Brexit is a necessary crisis – it reveals Britain’s true place in the world

A determined ignorance of the dynamics of global capitalism is bringing about a long-overdue audit of British realities.

Who backs Brexit? Agriculture is against it; industry is against it; services are against it. None of them, needless to say, support a no-deal Brexit. Yet the Conservative party, which favoured European union for economic reasons over many decades, has become not only Eurosceptic – it is set on a course regarded by every reputable capitalist state and the great majority of capitalist enterprises as deeply foolish.

If any prime minister in the past had shown such a determined ignorance of the dynamics of global capitalism, the massed ranks of British capital would have stepped in to force a change of direction. Yet today, while the CBI and the Financial Times call for the softest possible Brexit, the Tory party is no longer listening.

Why not?  Read the rest in the Guardian 9 October 2019

What Technology Is Most Likely to Become Obsolete During Your Lifetime?

From Gizmodo

When we think about ‘technology’—a weird and wonderful, shape-shifting concept—we are quick to invoke ideas of time as a determinant. We expect some to become obsolete at some point, to come to an end, as they are replaced by new ones. This way of thinking is deeply ingrained. We think of particular historical times being characterized by particular machines or processes, and we imagine the future will be made anew by a few such machines and processes. The current favorite is something called AI. In this way of thinking some people are ‘ahead of their times’ while most of us, not having grasped the significance of what a few gurus claim to be the future, are of course ‘behind the times’.

But this still-dominant way of thinking is itself way behind the times. It’s a characteristically naïve, propagandistic way to talk about ‘technology’ which has been with us for a long time.

There are far better ways to think about the artifacts which are so central to our world. We might start with the argument that far from always replacing older types of things, new things often add to the old. We just have more of everything. We might also note that what we deem “old” things often change: they are both old and new. Similarly, lots of things we think of as new often contain very old elements. To be sure, certain things get less prevalent, though they sometimes reappear.

What then are the sorts of processes which make things disappear? It could be, for example, that spare parts, or fuels, are for some reason no longer available. It may be that something better comes along, and it is worthwhile stopping using the old machine and buying a new one. It may be that old machines simply break down, and cannot be replaced. Or it may be that certain kinds of machine or products are made illegal to own or produce. Thus there are few CFCs left in the world. Chemical weapons are much less prevalent than they were in the 1930s, say.

We might then ask what kinds of ‘technology’ might we want to be rid of in the next fifty years. Many would say any machine burning or using coal. To which others would add any machine using fossil fuels, and perhaps therefore most internal combustion engines. Note that we could, if we wished, get rid of all these things without introducing any novelties. We could extend the use of alternatives which already exist.

Lessons from the past – Why our current understanding of UK research policy is wrong

This post first appeared on the LSE Impact Blog

As a result of Brexit, research policy in the UK is being asked to perform an increasingly large array of functions and will likely undergo significant changes. In this post  David Edgerton draws on the findings of a recent British Academy report on the history of UK research policy to highlight how research policy in the UK is frequently misunderstood and argues that whereas other policy areas, such as economic policy, have well defined historical backgrounds, the lack of this knowledge in research policy renders the field vulnerable to mythmaking and the repetition of mistakes.

Much discussion of the relationship between history and policy assumes that policymakers are not already exposed to history.  However, in the case of research policy, history is already central; the problem is that it is largely the wrong history.  The quality of the historical and policy discourse around science policy is notably lower than for say economic or defence policy. A second problem is that while defence, or health, or economic, policy have reasonably robust common sense meanings, what ‘science policy’ refers to is not stable, and this matters a good deal.

Any proper application of history to policy has to be based on an accurate rendering of what actually happened in the past, as well as of what the policy objectives were. This is a tall order for science policy, as much of the older literature suffers from systematic flaws which make it unhelpful for policymakers.

Notably, by ‘science policy’, what is often meant, is policy for scientific research, not all science: it is not about policy for scientific knowledge as a whole (which would include education). They mean policy for research, but not all research. In practice, ‘science policy’ is policy for research funded by government agencies that are concerned with civil work of an academic character that is largely taking place in universities. It is the policy of ‘research councils’.  Now this might be a perfectly reasonable approach, but problems arise when research council research is identified with all government research, or all research. It is particularly inappropriate from a historical perspective.

