David Edgerton is a co-director of the Sir Michael Howard Centre for the History of War, King’s College London. His latest book, The Rise and Fall of the British Nation: a Twentieth-century History, is published by Allen Lane. You can hear an interview about the book here, and read more from David on his blog.
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.
Image: inspection of troops of 45 Royal Marine Commando in full battle equipment, preparatory to their being landed at Port Said from HMS THESEUS in 1956, via the Imperial War Museum.