Sunday, December 18, 2016

Review: Warfare State: Britain, 1920-1970, by David Edgerton

New York: University of Cambridge Press, 2006, pp. 382.

Before delving into a discussion of Edgerton's book, it is important to remember the context in which he wrote--and especially the "conventional wisdom" about British history to which he opposes his own, different analysis. It goes something like this:
Britain has historically been a pacific, free-trading nation, with a strong anti-statist, anti-militarist tradition--and, perhaps not so science-minded as some of its people might have wished--so that one can think of it as "the un-Germany." Accordingly Britain's creation of massive armies to help resist Germany's attempts to dominate the European continent in the world wars (1914-1918, 1939-1945) was something exceptional. Indeed, the epoch-making character of the change was reflected in the way this mobilization contributed to the transformation of the order at home--most notably in the rise of the Labor Party and the establishment of the welfare state after World War I and especially World War II, which proved the dominant theme of the nation's history for the generation that followed.
Liberals tend to view this reading of the past very favorably, to glorify Britain's being a liberal un-Germany. By contrast, others are more critical. Conservatives, epitomized perhaps by Corelli Barnett, view Britain's anti-statism and anti-militarism, and the lack of enthusiasm for science and especially applied science, as weaknesses which disadvantaged it in industrial and economic competition. They hold, moreover, that this economic weakness, in combination with anti-militarism, left the country ill-prepared for the wars it had to fight, and ultimately cost it a great deal of blood and treasure, prosperity and power. And many on the left, if of a technocratic mold (a C.P. Snow, for example), while not buying all of this critique (they generally do not wish for a more militaristic Britain), do nonetheless espouse significant parts of it--quick enough to attribute Britain's industrial, economic and social failings to the grip of an outmoded ruling class and its prejudices (its disregard for science, etc.) on its political life.

In Edgerton's view all this overlooks the reality of a massive British "warfare state"--a large "military-industrial complex," comparable to that of the United States, which was not an exceptional product of wartime, but was massive through the interwar years and after; which for significant portions of even relatively recent peacetime British history consumed more resources than social services; and in practice represented massive state intervention in industry, the economy, science and British life generally. Indeed, Edgerton argues that acknowledging the warfare state's place in British life--the size and cost of the armed forces, their connections with the political, industrial and scientific establishments--automatically complicates, subverts and even debunks the conventional ideas about British history (the works promulgating which are in his phrasing "anti-histories," for giving us claims so much at odds with the facts).

In arguing this view Edgerton offers both a history of the warfare state for the period identified in the subtitle (1920-1970), and the ways in which its reality clashes with the received historiography--two objects to which almost equal time is devoted (five chapters principally given over to the former, three to the latter). Given the difference, and the scale of his efforts on both accounts, it may be best to discuss them separately.

In presenting the history of the warfare state, Edgerton does not present a complete or comprehensive picture--which would have to begin long before 1920 (the 1880s at the latest), and continue up to the present. Moreover, rather than rendering full coverage even of the 1920-1970 period on which he focuses, the five chapters that deal with its actual history look at paticular aspects over particular periods (the World War II-era research effort, the Harold Wilson-era rhetoric and policymaking about the "white heat" of the scientific-technological revolution). Unsurprisingly, there is much that might be discussed which gets little attention (like how the warfare state interacted with the broader line of British economic history). Still, the various pieces of analysis are underpinned by a copious, often systematic use of evidence ranging from statistics on expenditures and shares of national income devoted to defense, the ranking of Britain as an arms exporter (at times slighted, he reports, because ships and planes have not been counted as weapons!) or post-war R & D (a higher share of national income than any other nation in Europe, actually); to the extensive description of the alphabet soup of military and military-affiliated research agencies and establishments (the book actually has a guide to the acronyms up front); to the profiling of the people in these establishments, and the governments generally (which makes clear the image of a government of classicists had long since lost its salience); to his examination of the context and nature of major initiatives (like Harold Wilson's Ministry of Technology, not intended to redress a lack of investment in technology but to rationalize the prestige-oriented mentality that gave the world the Concorde). Together they add up to a satisfactorily broad and deep image of the existence and weight of the warfare state of which he writes.