A prime example of this tendency, which has been central to science policy discourse recently is the ‘Haldane Principle’ of 1918. It has been assumed that there was a single science policy governed by a single principle, though one never clearly defined, along the lines that scientists determined science policy. In fact, there was no such 1918 Haldane principle, nor could Lord Haldane ever have defined one principle for science policy. He understood very clearly that most research was done by departments, but he wanted some research to be done in a semi-independent way by what we now call research councils. He had his model in the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research, and he followed this precedent in recommending a similar structure for the Medical Research Council, a structure that was later adopted for other research councils. Haldane gave an intelligent set of reasons for having research councils alongside departmental research, envisioning each doing different sorts of things under different kinds of control.  The ‘Haldane principle’ of 1918 which is alluded to today, was an invention of the 1960s and reflected a poor understanding of actual research policies and practices even then.

The ‘Haldane Principle’ isn’t the only fanciful history of science policy that policymakers argue with.  In discussions of science policy one will hear that science in Britain is on tap, not on top; that there has long been a deep division between ‘two cultures’; that the civil service has been dominated by classicists, perhaps even historians; that apart from the world wars and Harold Wilson’s White Heat of the Technological Revolution, science was ignored; that Britain has been good at inventing but bad at developing; that politics is short term so government has not been able to make the long term commitment innovation needed.

We also know that British universities were until recently ivory towers dominated by arts faculties. It is all bunk, and needs to be understood as left-overs from the claims of self-interested parties who have sought to promote science, and their science, by using stories of failure, indifference to science, and all the rest.  Indeed, a useful rule of thumb is that expenditures, influence, and impact correlate positively with the strength of the arguments that claim they are low.  Thus, complaints about lack of R&D funding peaked at the moment in British history when R&D funding was at its highest as a proportion of GDP (the early 1960s).

One result of the shrinking of departmental research and industrial research in the UK was that research councils have loomed larger and larger in successive governments’ R&D spending. Leading politicians and others  to increasingly look to the research councils to produce inventions that would generate economic growth; and the research councils began to look to argue that they could do this. There was, and still is, much talk of entrepreneurial universities, spin-outs, and of course Silicon Valley. A point of view that regards the UK as having a uniquely strong ‘science base’, which needs to be exploited by more vigorous entrepreneurship. Research policy has thus become a substitute for an active industrial policy that would upset the status quo. It is cheap.  A huge fuss was made of a £50m Graphene centre. But if the potential was as great as was made out, £50m was a paltry sum in a world where £50bn bought a short-distance railway. Brexit has only made the rhetoric of British strength in invention and innovation more detached from reality, with talk of the UK leading the world into the fourth industrial revolution. Delusions of grandeur in innovation are just as damaging as those in economic or defence policy, but alas without any wider historical understanding much less likely to be challenged.


About the author

David Edgerton is a historian of science and technology and of twentieth-century Britain and the author of The Rise and Fall of the British Nation and contributed to a British Academy Report for BEIS on the history of science policy.


Note: This article gives the personal view of the author, and not the position of the LSE Impact Blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please review our comments policy if you have any concerns on posting a comment below.

Featured image credit: Mike Peel, via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY SA 2.5)

What has British science policy really been?

‘What has British science policy really been?’ in British Academy, Lessons from the History of UK Science Policy (2019), pp. 31-9 - in this contribution I tell a brief alternative story of British research policy in the twentieth century arguing that much of the history of research policy is bunk, that research policies have been undertaken by multiple agencies and their scope and ambition have changed radically over time; that research policies need to be understood in the context of national defence, industrial, economic, and agricultural and other policies; that, in the past, research policies have been seen as a substitute for radical policies that governments did not favour; that today perhaps the most important lesson is not to indulge in delusions of grandeur about the quality and significance of British science. Its weight in the world has changed drastically, as has that of British business, and this needs to be understood for the development of an effective policy. And lastly, in recent years research policy has been a substitute for industrial policy, just as it was at the beginning of the twentieth century.

The Brexiteers’ greatest trick was convincing the old they hated Brussels more than London

The politicians and financiers of the Leave campaigns turned the latent politics of anti-London into the politics of anti-Brussels.

This blog first appeared 7 August 2019 on the New Statesman Staggers Blog

The politics of Brexit – or UKexit as it should be called, for it will take the UK, not Britain, out of the EU – has been addressed in many different ways. But two dimensions have generally remained missing from most analysis: the politics of anti-London, and of the old. 

