians identified military power with the army and neglected the Navy and the Air Force, so central to British war-making power, thereby disfiguring what British ‘military’ power actually was. These traditions of writing military history, or the history and war and society as applied to twentieth-century Britain were taken rather too seriously, and have dominated our perception of the period after 1900.

In other words,  very particular histories of the military and of war are implicit in general British histories. Putting the military back in has required both a new military history, and a new account of Britain at war.  Paradoxically, this new military history has itself requires a new account of British history in the round, as most such accounts have fundamentally misunderstood the relationship between the British state and the preparation for and making of war. Mine is not a history in which I recontextualise the military and war within a new national historical framework, but rather one in which a new history of the military changes received history.

Drawing on my work since the early 1990s on liberal militarism I argue for the modernity and strength of British armed forces, and the military industrial complex too.   The great twentieth century wars militarised society, rather than civilianising the military. These two points make for a new account of the nature of the British state, its development over time, and its policies, as well as affecting our understanding of the two great world wars.

I now think my liberal militarism notion overestimated continuities and difference, and underplayed change. Indeed my book is a critique of the notion of deep continuities in British history, and I see the need for that in the history of war preparation and fighting  too. I suppose this is most clear for the period after 1945, which this book argues was a national and nationalist period. My argument here stresses the significance of peacetime conscription for the first time, as one of the ways in which the UK was becoming like continental Europe (becoming more self-sufficient in food was another).  It struck me too that British troops – conscripts – replaced imperial troops in imperial operations.  British forces abroad were now British, not imperial. Thus while an invasion of Egypt in 1935 would have used imperial troops, that of 1956 used British troops. I see Suez as a national and international (at least Anglo-French) war, rather than the cliché that is was an imperial war.

I was also struck how other things changed so very rapidly after 1945.  I was amazed how quickly the white dominions ceased to buy major British equipment – the great exception in the 1960s being South Africa when it was out of the Commonwealth.  I was also surprised how fast and decisive the shift to Europe as the centre of operations was in the 1960s. Rhetorically the world mattered but the money and the men were soon in Europe.

My re-reading the work of my old teacher Margaret Gowing and Lorna Arnold led me to another crucial aspect of post-1945 nationalism. There once was, though only briefly, an  ‘Independent British Deterrent’. Although this has not been picked up anything like sufficiently in the literature, they showed very clearly that the Labour atomic bomb was a national bomb. It was not a Commonwealth bomb, and obviously not an Anglo-American bomb. It was the Tories of the 1950s who gave up the national bomb and went for not an independent but a dependent deterrent. However, we should not confound the history of the nuclear bomb in Britain with the history of the British bomb. The pioneering users of nuclear weapons and delivery systems from bases in the UK were US and not British forces. An example of this would be that the first Polaris-carrying submarines operating from the Clyde were US boats.

My book ends not with the century but with the Iraq war. I show how a history of British distinctiveness and continuity which ignored the great transformations of the post-war world was used to justify a return East of Suez in the 1990s. In 2002-3 a British government decided to pursue a radically different policy from the main European powers and to ignore its national interests in the middle east in favour of hitching itself to the USA. The globalist hubris of the Iraq war cost the British state much of its legitimacy such that many no longer believed what it told them, even when it was true.  Post-Brexit such thinking has reached new heights of absurdity with suggestions that the UK should be involved in deterring North Korea and keeping the sea lanes of the South China sea open. A ludicrous account of the Second World War as the first Brexit has gained ground. Brexiteers hope that as the nation found its mojo under Churchill in 1940, today it will find its bojo under Boris. They forget that their idealised first Brexit was a disaster for British power, not its rebirth.

In 1940-41 the British Empire  was, for very particular reasons, a global superpower, second to none. Today the UK is just another European power – operating the same aircraft for example as many other nations. It is best to think of it as a big Canada rather than a small United States, on a par with France and Germany.

