Thursday, 9 August 2018

State of the Nation

I saw Gregory's Girl at the weekend for the first time this century and was struck by a couple of elements that time has not been kind to. The first was the godawful jazz-funk soundtrack. Given that the film was released in 1981, Bill Forsyth missed a great opportunity to showcase the sound of young Scotland, to coin a phrase, and appears to have been unaware of Clare Grogan's moonlighting as a pop-singer. As a thirty-something at the time, Forsyth's musical tastes were presumably of an earlier vintage, which may explain why the posters in Gregory's bedroom are an improbable mixture of Rush (apparently a John Gordon Sinclair favourite) and The Specials. Though Grogan brings a post-punk style to the date scenes, the costumes are dominated by flares and V-necks, and a disco-era white jacket even appears as a plot device. In other words, this is very much a film of the mid-70s rather than the early 80s, though I reckon the levels of irony that make the film still worth watching (notably the inversions of gender and age) might have benefited from a soundtrack featuring the likes of Orange Juice and Josef K.

The second thing that caught my eye was the quality of the environment in what was then still a fairly new "new town". Shot in Cumbernauld, it exhibits many of the urban design features that would later become associated with new town blues, such as the soulless town centre and the best-avoided underpasses, but which at the time still retained some of their utopian promise. One harbinger of the future is a scene where Gregory takes a "desire line" and cuts across a highway, almost being knocked over by a learner-driver taking lessons from his father. What is striking now is not just the healthy kids playing in "streets" free of cars, or mothers hover-mowing their front lawns instead of scrubbing their front doorsteps, both images that recall an earlier cinema, but the evidence of significant investment in a social housing scheme built to improve the lives of working and lower-middle class families. But this investment wasn't just limited to homes. Equally visible is the money spent on the comprehensive school that provides the central location of the story, from the swish ovens of the home economics class to the all-weather football pitch.

While the music suggests that Forsyth's brief creative flowering was already coming to a close, the later success of Local Hero notwithstanding (a homage to Ealing comedies that featured an equally backward-looking soundtrack by Mark Knopfler), the sights of Cumbernauld tell a broader story whose roots go back to the Edwardian era and whose denouement would be the moral bankruptcy of New Labour. This is also the story of David Edgerton's new book, The Rise and Fall of the British Nation: A Twentieth Century History. Central to Edgerton's analysis are three themes that, while not novel individually, are shown to be intimately connected. The first is the idea that for most of the century Britain could be better described as a warfare state than a welfare state. This is self-evidently true for the years of the two world wars, but Edgerton shows that it was also true of the interwar years and remained true for most of the social democratic era too. Britain had long preferred to invest in expensive machines rather than men, from the Royal Navy's dreadnoughts through the Spitfire to the "British bomb", but that became a political rather than a strategic imperative from the late-50s. It is only since the 90s that we have started to cut our cloth to suit our needs, though this has been compromised by a defence policy that has deserted national defence for riding shotgun with the USA.

The second theme is the conscious creation of a British national identity during the Attlee years, an identity bound up with the concept of a developmental state and a focus on industrial production (ideas common in the historiography of other countries but unusual in treatments of the UK). Edgerton's key point is that the postwar Labour government invested far more money and political capital in trying to reorient the British economy towards exports (partly in order to pay back dollar debts arising from the war) than in developing the welfare state. For all the real gains of the NHS and other initiatives, postwar welfare was largely a reworking of prewar arrangements rather than a radical departure, and the real value of pensions and benefits would remain modest until the 1970s. In contrast, the commitment to "productionism" was front and centre, leading to the fetishisation of the balance of payments and in time providing a political open goal for the right as global changes in economic geography led to an inexorable shift in employment away from manufacturing to services, allowing state investment in industry to be dismissed as a failure and a new organising principle - personal "freedom" - to be advanced as a cure for all ills.

The third theme is how the trajectory of twentieth century British history - which moved from the internationalism and open borders of the Edwardian era via the protectionism of the 30s and the relative isolation of the 40s to the opening up of the economy to world trade and capital from the 70s onwards - was wrongly interpreted as a tale of decline. This "Declinism" was not simply a narrative advanced by a right that insisted on the debilitating effects of welfare dependence and cultural self-indulgence, but was also advanced by the left as a critique variously of the persistence of aristocratic habits in politics, of anti-science generalists dominating public administration and industry, and of British capitalism's disloyal preference for foreign over domestic investment. As Edgerton makes clear, the trajectory is actually one of revival and convergence rather than decline: of Britain simultaneously reverting to a free trade model while becoming more like its European neighbours (the central dynamic of the Thatcher and Major years), and of key economic sectors like manufacturing continuing to grow in absolute terms but at a slower rate relative to developing nations. In other words, maturity rather than senility.