The Brexit vote came from non-metropolitan areas of England, mainly from Conservative voters, as Anthony Barnett emphasises. These were votes of the old. Indeed, Brexit was framed to appeal to the old, as a desire to return to a national past, and a critique of the nature of an ever more powerful capital. Brexiteers, the politicians and financiers of the Leave campaigns, also turned the latent politics of anti-London into the politics of anti-Brussels, a formidable and significant achievement. 

It is obvious that the recent experience of London has been very different from that of the rest of the UK. London has emerged as a city state of great wealth and power, a growing, young, cosmopolitan island in a fallen nation. London is successful in a nation which, generally, is not. 

This was an unexpected development. In the thriving post-war United Kingdom, London was a declining city, reaching its nadir in the early 1980s. London had turned inward as the capital of a new nation usually called Britain, having been an outward-looking capital of global capitalism and empire. 

Yet in the new liberal economy since the 1980s, London was to boom, returning in many ways to the pomp of the Edwardian years. On the surface it seems that the world of Mary Poppins – bankers, nannies, and all – has returned.

But the cosmopolitan and global city of today is very different from Edwardian London. The city is now a place where world capitalism does business, no longer one where British capitalism did the world’s business. To an astonishing degree, London has a larger role in world finance than the whole United Kingdom does in world trade. 

The city once exported capital, and sucked in the profits of that investment. London now imports foreign capital and foreign talent. In 2018, 37 per cent of London’s population was born outside the UK, and 22 per cent were not British nationals (compared with 9 per cent for the UK). For the rich London borough of Westminster, the non-British population is 49 per cent. The new London has an immigrant elite, and is one of the cosmopolitan capitals of a global kingdom of capital. 

All this pointed to a possible rebellion of the provinces against capital, of industry against finance, of workers against owners, of the nation against globalisation. But that political potential could not be realised through the existing parties. New Labour was the party of global liberalism, and was born out of the rejection of the politics of the nation Labour espoused into the 1980s. Furthermore the key anti-New Labour elements (Ken Livingstone, Jeremy Corbyn) of the Labour Party were London-centred and stood for the capital’s multi-culturalism, if not its capitalism. Nor could the renewed Tories of the 2010s be a party of the provinces or of the makers. Remade in the image of New Labour it was led by London-financial figures, like David Cameron and George Osborne. 

Even the Brexit parties were themselves London oriented. The first significant Eurosceptic was Sir James Goldsmith, funder of the Referendum Party (1997), a London-based Anglo-French financier. Ukip’s (and now the Brexit Party’s) Nigel Farage is not a manufacturer from the North, but had been a minor City of London figure, displaced by international capitalism. The other key agents in Brexit have been three major London newspaper groups – the owners of the Daily Telegraph, the Times and Sun, and the Daily Mail – with owners financially centred outside the UK. 

But the Eurosceptics did mobilise the potential English anti-London vote. In the code of being hostile to immigrants and experts, Westminster politics and the “metropolitan elites”, they were attacking something very much like London, and nothing which was recognisably the rest of the country. But this London could not be named, or its full reality attacked, for Leave was also London politics. 

Such a strategy could not work for the young: London represents a world of possibilities, for good and ill. Indeed London is young: it has twice the proportion of 25- 34-year-olds of the UK as a whole. For the old, however, the new London can be presented as alien, and a betrayal of the idea of a united British nation led from London. 

There is no doubt that the old have been mobilised behind the Tories and Leave. Some 64 per cent of over 65s voted Leave; in 2015, 64 per cent of over 65s voted Tory or Ukip, and among this age group the Tories had a 24 per cent lead over Labour. What’s more, 60 per cent of 2015 Tory voters voted Leave, and more, surely, of the historic Tory voters, many of which had previously switched to Ukip. 

The politics of the Tories has been the politics of keeping of the old vote. The prices of their houses have been kept high, their pensions protected, and their cost of living kept low. The NHS – a service primarily for the old – and pensions were specifically excluded from austerity. As many have noted, the Brexit vote was not generally a vote of the economically desperate; indeed Will Davies sees it in part as a rentier vote.

The politics of Brexit has also been a politics of the old. Newspapers have for decades been mostly Eurosceptic. They are read by declining numbers of old readers. The Leave campaign summoned up, as central to its programme, a past where the nation was sovereign and in control. 

