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Kathleen Burk: A fresh reading on familiar topics (©ALEXANDRA MOONEY)


Heavy-hitters tackling big subjects of direct relevance to Britain today — now that is good news given the propensity of so many academic historians to chase prestige, preferment and profit (well, in the shape of research grants) by pursuing micro-history and the faddish favouritism of the politically-correct grant-awarding system. Kathleen Burk, Professor Emerita of Modern and Contemporary History at University College London (and a noted expert on wine), brings her sparkling style to consider Britain and America as imperial presences, and to assess their interaction, impact and imperial styles. David Edgerton, who on the American pattern has a title that uses up much of my review — Hans Rausing Professor of the History of Science and Technology and Professor of Modern British History at King’s College London — adopts a more idiosyncratic approach to the 20th-century history of the United Kingdom, advancing the idea of a distinctive post-imperial British nation that flourished from 1945 to the 1970s and was associated with the Labour Party. His is a less happy approach than that of Burk.

On the pattern of his earlier work, Edgerton is good on the state and the economy and notably so in mid-century, but less happy on politics, recent decades, and Conservatism. He is also very parti pris in his writing. His publisher should have warned him about the use of exclamation marks. Outrage, as in his account of Mrs Thatcher’s funeral and Tony Blair, is a tone that sits ill within the work, and I wonder what mark he would award a student who closed an essay: “Only satirists, not historians, could do justice to this turn of events.”

Edgerton’s judgments do not always work well. For example, on Gordon Brown: “He repeatedly invoked the trinity ‘liberty, responsibility and fairness’, as if this tawdry trio could match up to ‘liberty, fraternity, equality’.” Leaving aside the many crimes committed in the name of the latter trio, what basis does Edgerton have for making this judgment? Many indeed are problematic. Edgerton writes that “anyone looking for consensus in British political history will find it in ‘Blatcherism’ rather than ‘Butskellism’.” Well, only to a point. The creation of the Scottish parliament and the Welsh assembly is reduced to the start of two sentences, there is no discussion of the attempt to create assemblies in the English regions, a sphere Edgerton largely ignores, and he prefers to cite Hobsbawm on Blair rather than examine the Conservative critique.

All this is a pity as Edgerton’s thesis about a British nationalism of the Left is interesting, not least his understanding of some of its core weaknesses. Edgerton presents a patriotic and nationalist Labour in the aftermath of the Second World War, a Labour very different to the situation today. He argues that it put nation before class, and repeatedly invoked the national interest and national victories from the past, not class victories or defeats. The national interest is open to different definitions, and readers may be forgiven for assessing Margaret Thatcher as better able to grasp and defend the national interest than Harold Wilson had been. However, Edgerton’s thesis fits with his presentation of post-1945 Britain as a New Sparta. This links to his longstanding interest in the “warfare state”. As he points out, even in the 1970s defence spending was, at around 5 per cent of GDP, higher than it had ever been in times of peace before 1938.

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