In pursuing his second object, the historical debate, Edgerton's coverage is similarly robust. He also makes his fair share of valuable observations here--not least the fact that in a country that really was as unconcerned with the use of science as some have charged, the charges of writers like Barnett and Snow would have not have had any traction. His handling of the material is also nuanced enough that he acknowledges the grain of truth in some of the misperceptions of which he is so critical. (Harsh as he is on C.P. Snow, Edgerton does note that public school-educated, arts degree-holding Oxbridge types really were more likely to be administrators than science degree-holders--and concedes that Snow could have made his correct argument more persuasive by making reference to such facts.)

On the whole, it is a solid defense of his position--though in fairness, it is not a particularly difficult one to find support for, and perhaps easier than he admits. Many of the essential facts to which he points are well known to anyone who has paid much attention to this history. (The post-World War II era may have seen the rise of the welfare state--but that it also saw the hugely expensive Korean War-era rearmament, the advent of Britain as a nuclear power, and unprecedented peacetime National Service until 1961, are hardly obscure information.)

Indeed, it seemed to me that he exaggerated the extent to which historians have adhered to the conventional view, particularly as it affects not just writing about British history specifically, but the historiography of war and technology generally as a scene where "civilian industry, science and technology . . . transformed modern war" rather than the other way around to produce "histories only of civilian science and technology applied to war . . . the civilianisation of war," with "military agencies hardly figur[ing]" in the discussion of "war economies." (It seemed to me that he rather mischaracterized William H. McNeill's classic The Pursuit of Power, in particular.1)

All the same, this is something of a quibble, especially given Edgerton's emphasis on the general trend of the historiography, and British historiography generally. It also detracts very little from the very great deal that he gets right with a massive and generally solid synthesis of information ranging from economic history to popular culture--and which cuts through a good deal of the nonsense surrounding such matters as Britain's economic decline. That Britain went from punching above its weight to below it in manufactures, at great cost to its prosperity, is not refuted here--but the fact cannot be simplistically blamed on a cultural lack of enthusiasm for science; the refusal of the British government to involve itself with science, technology and industry; an inability to produce adequate numbers of scientifically trained personnel; or an unwillingness to fund high levels of research and development. The way in which the British state went about using those resources, and the ends to which it used them, are instead the issue. However, that is a subject for another book altogether.

1. Contrary to the impression Edgerton gives of McNeill, he elaborates the military-industrial complex phenomenon in late nineteenth century Britain, and draws comparisons with the United States in this respect, even using that exact terminology less associated with Britain. Indeed, a section of Chapter Eight--Military-Industrial Interaction 1884-1914--in McNeill's book is actually headed "Emergence of the Military-Industrial Complex in Britain," and makes it very clear that the armed forces were not merely passive consumers of civilian technology. (The thesis of McNeill's book is actually that in the industrial age the center of gravity moved back from the marketplace to a "command economy," in warfare as elsewhere.)

McNeill's account of the rise of the naval-industrial complex in Britain in the aforementioned section identifies bureaucratic in-fighting as a key factor, as with the role of John Fisher, and notes that it was his object to use market competition to stimulate the activity of the Navy's own, state supplier. Additionally, while this failed, the Navy became an increasing driver of "deliberate" invention, as
Navy technicians set out to specify the desirable performance characteristics for a new gun, or ship, and, in effect, challenged engineers to come up with appropriate designs . . . Within limits, tactical and strategic planning began to shape warships instead of the other way around. Above all, Admiralty officials ceased to set brakes on innovation by sitting in judgment on novelties proposed by the trade (279). And all this, of course, led to "military technology . . . constitut[ing] the leading edge of British (and world) engineering and technological development" (284).
The page numbers I cite here are from the 1984 University of Chicago Press 1st edition.

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