It was suggested to the old (who had voted Remain in 1975) that they could return to the national world they knew in their youth, where nearly everything in the United Kingdom, whether cars, or food, was British. They were invited to wallow in the nationalist (not imperial) nostalgia of their youth, expressed in the belief that “Britain” was alone in 1940. In 1940 things were very different, a reason perhaps, the very old were more likely to have voted Remain than the merely old. In contrast to most great political projects, Brexit was not sold as a vision of a new future. Nor behind the silence were there any serious plans for how to bring Brexit about, or analyses of what its effects would be. 

The Leaver ideologues have no intention of creating a new British nation pulsating with national effort. For them the future is London selling deregulated financial services to the world, while the people get tariff-free uncontrolled food and manufactures from abroad, as domestic agriculture and industry crash. 

Brexit is a London project, a radical Thatcherite free-trading and financial project which will increase the division between London and the rest of the UK.  It is the revenge of the hardest of Thatcherites, feeding off the nationalism of the old, which they themselves betrayed long ago. If, as was once famously said, anti-Semitism is the socialism of fools, then Brexit is the radical liberalism of fantasists and the nationalism of the deluded. 

David Edgerton is the author of The Rise and Fall of the British Nation: a twentieth-century history (Penguin).

Gordon Brown and British Nationalism

I was on Newsnight all too briefly on 25 June 2019 discussing Gordon’s Brown’s comments on the Union.  Most was cut, but I  was prompted to write the following as Brown illustrated rather well some themes of my The Rise and Fall of the British Nation (Penguin, 2019).

Gordon Brown is a British nationalist in denial. His is a nationalism that cannot speak its name, because it denies that British nationalism could be like other nationalisms.  He hates the nationalism of others, including that of Scots. He has laid all this out with some clarity in an article in the   Daily Mail (‘Why I fear the break-up of the United Kingdom is closer than it's been for 300 years’, 25 June 2019) to accompany a speech in London.

Gordon Brown is a unionist. While in government wanted to give the United Kingdom a National Day, to upstage Saints Andrew, George, and Patrick to celebrate its peculiar All-Union British genius. Today he believes the Union, the United Kingdom, faces its greatest threat since the Act of Union with Scotland in 1707.   He does not wish to recall that most of Ireland left the United Kingdom in 1922, and the Commonwealth in 1949.  But not counting Ireland is par for the course.   

Brown does not like nationalism.  For him English, Irish, Welsh and Scottish nationalisms are a bad thing, to be contrasted with the United Kingdom’s  ‘shared values — tolerance, respect for diversity, being outward-looking’.   As he puts it: In our long history, we have prided ourselves on being patriots who love our country — not bitter nationalists who must hate our neighbours, demonise foreigners, immigrants or other minorities, and blame external forces for everything that goes wrong.  … Great Britain (sic) has been, until now, the most tolerant of countries and the most outward-looking.’   He associates this bitter nationalism with ‘Scottish nationalism, plus English nationalism, plus Welsh nationalism, plus Ulster unionism (sic)’.  That last point is illuminating wrong – for the Ulster Unionists are not Ulster nationalists, but British nationalists.  Yet they need to condemned, and Irish nationalists ignored.

Contrasting the United Kingdom’s (or the British Empire’s) outward-looking patriotism with the petty inward-looking nationalism which threaten it is an old argument – for over a century  the nationalist enemies of the empire and the union  were criticised for being illiberal, compared with the fair-minded, generous, multinational and multi-cultural Union and Empire.  This was a  very British conceit.  Today such a position is perverse. In the current conjuncture Scottish, Welsh and Irish nationalisms (though not that of Ulster Unionists) are peculiarly internationalist. They stand in sharp contrast to the very nationalistic English nationalism of our time, and indeed the nationalistic British nationalism Theresa May, the Conservative Party and the DUP.

For all his claims for outward-looking UK-British patriotism, Brown has a very UK-national perspective. He writes of the ‘UK single market and customs union’, when he  knows that no such thing exists. There is an EU single market and customs union; the UK single market and customs union went in 1973 (strictly, a little later).  He condemns Scotland nationalists for wanting to leave this UK economy, when, as he also knows,  they want to stay in the EU. They also want the rest of the UK to stay in the EU.  It is of course the English and British nationalists (including Ulster Unionists) who want UKexit, and to create a ‘UK single market and customs union’.