This blog is taken from the Defence in Depth Blog 


It is a commonplace that the British elite, at least in its public utterances, suffers from serious delusions of grandeur. The problem has recently got worse with talk of return of the Navy not just to East of Suez but to a new China Station. Britain, we are told, will become not merely a local, but a global champion of free trade.   These fantasies are easily recognised, but some are a little trickier to spot because they are indulged in not just by Brexiteers.  What I have in mind is the claim that the UK has a unique strength in science and technology, or innovation, or creativity, which can be exploited to transform the nation’s economic prospects. This is hardly a new story, but it has now reached rather grotesque proportions as the last refuge of Brexiteer’s dreams. This will perhaps help expose the belief for the myth it is.

In her Mansion House speech the Prime Minister called Britain ‘A nation of pioneers, innovators, explorers and creators …’ and saw ‘ A United Kingdom which is a cradle for innovation; a leader in the industries of the future’ (2nd March 2018). In a more recent speech (21st May 2018), speaking under a gigantic British radio telescope built in the 1950s, she claimed that Britain would ‘lead the world in the Fourth industrial revolution’. She repeated the ambition of the government to raise the R&D/GDP ratio to 2.4% by 2027, claiming this would be ‘more than ever before’.  In fact, it was higher than this in the late 1950s when the telescope was built, and would peak at 3.0% in the early 1960s.   The ratio is now under 2%, well, below the real leaders, who are needless to say already well ahead of the government’s target of 2.4%. 

Nevertheless the Minister in charge, Sam Gyimah,  says Britain must return to its roots as a ‘science and technology superpower’ calling for it to rediscover its ‘spark of genius’.  With a little more modesty he claims that the UK needs to follow the US in becoming a global hub of high-tech, research-led businesses.   Boris Johnson claims, ‘we have an amazing economy’ –and cited AI, stem cells and more. ‘The UK is once again taking the lead and shaping the modern world’ he boasted (14th February 2018).    How does this fit into Brexit? Well David Davies tells us that ‘at a time when the commission themselves say that the vast majority of future global growth will come from outside Europe, it makes sense for Britain to place itself at the cutting edge of new technologies and the regulatory regimes they will require.’ (Daily Telegraph 2nd January 2018).  Fantasizing is not just the province of Brexiteers.   UKRI, the new body in charge of most public-sector research said in its recent launch mission that ‘The Government has set an ambition for the UK to become the most innovative country in the world’. It is possible that this technical agency is drawing attention to ridiculous nature of the claim.   Let us hope so.

The evidence for UK strength is remarkable weak, even in the favoured measure of (academic, largely) citations. The usual one is that the UK has a larger share of world citations than of population – well, so does every rich country.  At the level of R&D spend the UK position is as we have noted very poor. And the record of outputs, especially in the creation of new businesses, is not something discussed beyond tedious and misleading references to ARM or to unicorns which have not yet produced. 

There is also a tendency to create inflated statistics.  The ‘UK space industry’,  it is claimed,  employs around 40,000 people.  But nearly 90% of this ‘space industry’ is in fact satellite broadcasting (a mostly earthbound activity), communication, and positioning services.  The space industry as defined is a user, not a creator, mostly in fact of the technology derived elsewhere. This is the kind of argument which attributes all the output of agriculture to tractors, or the output of education to computers.

The brutal simple reality is that the UK economy has stagnant and low productivity, not surely what one would expect from the most innovative nation in the world.

As has been the case before in British history innovation policy, and talk of innovation, has been a substitute for policies which might actually change anything.  Did the recent coalition government really believe that £50m invested in Graphene would transform the North West, the UK, the world, as was claimed?   If so it should have invested the £50bn planned to go into HS2.  

The British state has form in this area. Since the 1980s innovation policy, or science policy has been a substitute for industrial policy.   Before the 1940s too it was common to give a cheap bung to innovation as an alternative to policies which would actually change things.  Before 1914 David Lloyd George stimulated agricultural research to head off demands for protection. In the 1920s the Empire Marketing Board spent small sums on research to avoid serious protection and imperial preference.  

There was however an exceptional period when relative innovation was high and was connected to industrial strategy – the 1940s, 50s, 60s and even the early 1970s were a period when national innovation and national industry mattered.   Back then politics walked the walk.


