Edgerton’s complex deep and layered macroeconomic history is fascinating, if a little tough to break into. It’s a scholarly history more than a lighthearted read, but it is brimming with insights and challenges to our preconceived notions of British history.
The central hypothesis here is that in the 20th century there was two distinct British states: first, The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, the head of a global empire and the world’s leading superpower. Then, after 1945 a distinct British nation which suffered its own rise, and then fall.
For the most part the history is not chronological – the book is largely split into two halves 1900-1950 and 1950-2000, but each chapter examines a different aspect of that time period in depth. First debates in the 1900s over nationalism and imperialism, protectionism and liberal free trade, then the rise of the labour movement and suffrage—right up to the election of new Labour. Each particular subject is examined in the context of a wider theme – such as globalisation to nationalisation or British Capitalism. There’s a huge amount of ground covered.
Each chapter covers the changes over time in a specific area, allowing for a more detailed exploration of the structural and political explanations for change. As Edgerton acknowledges, a more conventional narrative history would be more accessible, but would make it harder to understand why specific events and structural changes took place; how Britain went from being the Saudi Arabia of energy production in 1913, to being energy dependent by the 1960s, for example.
The interconnected and layered way the essays are structured makes this a complex read but it’s full of fascinating revelations—challenging for example the notion of World War 2 as a people’s war, when in reality the elderly, the poor, the front line working class soldiers were far more heavily impacted than the rich.
If you’re looking for a narrative history of twentieth century Britain which follows one decade after the next, or one government after another, this is not that history. But if you’re looking for a deep exploration of how the modern British state came to be, this book is highly recommended.