The great value of Edgerton's synthesis is the fresh perspective it offers on key periods and pivotal events. For example, Lloyd George's "people's budget", lauded by liberals as the start of the welfare state, was as much about battleships as pensions. The Royal Docks closed not because of containerisation (which separately grew because of imported manufactures) but because Britain became largely self-sufficient in staples such as wheat and sugar. For much of the century Britain was a major energy exporter: in coal up to 1939 and in oil and gas from 1980 (the period in between was marked by heavy investment in both coal and nuclear in order to limit imports). One thing that comes across is how lucky Thatcher was, not just in the specifics of the Falklands War and the miners' strike, but because she reaped the benefits of a country becoming close to self-sufficient in both energy and food as a consequence of large-scale state investment over previous decades. In Edgerton's telling, New Labour was not merely a continuation of Conservative policy in all but name (the higher investment in health and education may have looked "un-Thatcherite", but it was consistent with earlier Tory administrations), but its technocracy looks shallow compared to earlier Labour governments while its gestures towards a national identity look even more craven and opportunistic in retrospect than they did at the time.

In truth, Edgerton is guilty of fighting battles that have been long since won - against the myth of Declinism, against the sentimentality of "the people's war", against CP Snow's "two cultures" - but his ability to knit these together and thereby show the inter-relationship of the actual history - the power of the developmental state, the Conservative commitment to technology, the centrality of scientists in public life - helps illuminate the material basis of Britain's twentieth century history. If I have a general criticism of the book it is literary. The publisher, Allen Lane, does not appear to have employed a sub-editor, to judge by the many typos, while Edgerton's often convoluted writing style (which I am currently satirising with, among other things, an excessive use of sub-clauses) often requires unpicking, suggesting than an actual editor may not have been involved in the production either (to be fair, the notes are extensive and the section on further reading is an exemplary essay on the historiography). Ironically, his words often flow most easily when his scorn is most apparent. These are the final few sentences, discussing the symbolism of Margaret Thatcher's funeral, which falls outside the period of the book but serves the purpose of linking the true consensus of "Blatcherism" back to the era of what Edgerton considers the faux-consensus of Butskellism:

There were no cranes left to be dipped in respect by dockers in the unprecedented honour the London proletariat gave Churchill in 1965. In the old and distressed pit villages of England, of Scotland and of Wales, forgotten former miners celebrated bitterly. Tony Blair, meanwhile, was making money working for some of the vilest torturers and dictators on earth. Only satirists, not historians, could do justice to this turn of events.

A critic seeing only this passage might suggest Edgerton had stepped over the line from history to satire (or "thrown in the towel" in despair), but after 519 pages of trenchant analysis built on a mass of detailed facts, I think he is entitled to let rip (David Goodhart predictably disagrees). That the first thoughts of so many people in 2013 turned to the coalfields of 1984, just as my thoughts on seeing Gregory's Girl turned to the new towns of the 70s, is not simply a reflection of age but a common tendency to think of the country's history in terms of a "national project" that was marked not by imperialism or chauvinism but by production and development. While much of this is now just memory, certain popular ideas that came to prominence in the late-40s and 50s live on in political discourse, such as the emblematic roles of manufacturing and infrastructure. I suspect the popular sensitivity to the state of the NHS and our tendency to treat it as an aged relative is a subconscious personification of this "British nation". You can even see the legacy in the "productionist" slant taken towards education over the last twenty five years, while Edgerton himself makes the point that governments have never managed to shed their rhetorical obsession with R&D, even if it is often merely a diversion from more substantive economic intervention.

This focus on material ideas, rather than intellectual fashions, seems bracing, however it leads Edgerton to marginalise Keynesianism, dismiss neoliberalism as a cliché and (more forgivably) cast a sceptical eye on Marxism Today's turn away from the CPGB's nationalist position towards the "New Times" of the 1980s. The whiff of British empiricism is never far away, suggesting this is not perhaps as iconoclastic a review of the century as perhaps Edgerton imagines. Indeed, the careful reader may spot a determination to ignore continental (though not American) influences in the cultural sphere. The commercial success of the popular music industry in the 60s and 70s is lauded but cinema is subject to its own declinist myth, from the peak of the 1940s via the Doctor and Carry On series of the 60s down to the "Hammer horror flicks and dismal TV knock-offs" of the 1970s. The seminal influence of German electronic music in the 70s and 80s is ignored along with the impact of the French New Wave on the likes of Lindsay Anderson and Tony Richardson. These aren't flaws in Edgerton's argument but evidence that synthetic histories invariably reveal authorial blindspots.

