The Rise and Fall of the British Nation: A Twentieth-Century History by David Edgerton. This book's got a lot of attention lately. It covers British 20th century history, with a focus on correcting myths of economic history. In particular he aims at the idea he calls "declinism": basically the idea that Britain was a manufacturing powerhouse in the 19th century, but declined as a reactionary elite failed to keep up with science, mismanaged the world wars, and then lost its manufacturing base in the decades after World War 2.
To support his case he relies on a large amount of data: the book abounds with statistics, tables and charts. This makes it a tougher and less enjoyable read than his previous book "The Shock of the Old" which I liked a lot.
Edgerton points out that around 1900 Britain was the "Saudi Arabia" of its day: the world's primary energy exporter in the form of coal. Coal exports paid for Britain's lack of self-sufficiency in food, exporting coal and importing food. Manufacturing was less important in that era than people might think.
Edgerton downplays the importance of the Empire and its captive markets. He gives quite a lot of data showing that a lot of food imports and other trade came from Europe instead. My gut feeling is that he's overstating his case a bit: what if profits exploited from the Empire were paying for imports from Europe, but I'm not expert enough on economic history to really know. Edgerton echoes the Niall Ferguson-ish right wing view that in this period Britain prospered as a liberal free-trading state and that the British Empire was an optional extra.
He is much more convincing when he points out that until the end of World War Two, Britain was an internationalised imperial state, and that Britain only really started to become a nation at that points. He's good on pointing out that at the time World War Two was seen as a combined effort from the British Empire, and only afterwards did the "Britain stood alone" rhetoric started. He also points out that there's a long-standing embarrassment over what the actual country people should be patriotic about was. The phrase "King and country" was used on memorials to avoid having to say whether the country is England or Great Britain or the British Empire. The Queen was originally proclaimed "Queen of this Realm and of all her other Realms and Territories" to avoid naming a realm in particular. (However in her coronation she was "Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland", so technically there is no "Queen of England").
Where the book is very strong indeed is his pointing out the British manufacturing actually peaked in the post-war period, in the Fifties in particular. The factories of the war were rapidly turned to civilian manufacturing at a time when much of continental Europe was in ruins. Edgerton's view is that the subsequent decline was inevitable once the rest of the world actually rebuilt its factories enough to compete.
Edgerton points out that during the World Wars period the British elite was very much open to new ideas, and the British army was more advanced and more mechanised than almost any others. He has a more mixed opinion on the performance of the British ruling classes post-war. On the one hand he demonstrates that they were technophilic rather than reactionary, and tried to chase innovation. However much of that innovation: Concorde, the hovercraft, the AGR nuclear reactor was commercially unsuccessful, and other industries relied on state enterprises buying British over superior foreign products. He seems quite ambivalent on whether this kind of protection was a good thing: he doesn't seem impressed by it, but is even more hostile to Thatcher/Major/Blair free marketism.
On the NHS and the Welfare State, he again takes a contrarian stance. He points out that the "Warfare State" of the cold war was much more expensive. He claims that the post-war welfare state was an outgrowth and consolidation of the partial systems that existed pre-war, and states that Britain didn't really spend more on welfare than other states. I'm pretty skeptical of the claim that there wasn't much difference pre and post-war based on reading The Five Giants which highlights vast differences in much greater detail.
The book ends on quite a jarring note with a scathing attack on Thatcher and her successors for allowing British manufacturing to decline. It seems odd because previously he also didn't seem to think the efforts to support it were particularly useful either: he doesn't give much prescription for what should have been done.
Overall, a bit heavy going but a thought-provoking book with a lot of useful information.
What I'm Watching
Saw Spider-Man: Homecoming on disk. Pretty decent if unoriginal superhero movie: it helps that it doesn't trudge through yet another origin story.
Kid had his fifth birthday recently. Managed to get away without a party but took him and his cousins on a museum visit that he wanted. He had a good birthday but it was hard work keeping overexcited kids in hand. Glad that's over for another year.
Running going well. I've added some sprint and hill sprints which seems to have helped. I had a good 10km run where I was only 2 secs/km off my old fastest pace, and a 7km where I was only 1 sec/km off. I'm tantalizingly close to being recovered from my injury but not quite there yet.
Work a bit frustrating. Client has incredibly complicated requirements but doesn't seem to know what they actually are and keeps changing their minds. Every day we go down the sprint board of the work we're supposed to be doing and half the stuff is blocked awaiting clarification, to the point where it's hard to find work for people to do. Yet the project is going live soon and is high profile and actually important.
Articles. The Sneaky Way Clothing Brands Hooked Men on Stretch Jeans. Some languages with many speakers languish especially if they don't have a nation-state backing them. If Doggerland had not drowned.
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