Like many another British nationalist  Brown invokes a mythological account of the second world. The D-Day landings, were a  ‘sharp and moving reminder of what four nations have achieved together and why our Union must endure and matter for centuries to come’ he writes.  He went on: ‘Thousands upon thousands of English, Scots, Welsh and Irish soldiers are buried side by side in the cemeteries in the now-peaceful fields of Europe — together in death as they were in life. When they fought together, they did not check each other’s nationality before they stood shoulder to shoulder, bound by trust in the trenches, all for a common cause. It would mock their heroic sacrifices to wish the partition of a United Kingdom that they died to save.’  Yet he surely knows however that the English, Scots, Welsh and Irish soldiers lie in cemeteries established by the Imperial (now Commonwealth) War Graves Commission, not in United Kingdom ones.  In fact by 1944 British and Imperial troops were fighting not for Empire (much less the United Kingdom), but the United Nations.  And, as we should all know, D-Day and the Normandy campaign was fought by allied armies, with troops from the US, UK, Canada, France and Poland among others. 

Brown, the supposedly outward-looking British internationalist, shamelessly chooses to write out of history the empire, the wartime alliance, and the EU from his account of the United Kingdom.   In fact this is a new phenomenon, a modern invention of the years after the second world. This was a unique time in which the United Kingdom indeed existed as a coherent, economic and political and ideological unit.   For this period it does indeed make sense to speak of a national British economy (including a national customs union and single market), a national British army, a national British politics dominated by national, unionist parties.  Before 1945, and since the 1970s, things have been different.

The British national moment has long passed, the British nation has since the 1970s opened up to the world, and began to break up.   The greatest threat to the Union today comes not from the peripheral nationalisms, as Brown suggests, but a new unionist and mostly English and British nationalism, which in insisting on UKexit, is breaking  the very ground on which the politics of devolution is based.  Today Irish, Scottish and Welsh nationalism are internationalist, and British nationalism, which cannot speak its name, only pretends to be internationalist.  British nationalism  is  living in a past in does not understand, invoking an earlier past which did not exist. Thus are the mighty fallen.


I am of the generation that remembers the name Brian Trubshaw (Concorde’s British test pilot) and to whom it is obvious that Monty Python’s Flying Sheep sketch refers to Concorde, and that the Ministry of Silly Walks is the Ministry of Technology which supported it. After all the punch-line is ‘the Anglo-French Silly Walk, la Marche Futile!’.  But Concorde itself is hardly forgotten by younger people.  Concorde stands for a lot of things – the brilliance of British engineering, British delusions of grandeur, the uncommercial focus of British technology policy of the past. Interestingly it rarely stands for Anglo-French cooperation.  

The case of Concorde raises difficult questions which opponents and proponents of industrial and research strategy have had difficulty facing.  For that reason Concorde is a useful case to consider in order to get a better historical understanding of the realities of British industrial and innovation policy since 1945.

In the R&D policy literature Concorde is part of  big failure story.  In the literature dominant from the 1960s into the 1990s what needed to be explained was high R&D and low British growth in the years between 1945 and the 1960s and 1970s. The ‘British paradox’ Christopher Freeman called it.  His explanation, and that of many others, was that too much was spent on defence and on prestige projects, of which Concorde was a prime example, and not enough on bread and butter, commercially realisable innovation.  Germany and Japan were not so foolish and succeeded was the moral of this British misallocation model.  It was the dominant thesis drummed into every expert on British science policy into the 1990s.

There are two things wrong with the model. First, the assumption that more national R&D should lead to more national growth is not correct. In fact, for interesting, important and obvious reasons, national R&D was and is roughly inversely correlated with national rates of growth. Second, non-prestige, and non-defence R&D spending in the UK in the 1950s and 1960s was high, in fact higher than in Germany or Japan (let alone France or Italy). 

By the 1980s there was a very strong sense in the science policy community that the UK really needed to get its act together in innovation and make a really serious national effort to innovate in things which we knew would be important for the future.  A central part of the argument was that this had never happened before, partly because of  the supposed emphasis on prestige and defence.   The argument  was now extended to suggesting that there had never been an active industrial or technology policy. Instead the suggestion was that  research policy was left to scientists and their airy fairy ideas which went nowhere.   This was in effect another misallocation thesis –money had been handed over to the commercially witless research scientists who frittered it away on winning Nobel Prizes. To realise our potential we had to get real.

