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April 19, 2006

What Type of State? Warfare State: Britain, 1920-1970 - David Edgerton

Posted by Jeremy Black

Warfare State: Britain, 1920-1970
by David Edgerton
Pp. xv+364. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006
Paperback, 19.99

The character of British political society has for long been contested, not least because it relates to questions of national decline. In this ambitious and impressive, although not always easy-to-read book, Edgerton - Professor at the Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine at Imperial College London - presents Britain for much of the twentieth century not as a welfare state, but as a warfare one with a major armaments industry.

After an introduction, Edgerton, who focuses on the relationships between science/technology and industry/state, begins with a chapter on the interwar military-industrial complex in which he crosses swords with numerous historians and argues that the military was well-funded and that expenditure was high by historical standards.

The extent of naval strength is emphasised, with discussion of a range of factors, including the cost of refits. The tone is combative, with other historians given short shrift. For example (p. 30):

It was warfare, not policy or disarmament treaties, which reduced the Royal Navy to rough battleship parity with the Imperial Japanese Navy. Given these relatively straightforward numbers, the case for British weakness is quite hard to make, but naval historians, among them, the great luminaries like Roskill, Marder and Kennedy, have managed it.
The same treatment is offered for carriers. Attention then shifts to the naval-industrial complex, which is shown to have been huge. Discussion of the aircraft and tank industries is briefer, but similarly instructive. Interwar arms exports are also revealed as important. Revision stretches to discussion of disarmament and appeasement, with British liberalism presented as still feeling it (p. 59):
had a global mission, and a globally based capacity, to intervene in Europe to make the world safe for multinational capitalism.
Consideration of expansion during World War Two is followed by a discussion of the muddled post-war Labour approach to nationalisation of the arms industry. The arms industry was kept large, strong and powerful, and was a major arms exporter, although, by the mid-1950s, the British industry had declined from around 50 per cent of the size of the US industry to 36 per cent of its size. State R and D is discussed at length as part of an interesting account of research and related education from the interwar years to the 1960s.

This provides a perspective for consideration of C. P. Snow's "two cultures" lecture of 1959, and the alleged failed technocratic moment of the 1960s. Edgerton shows that the story of British R and D matches that of armaments. Overall R and D spending, as a proportion of GDP, fell in the late 1960s, and industrially-funded R and D also fell, in absolute and relative terms. The warfare state was then elided from the national record because it challenged narratives of identity and development deemed appropriate in influential circles, an important argument that could do with more discussion.

Throughout interesting, this book could profitably be taken up to date to consider the same issues since 1970, and, hopefully, Edgerton will do so in future work. His book serves as a reminder of how much we discuss the present through perspectives shaped by narratives of the past.

Jeremy Black is Professor of History, University of Exeter. Amongst much else, he is the author of War since 1945 (Reaktion, 2004), Rethinking Military History (Routledge, 2004), Introduction to Global Military History (Routledge, 2005), The Age of Total War (Praeger, 2006), George III (Yale, 2006) and The European Question and the National Interest (Social Affairs Unit, 2006).

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