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Can history help us redefine our ‘national interest’?

Members of the public wave Union Flags commemorating VE Day. Credit: Rob Stothard / Getty

Members of the public wave Union Flags commemorating VE Day. Credit: Rob Stothard / Getty

July 11, 2018   6 mins

How long has it been since Britain last had the sense that it was being governed in ‘the national interest’ – by which I mean the consistent proposal and enactment of policies with a coherent, practical philosophy of shared advantage at their heart?

Instead, a succession of Conservative governments has failed decisively to tackle vital issues – including the housing crisis, for example – while a heavy emphasis on ideology rather than policy now comes from the other side.

As a result, Britain has become a factional country of steadily rising inequality and of high but precarious employment, in which a proportion of our working poor needs recourse to food banks.

Those who have been left behind by the UK’s increasing ‘internationalization’ may feel nostalgia for a period in which ‘Britain’ existed as a stronger concept

The United Kingdom is presently in a state of flux and near-constant dispute within its political and media classes. On many fronts – whether political, structural, cultural or economic – there is a degree of acrimonious fluidity that is highly unusual for a country that (with the exception of my birthplace of Northern Ireland) was once seen internationally as a bulwark of calm.

Yet all political situations solidify eventually – and by the time this one finally does, some serious thought should have been given to what kind of Britain we want in the future. The concept of ‘national interest’ will need be reconsidered.

The recent publication of the historian David Edgerton’s book, the Rise and Fall of the British Nation, is, therefore, a timely one. It argues that Britain was only convincingly a nation for a period between 1945 and the 1970s, which took in the end of Empire and the start of our membership of the EU, and was finished off decisively by the miners’ strike. Of 1950, Edgerton writes: “the new British nation increasingly knew only itself…politics was now national interest, based on the politics of class, of production and of national social services.”

Edgerton seems intent upon dismantling the myth of post-war British decline. In the course of that era, “the working class, the vast majority of the population in both 1950 and 1975, went from austerity to relative plenty”. The transformation was radical, and in the direction of self-sufficiency:

“In 1950 the United Kingdom was still the same coal-fired, food-importing area it was in 1900. By the mid-70s it had been changed into an electrified, motorized nation which could easily feed itself.”

This growth did not take place by happy accident, he argues, but because:

“Projects were planned, programmed, imagined in advance and put into effect by agencies granted great powers of investment, coordination and decision.”

The book outlines the distinct form of national coherence that was generated after the war – helped, no doubt, by the unifying effect of shared trauma and victory, but also by policies consciously designed to boost British industry, agriculture and social cohesion. In 1951, the Festival of Britain was advertised as ‘A Tonic For The Nation’ (a billing quite unlike that of previous events such as the 1938 Empire Exhibition).

At Churchill’s urging after the 1951 election – during which the Tories had campaigned to give housing “a priority second only to national defence” and committed to a target of 300,000 new homes per year – the then housing minister, Harold Macmillan, undertook an enormous and ambitious building programme, including a high proportion of council housing.

Edgerton is eager to disrupt the conventional portraits of particular decades which have become embedded in the public imagination

While the 70s, for example, may have been beset by strikes, cultural argument and unemployment, it was also a time when “British social democracy and the welfare state were to be at their peak”. Yet, economically, “by the 1970s British was no longer best…the products of British genius went unsold”. Even so, the benefits of greater integration with Europe were not universally perceived, particularly by those on the Left. When Heath took Britain into the EEC, “the majority of Labour MPs voted against joining”. They were, perhaps, mindful of Hugh Gaitskell’s earlier 1962 speech warning that with EEC entry would come “the end of Britain as an independent nation state”.

With what came next – in the 1980s and thereafter – Edgerton charts significant shifts in the nature of our industries, our national autonomy, and the relationship between the government and the governed. There followed the rise of the service economy and of the City (with its corresponding effect on the prosperity of London: “the City rebuilt the city” and enriched its players, “Trading in money brought huge profits for a few.”) There came, too, the “great internationalization of British life”, which the author describes through various lenses, including the changing composition of our “elite football” teams, a greater variety of food and a sharp rise in foreign travel.