But this view was profoundly wrong too. Successive British governments really believed in the need to take a serious strategic view of British technological strength and to exploit it with commitment in order to secure the economic future of the nation.  From 1945 onwards there was a very serious attempt to transform the nation through innovation and industrial strategy.  We should not believe that ‘Keynesianism’ and the creation of the welfare state was as far as the state intervened.

The history of policy for the aircraft industry exemplifies this.  As far as the British state was concerned aviation was an industry of the future in which it was vital to be strong in.   Money and energy was poured in. The huge Brabazon – with 8 engines, the gigantic Princess flying boat – with 10 engines, the Britannia, the VC10 and the Concorde were most serious attempts to build big,  leapfrogging aeroplanes. No fewer than three were built by Bristol Aeroplane, in the same Brabazon Hangar, the largest open span building in Europe.  Four had Bristol engines.

And who was to say this was a bad idea? The UK was without question a pioneer in the jet engine – and was certainly ahead of the rest of the world in 1945, and beyond. This was not a lead to be squandered, especially not when the British aircraft industry was by far the largest and most technically capable in Europe.   

To return to Concorde.  In the light of this history Concorde can’t I think be seen merely as a prestige project. It was meant to be a ticket to the technological future, one which had to be bought for the nation to succeed.  

Aviation was not the only field in which the UK felt it was exploiting a national lead. This was also true of atomic power. In the 1950s the UK had in absolute and relative terms the largest civil nuclear power programme in the world, based on the Magnox reactors.  A second generation of reactors would follow from the 1960s when the UK boasted, correctly, that it had generated more nuclear electricity than any other country.  Again, the programme cannot be put down merely to prestige. Indeed both the aviation and nuclear programmes need to be understood in the frame of a wider vigorous techno-nationalist strategy which made the UK more industrial than it had ever been in its history, and transformed the infrastructure of the nation.


Techno-nationalism was an active,  expensive policy pursued by experts, technocrats perhaps,  with the future in their bones.  They believed that aviation and nuclear power were the future, and the future for Britain.  Like the technocrats of the present, who claim we must invest in biotech or batteries or AI, they insisted they knew the future.

Of course, not even technocrats know the future, even those celebrated for being ahead of their time.  What if supporting batteries or AI is just as much an unrealistic project as Concorde? Or perhaps  Concorde was in fact a plausible bet on the future?  What we can’t assume is that back then weird and wonderful notions of prestige ruled, but today we are hardnosed experts.

If anything went wrong in the past it was not, I suggest, a lack of ability to see the future, or lack of commitment, or even lack of consideration of economic benefits (for the economic benefits of Concorde were widely touted).  What was missing was enough of a consideration of alternatives, enough understanding of what was happening elsewhere in the world, and a lack of serious understanding of the uncertainties inherent in innovation.  And these problems are  just as bad today I think as in the 1960s. In fact they are worse, because the rest of the technological world is so much larger and important relative to the UK today compared to the 1960s. We are still pretending to pursue a delusional top dog innovation policy.

The history I give of British aviation above is not the conventional one. Most of the literature on the topic tells  a story of lack of commitment – a key book was called Project Cancelled.    The basic idea is that promising aeroplane after promising aeroplane was cancelled – the Martin Baker swept wing fighter; the V1000; the TSR2.  Yet the commitment is striking – the cancellations really came from overcommitment not under commitment. 

What we have difficulty coping with is the fact that commitment can lead to failure; we are to quick to see failure as evidence for lack of commitment.  We are also prone to forget success.  The aero-engine maker Rolls-Royce (which took over Bristol engines in the 1960s) is one of the very, very few cases of a world leading large still significantly British enterprise. It would not exist but for the strong support of the British state over decades, European military projects, and indirectly because of the existence and success of Airbus.  

The history I tell above makes no sense from another angle. If we think of political history of technology, and industrial strategy, we think of the White Heat, of Wilson’s Labour exceptional  but brief commitment to modernisation through technology, only to fail.   But there is a much richer story of the White Heat which is fully consistent with the story above. The White Heat programme of 1963/64 was based on the knowledge  that the state had indeed invested huge quantities and made huge efforts in technology and industry.  It was a programme of shifting away from projects which turned out dubious to more commercially viable ones. It was a critique of overcommitment to defence and to prestige projects.   In other words,  the White Heat policy was already, as a matter in theory, one of no-more Concordes.  The era of the White Heat was an era of increasingly clear scepticism about state high technology.  I think we need to learn from that scepticism, as much as from the policies which were actually pursued by the post-war United Kingdom.

