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12 July 2023

David Edgerton: “The UK needs a politics of modesty”

The acclaimed historian on whether Britain is in decline, the Nairn-Anderson thesis and what Labour gets wrong about economic growth.

By George Eaton

A familiar spectre is haunting Britain: that of decline. High inflation, low growth, industrial strife and Brexit have combined to create an inescapable sense of national malaise. Though the left and the right disagree on the appropriate remedies, there is a shared belief that the UK’s position has rarely been more parlous.

There are few people who have interrogated the subject of British decline more deeply than the historian David Edgerton. His most acclaimed work, The Rise and Fall of the British Nation (2018), repudiated traditional narratives about the UK’s past. Most notably, he challenged the “declinist” school, which he accused of promoting an exaggerated and solipsistic account of national failure. Britain’s apparent decline, Edgerton contended, is more often than not confused with the rise of rival powers: the US, Japan, Germany. Being overtaken by others is not the same as going backwards.

Have recent events changed his perspective? When I met Edgerton, 64, at King’s College London, where he is professor of modern British history, I began by asking him why the theme of decline is once again so salient. “In the recent past we’ve had something new, which is British revivalism, which has been central to the Brexit project,” he said. “We had a lot of talk not just about ‘Global Britain’ but about a ‘science superpower’, a real sense that the UK is not just a special nation by virtue of its history but that it is stuffed full of entrepreneurs. What’s happening now is a reaction to some of that; all of those promises have revealed themselves to be essentially false.”

For Edgerton, the danger of a melodramatic account of British failure is that it leads to deluded dreams of British rebirth. “It is an intellectually fatal position to take. Behind declinism is an appalling top-dog-ism: if we get it right we can regain our proper place in the world.

“The UK accounts for 2 per cent of global manufacturing and 2 per cent of global R&D. You’re not a science superpower if you do 2 per cent… You can’t go around claiming that in seven years’ time the UK is going to be a climate leader or a leader in green tech, it just doesn’t make sense.”

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Edgerton’s simultaneous dismissal of “Remoaner declinism” and “Brexiteer revivalism” can appear too neat at first sight. Is there a plausible middle way? He insists so. “If you want a footballing analogy, if you’re at the bottom of the Premier League, do you buy the most expensive players to get you to the top – you can probably only afford one – or do you pursue a policy of slow improvement? The British economy needs to follow a policy of improvement, not a policy of chest-beating and claiming to be on the cusp of transformative breakthroughs.”

Edgerton agrees that the UK has significant problems but maintains that it is “intellectually disreputable and politically dangerous” to view them as symptoms of historic decline.

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In this regard one of his chief opponents is Perry Anderson, the Marxist historian and intellectual engine of New Left Review. Together with the late Scottish theorist Tom Nairn, Anderson rooted Britain’s apparent decline in its aristocratic overclass and in the absence of a genuine “bourgeois revolution”.

“I think Nairn and Anderson deserve a lot of credit because they certainly picked up on the wave of declinism of the late 1950s and early 1960s but turned it into a very ambitious historical argument. It’s remarkable that those theses are still very much alive.

“But fundamentally, the economic analysis isn’t properly comparative, it isn’t set in a world framework, ironically enough. It is a continuity thesis that assumes the fundamental structures of British society and economy were established in the Edwardian years, with some elements that go further back.

“Thatcherism was a rulers’ revolt but it certainly did involve the strengthening of bourgeois as opposed to pseudo-aristocratic values.”

Can people be forgiven for concluding, having watched King Charles’s coronation – with rituals dating back 1,000 years – that Nairn and Anderson were right? “The monarchy has changed. People didn’t respond to the coronation of Charles as if he was inheriting this position from God… It certainly doesn’t carry the emotional charge that a similar event would have done in the 1970s, even. The House of Lords is not regarded as legitimate, it’s plainly regarded as having been corrupted, that’s very different. We’ve got to have a model that recognises discontinuities and that is capable of explaining discontinuities.”

[See also: Tom Nairn: the detective of world history]

Edgerton’s own history is one of discontinuity. He was born in Montevideo, Uruguay, in 1959 to a British father and an Argentine mother and did not arrive in the UK until 1970, on a ship built in Barrow-in-Furness. “Without realising it,” he later wrote, “I knew the land of my father from the design of the railway stations, visiting Royal Navy warships, Senior Service cigarettes, the airmail edition of the New Statesman… There was so much to admire and to be amazed at, for example the welfare state, on which we would soon depend, the Gingerbread newsletter, the Giro, the double-decker bus and many other mysteries.”

Can the UK regain the spirit that so animated the young Edgerton? The historian has influenced Rachel Reeves – who read and enjoyed The Rise and Fall of the British Nation – and praised the shadow chancellor’s emphasis on the “everyday economy”, or “the services, production, consumption and social goods that sustain all our daily lives”.

But Edgerton is critical of Labour’s focus on economic growth and the party’s “mission” to make the UK the fastest-growing economy in the G7. “The mission should be to improve people’s lives. I think improvement needs to be the slogan: not growth, improvement for the majority. Labour wants to rely on the old assumption that if you grow the economy everybody will grow with it. That has not been the case since the 1970s.”

The 1970s – the decade that was once a byword for British decline – are increasingly viewed with nostalgia: income inequality reached its lowest recorded level and GDP grew by an annual average of 2.6 per cent (a rate today’s politicians can only dream of). “A lot of the reason that workers are poorer today is that the working class gets a lower share of national income than it did,” said Edgerton. “If we kept the economy at present levels and went back to the 1970s, workers would be better off because they’d have a bigger share.”

Despite his lucid account of Britain’s defects, Edgerton resists my entreaties to use the D-word. “Britain is not in decline, but there are problems: building houses, improving transport, changing the taxation system – very, very basic things that seemingly can’t be done.

“In some sense, the Brexiteers are right: Brexit has failed because it hasn’t been tried, there is no plan, there’s only a series of fantasies about what would result from a gesture.”

In Edgerton’s view, the solution is for Britain “to learn to do basic things better” and to embrace “a politics of modesty and a politics of improvement. What we’ve got is a politics of indifference to the realities of people’s lives, fake revivalism, posturing.”

For George Orwell, hope lay in the “proles”; for Edgerton it lies in the young. “They’re on a different planet to the political class and to the media class,” he said. “The young don’t believe in Britain being better than anywhere else.

“I wrote an article years ago saying that the good thing about Brexit was that it would destroy national illusions. It’s taken longer than I expected but we’re well on the way.”

[See also: Slavoj Žižek: the left must embrace law and order]

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This article appears in the 12 Jul 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Tabloid Nation