For many British people it must be said that this growing cosmopolitanism came as a psychological relief: stuffy, grey Britain was finally throwing open her curtains and letting the light in. The romance of Europe still had a strong hold on the public imagination.

Edgerton is scathing about the neo-liberal project: ‘There was little original or new or liberal about it. It was a culture that was increasingly global in its sameness and its lack of political contestation.’

Yet what came after, in Edgerton’s eyes, was a decline of the concept of British nationhood, and a greater fragmentation within society. He is scathing about the neo-liberal project – “there was little original or new or liberal about it. It was a culture that was increasingly global in its sameness and its lack of political contestation.” He casts aspersions on Gordon Brown’s somewhat cosmetic talk of a ‘global Britain’ and proposal for a ‘British National Day’.

If you are an advocate for – and the beneficiary of – a more global, internationalised vision of Britain in which financial and service industries are the font of national prosperity, you may take issue with Edgerton’s analysis. (There are also aspects of the immediate post-war era that one would be glad to discard, such as its casual racism.)

But those who have indeed been left behind by the UK’s increasing ‘internationalization’ may feel nostalgia for many other aspects of a period in which ‘Britain’ existed as a stronger concept in the minds of our politicians: from the 1980s onwards, in generalised terms, the south of England benefited over the north, the middle-class over the working-class and service and financial industries over those of manufacturing.

Who gained and who lost was broadly reflected in the 2016 Remain/Leave vote. Yet had the government taken steps earlier to address such internal fractures within Britain itself, such a vote might never have come about at all.

Should Britain invest inwardly, and further buoy up the NHS? Or should it be looking outwards?

The theme of national interest today has many strands, all knotted up in the question of what kind of country Britain should want to be, and how affordable that might be. Should Britain invest inwardly, and further buoy up the NHS? Or should it be looking outwards? General Lord Nick Houghton recently pointed out that the UK has “a defence programme which is currently wholly unaffordable within the available funding”. To maintain influence within NATO, he argued – and be useful to the US as an ally – the budget needs to be increased. 1

Simon Jenkins, writing in the Guardian, called the demand for enhanced defence spending “project fear as surrealism” – yet what if America insists, as the US Defence Secretary James Mattis recently suggested, that the UK needs to bump up its NATO contributions or risk losing the ‘special relationship’ with the US to France?

Do we even want the ‘special relationship’, particularly with such a combustible and mercurial figure as President Trump? Some might argue that a desperation to cement the ‘special relationship’ was what led to Tony Blair accompanying George Bush on ill-advised military adventures, in the course of which our Prime Minister was widely thought to have misled the British public over the reasons for war with Iraq. Others will say that it will be difficult to navigate Britain’s way in the world, post-Brexit, without it.

Another question is whether Britain – with the weight of its historical role – can bear to step back from seeking greater influence, and consciously become a smaller player on the world stage. Post-Brexit there will be no going back to the past, but there must surely be a conscious effort to reshape a future British identity: not one that plays out to nostalgic strains of Land of Hope and Glory, but a benign, inclusive form of Britishness that fits a modern, multi-racial society, one that operates with humility in the national interest rather than swaggers in the interests of nationalism.

In working out what that should be, and how it might be delivered, the reading of a book such as Edgerton’s – and Peter Hennessy’s excellent histories from the post-war period – would be well-advised for the public, politicians and civil servants alike. Themes return in British history and the British psyche, and they play out slightly differently each time.

It is natural for politicians to wish to dwell on what their post-war predecessors did wrong: things are more comfortable that way. But, increasingly, we can no longer afford to ignore the lost lessons of what they did right.

  1. The House of Commons defence committee recently recommended that we raise spending from 2%, the NATO minimum, to 3%. Until the 70s defence spending was roughly 5% of GDP. For a wider historical perspective on ‘the warfare state’, courtesy of Edgerton, “the Royal Navy alone consumed one fifth of all central government expenditure before 1914, more than all expenditure by local and central government on education, and even more than was spent on poor relief”.

Jenny McCartney is a journalist, commentator and author of the novel The Ghost Factory.


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