Brexit is not a product of history: it’s something entirely new

This post first appeared on the New Statesman’s Staggers blog 3 June 2019

Brexit is not the revenge of the British past, and it’s not about the EU. It is a new politics, with freshly invented pasts and futures.

Our whole national conversation about Brexit is laden with fake history. Remainers say the UK is basically imperialist and thus has always been a reluctant European. On the Brexiter side, Britain has never been European, and only truly found itself when it disengaged – in the Reformation, the Napoleonic Wars, and the Second World War. Both kinds of histories assume deep continuity: in one, a negative hangover from the past; in the other, a true essence that only reveals itself when free of European shackles.

Both accounts are bunk. Things changed radically over time, and the complex balance of Europe/ the world/ the empire kept changing in ways that are too little appreciated.

Take for example the Second World War. Britain and France jointly declared war against Germany, expecting to win. It was never a national war for the UK, but first a European, and then an imperial and internationalist one. But the UK was effectively expelled from Europe, which resulted in it becoming deeply dependent on the USA and Empire.

In terms of power, 1939-1945 was a period of quite spectacular relative decline rather than rebirth. The 1940s and 1950s saw a quite exceptional amount of trade with Empire, the result not of deep history, but the exigencies of war and reconstruction. The British state sought desperately to get back into European markets, to create a European free trade area, and when this was rebuffed to try and enter the EEC in 1961.

British history, like that of other countries over the last 150 years, has been, discontinuous. In economic terms it went from being the greatest free trading nation on earth, to briefly, a more imperial protectionist economy, and then to nationally focussed one. In the 1950s, the Conservatives went from being protectionist and imperialist, and turned decisively to Europe and free trade. More recently the economy has Europeanised and globalised at the same time.

The United Kingdom has gone from being a truly exceptional economy in 1900 (importing half its food) to being, even before joining the EEC in 1973, a nation much like the other large European nations. Yet the myth persists that until 1973 the UK was a free trading global state that locked itself into Fortress Europe.

Brexit is something new, not a throwback. Indeed Brexit has no parallel in twentieth-century British history. For the first time, a major change in policy generated internally has not been one first put forward, debated and refined by a great political party. It is perhaps the first time business has had so little influence. For the first time, the Conservative Party has been incapable of understanding the dynamics of modern capitalism.

It is crucially, as the brilliant instant analysis of Anthony Barnett suggests, little to do with either Europe or Empire. It has more immediate causes – a crisis of legitimacy of the British state, evident since Iraq; and a crisis of representative politics, in England. And of course the fallout from the great financial crisis.

Indeed if there is nostalgia for the past it is for a national and nationalist UK of the 1960s and 1970s, where nearly everything around us from food to cars was British-made. That helps explain why it is the old who voted Brexit, and is a reminder that Brexit is very largely but clearly not exclusively something brought about by Tory voters. The result has been the emergence for the first time in British history of a strong far right. In this, as in so much else, the English nation is not unique.

While the debate about Brexit has been informed by fantastical histories, there are some all too real and relevant historical legacies that have been startlingly ignored. The failure to understand the recent history of Northern Ireland is a stunning example. So too is the failure to appreciate the significance of the legacy of left Labour’s economic nationalism. It is extraordinary, too, how little attention is given to the history of British encouragement of economic liberalisation and of expansion of the EU.

If British history is badly understood, it is little wonder that the recent history of the rest of the world is ignored. Into this vacuum entered a weird British revivalism – incompatible with the critique of the EU – which holds that the UK has emerged once again as a world leading innovator, champion of global free trade, a tier one military power itching to return to the China Station. It is time to get real about our past, present and future.

Letter to the London Review of Books, 18 May 2018

David Edgar makes the suggestion that Anthony Barnett is a Chestertonian English nationalist. This seems to me to be another case of the left only being willing to see nationalism as pastoral and reactionary, and not understanding its own basis in it. I think we should read Barnett differently. One of his key points is that Scotland, including its deprived working class, voted Remain because post-devolution nationalist politics includes the possibility of serious domestic reform. England, by contrast, is stuck with only the undemocratic leftovers of an imperial state, its politics still motivated by illusions of grandeur. Barnett suggests that Brexit is a display of inchoate rage at the absence of legitimate democratic power in London. To ignore the implications of this point – that the nature of the British state matters – is bonkers. I don’t share the New Left view of the British state as antique and imperial, but its nature and capabilities and democratic legitimacy – and the ways in which they have changed – are critical issues for the left and cannot be wished away. For example, there is a good chance that Brexit will collapse even sooner than Barnett predicts, as a result of the inability of the Anglo-British state to face up to the realities Brexit will impose. If that happens there will indeed be a specifically English crisis of major proportions.

