The Rise and Fall of the British Nation: A Twentieth-century History by David Edgerton - review by Piers Brendon

Piers Brendon

From Great Power to PLC

The Rise and Fall of the British Nation: A Twentieth-century History

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David Edgerton is a myth-buster extraordinaire. Whether explaining how new technologies did not at once supersede old ones (steamships were slow to overtake clippers) or demonstrating that Britain was more than an industrial match for Germany in 1940 and by no means caught up in a spiral of terminal decline, he overturns long-cherished assumptions about our past. His new book, a nuts-and-bolts account of 20th-century British history that is original, opinionated, scholarly, complex and immensely stimulating, challenges received wisdom on many fronts.

Lloyd George’s People’s Budget (1909) was not, as it’s usually portrayed, just about welfare. It was also about warfare, raising the money to pay for new dreadnoughts through taxes imposed on the poor as well as the rich. Britain did not ‘change hands’ through property sales after the Great War: even today, much of the land still belongs to the same families that owned it in 1900. The ‘people’s war’ against Hitler was not as it has been represented, either in terms of equality of sacrifice (the old and indigent suffered disproportionately) or in terms of consistently improved health. The British ruling class was not effete, inept and decadent, as often depicted, but strong, accomplished and capitalistic. 

Contrary to the canard that suggests otherwise, British intellectuals and technocrats do exist, though Britain’s inventive superiority has been exaggerated. Ardil, the artificial wool made by ICI from peanuts, was, for instance, a failure, especially in the rain – Art Buchwald teasingly suggested that a rival company might hope to

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