Brexit has been adorned with images from Second World War. Two new films, Dunkirk, and Darkest Hour, focus on the British forced withdrawal from the Continent of Europe. It was as if Dunkirk was the first Brexit.

On the face of it Dunkirk is a good image for Brexiteers.  For a long time, the events of May/June 1940 have been seen as the moment of the recreation of a vigorous new nation. Against the odds, and the views of experts, grit and determination won out.  It is a story of taking back control from shifty continentals and surging ahead.

But the films and the stories they build on  both get what really happened very wrong indeed.

The first Brexit that of 1940 was a disaster for the British Empire, and indeed for Europe. Had it not happened the world would have been a much better place. Imagine for one moment something which is tellingly not generally put into the balance of assessment of 1940 – that the British empire and the French republic had – instead of being defeated on land – held the German attack and marched triumphantly to Berlin.  Churchill and Reynaud would have stood taller even than Lloyd George and Clemenceau did in 1918, and would have outshone Stalin and Roosevelt.  The worst bloodletting of the war that of the years 1942-45 might have been avoided.

The balance of forces made this a likely outcome.  We find it unlikely because we have been told too many times that in 1939 and in 1940 something called Britain was weak, barely armed, and badly led. Only Churchill’s irrational optimism, we are told, transformed this Britain into a powerful fighting nation. 

The reality is that Churchill became the prime minister of a superpower in 1940 and through no fault of his own left it in the second rank of nations.  Only an extreme right fringe of imperialists make this point for their own deluded reasons, but it is nevertheless true. Where they err is in assuming that if the UK had kept out of the war it would have retained its power.  The reason is that they assume that the British economy and British power was a matter of empire, and not connected to Europe. They were wrong in this, as have been others who overestimate the significance of empire.

Even with the rise of tariffs in the 1930s the UK was a formidable trader in Europe. Its coal was vital to both Baltic and Mediterranean nations. It depended on Swedish and North African iron ore.   Its eggs and its bacon came from Denmark and the Netherlands. Belfast linen depended on Baltic flax. The mines and railways depended on European timber. The newspapers and books were made of Scandinavian trees and North African asparto grass.   The gravity model applied then as it does now.

German arms made the first Brexit – they cut the UK off from its sources of supply and from its markets in Europe.  The consequences could have been dire but for the then great power of the UK and the British empire, and its continued alliance with European governments in exile.  The United Kingdom had the power to ship material from outside Europe, it had the market power to demand that countries round the world send it material in return not for goods, but promises to pay. The USA was also prepared to supply it for free with much of the wherewithal of war.   Only this made possible the surviving of what would otherwise have been an even harder and even more uncomfortable Brexit. The Americans were to exact a heavy price.

The war over, the United Kingdom set out to re-establish its old economic links to Europe, and indeed to become a more European-looking economy.  It took time and effort.  By the early 1960s the Conservative government came to accept that full entry into the main markets would be on the terms of the new Common Market, not on the British terms.  This was made brutally clear in that France, not the UK, was responsible for keeping the UK out of the Common Market until the 1970s.

If the first Brexit led to economic success it did so indirectly, long after the war, and in ways which modern Brexiteers would not approve of.  After the war a national and nationalised economy was created out of necessity and by conviction, of the Labour party in particular. Protection by national import controls, exchange controls, and more, further industrialised the economy, and made it in time self-sufficient in food. It grew faster than ever before in history, and faster than it has grown since.  But that national economy no longer exists and for all the talk of industrial strategy and fantasies about leading in the fourth industrial revolution will not come into being.  

Churchill, unlike those who pretend to emulate him today, did not want Brexit – he would have preferred as any sensible British leader would, a successful Anglo-French alliance marching to victory.   That was the way to preserve British power then, as it is now.  Then as now, Brexit will be bad news and the best that can be expected is an expensive and painful reconstruction of the economy and a request, from a weakened position to be readmitted to the club.  The Brexiteer fantasy yarns of 1940 are inviting us to draw the wrong lesson from history.