David Edgerton
London NW1

Haldane principle’s ‘centenary’ is a good time to bury its myth - Academic freedom needs stronger defences than a made-up principle.

For many years, experts have claimed the Haldane principle as a founding charter of British research policy. The principle’s origin is dated to the 1918 report of the Machinery of Government Committee, chaired by former lord chancellor Richard Haldane (pictured, left). The principle is supposed to state that, while governments may set research budgets, decisions on how the money is spent should be left to researchers.

And yet in 1962, Harry Melville, secretary of the main UK research council of the time, the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (DSIR), published a history of his department that did not mention the Haldane principle once. This was for the simple reason that it had not yet been invented.

The principle first appeared in its current form in February 1964. Austen Albu, an Imperial College London engineer, industrialist and Labour MP, noted that the Conservative government was painting Labour’s plans as seeking to control the work of scientists. Albu told parliament: “Allied to this political propaganda is the discovery of a new scientific principle—the Haldane principle; the principle that all scientific research in support of government policy must be conducted in independent research establishments.”

Later that year, with Labour now in office, the Conservative MP Quintin Hogg (pictured, right), who had been in charge of the research councils from 1957 to 1964, attacked Labour’s creation of a Ministry of Technology. “Ever since 1915,” he claimed, “it has been considered axiomatic that responsibility for industrial research and development is better exercised in conjunction with research in the medical, agricultural and other fields on what I have called the Haldane principle through an independent council of industrialists, scientists and other eminent persons and not directly by a government department itself.”

The panjandrums of research policy from the 1960s onwards were authoritatively dismissive of the principle. Solly Zuckerman and Victor Rothschild, government science advisers in the 1960s and 1970s, did not believe there was such a thing. Frederick Dainton’s 1971 report on the research councils avoided dealing with it. More recently, Bill Wakeham’s 2008 review of UK physics noted that Haldane’s report did not contain anything like the Haldane principle.

If Hogg did invent the Haldane principle there is a neat symmetry; both men were intimately concerned with research policy, and both became lord chancellor, with Hogg becoming Lord Hailsham. It’s interesting that Hogg’s founding version of the principle is focused on the need for an independent council of “industrialists, scientists and other eminent persons” rather than researchers, and that it mentions 1915, not 1918. The earlier date is more accurate, as the crucial moment was the DSIR’s creation.

Haldane did argue for modelling the new research councils on the DSIR. But his structure for the councils was severely criticised in the 1960s, and overturned for much research. You could argue that the Hailsham-Haldane principle disappeared several decades ago, when the industry department was given responsibility for the research councils.

But it is vital to remember that in Haldane and Hailsham’s day the research councils controlled only small fractions of state research spending. They were, for example, marginal in the research effort of the second world war. The bulk of government-funded research was run by departments and thus controlled by ministers. In any case, Hailsham’s Haldane is not our Haldane, or Albu’s.

The story of the supposed Haldane principle is a good example of how experts can peddle erroneous views long after they are shown to be wrong. It is a historical myth that systematically distorts the discussion of British research. Yet here we are in 2018 marking its anniversary. What is going on?

The Haldane principle was nearly always a myth created to bolster the case for academic freedom. It was only invoked when it was supposedly violated. That—to the extent that it is a clear argument at all—is still true today.

Back in 1918, or indeed into the 1960s, academic freedom was a principle that didn’t need to be written down. Nor would it have been associated with the research councils. Academic freedom resided in academics themselves, their universities and learned societies. The state funded these bodies in ways that were respectful of that shared understanding.

But that was then. Today, academic freedom needs a more robust definition and defence than a made-up principle. The time has come to stop discussing research policy using misleading historical analogies and misleading historical lessons. It is not only Brexiteers, alas, who fail to understand the lessons of robust historical analysis.

This article appeared in Research Fortnight 12 December 2018

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 detail 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.