One of the more insightful reviewers of the book, David Kynaston, says "what he never quite confronts is whether modernity - an unblinking, unsentimental welcome for the new - ever really 'took' across British society as a whole". Leaving aside whether any society, ever, has embraced change in quite this wholehearted and uniform way, the context of the question is the absence of any reference to Brexit or even the 2008 financial crash. Did the turn to an "austerity" that ill-advisedly evoked the 1940s help produce the leave victory? I suspect Edgerton was wise to avoid the recent past (the book substantively ends with the Iraq War, which showed that "the British state machine had lost the capacity for rational and critical examination of policy"), essentially because it is too soon to make historical sense of what happened between 2008 and 2016, but I think Kynaston is right that this means insufficient attention is paid to cultural shifts. Where I disagree with him is in his own answer to the question: "My own work on the postwar period strongly suggests that it did not, perhaps above all in relation to the urban environment, and that the British temper remained in some obstinate, implacable way deeply resistant to change". Much of that obstinacy was a rational dislike of tower blocks built on the cheap and new towns abandoned to their own devices before completion, not a hankering after old slums.

I think the truth is more mixed: we mostly welcomed change, from pasta and Spanish holidays to foreign footballers, but we still wanted to preserve the idea of a British particularism over and above the merely chauvinistic. Central to this was a self-image of a tolerant and cooperative people, reluctant to take politics too seriously and with a pragmatic view of the state. A bit like Passport to Pimlico, in other words. It was a myth, but one that was necessary for the collective performance of the British nation that Edgerton's book celebrates. As the individualism of the 60s eroded the cooperative spirit, and as the multiple intersections of the 70s revealed the intolerance within society, the myth gradually lost its hold, encouraging not only Declinism but a more profound cultural pessimism that was only superficially arrested by the Falklands War. The myth lived on into the 80s, but only as nostalgia. The cosy world of Gregory's Girl, like the sentimentalisation of the Miners' Strike, was a lament for the loss of the British nation as much as a last hurrah for the developmental state of utopian new towns and comprehensive schools where boys baked cakes and girls played football.


  1. Can't agree with you about Bill Forsyth and music. On one hand, GG was far too early for Postcard to have made any cultural inroads, if indeed they ever did outside Peel-listening circles (Gregory was many things but never a hipster). On the other, Mark Knopfler was bang on trend for 1983, when Local Hero was released - Dire Straits had just released their fourth album, Love over gold, which sold just as hugely as the previous three (although nowhere near as hugely as the next one). I wouldn't say Forsyth really went off the boil till after Comfort and Joy, either.

    The book sounds intriguing, though! Declinism was a really powerful, and really pervasive, narrative - what else were the Sex Pistols saying?

    1. Postcard Records ran from 1979 to 1981, which pretty much paralleled the gestation and production of Gregory's Girl, so it wouldn't have been anachronistic to hear Orange Juice or Josef K on the soundtrack. That Forsyth didn't avail himself of the opportunity was less to do with his own age or musical tastes and more to do with the backward-looking nature of his art.

      The reason I introduced GG into this review is because of its nostalgia, not just for what Edgerton characterises as the national era, but for its loving look back at a recent past - the culmination of that era - which was about to be swept away in the 80s. Forsyth was a film-maker of the national era, linking the Ealing comedies of the late-40s to 1984.

      I don't see the Sex Pistols as being subscribers to declinism, but more as a symptom of the exhaustion of the national era and harbingers of change. That the beneficiaries of that change were better represented by the Young Fogies & Sloanes indicates how much the period was marked by a reversion to the culture & style of the prewar era.

  2. Could Edgerton's "British nation" (nostalgia for which I strongly suspect was far more key to the Brexit vote – especially in the north and the midlands – than the imperialist nostalgia imagined by many remainers) have endured for longer if Thatcher had lost the 1979 or 1983 elections, or was Britain inevitably going to revert to a globalist outlook?

    1. I think it would have happened anyway, but less abruptly. EEC membership had been confirmed in 1975 and globalisation was already underway. Labour would have run down the coal industry more gradually, and it might have been less supportive of the City, but the direction of travel wasn't really in doubt.

    2. Yes, you can see the pattern developing from the early 1970s. Policy-makers were already recoiling from popular demands in fields like housing and planning, and concentrating more on micro-managing problem areas rather than planning on a broad scale. Where interventionism was gaining ground in the 1970s was in areas like industrial strategy and local and central government reorganisation. I think without Thatcher this kind of 'elite' state intervention would have continued for some time, but there would have been the same attempts to scale down 'collective consumption' and popular political demands in welfare and social policy.

    3. I suspect the coal industry in particular was doomed (due to exhaustion of the resource itself and/or increasing concerns over climate change), but was the more general de-industrialization post-1980 inevitable?

      My impression was that it resulted from the abolition of rent control and selling off of council houses, which between them created a goldmine for asset strippers who converted industrial or commercial land to residential use.

    4. The Thatcher government's promotion of monetarism, with high interest rates and an inflated pound, helped kill off a lot of firms in its first few years, but technological change would have required some restructuring, as was the case in other comparable countries.

      I think the 'asset stripping' you mention was the result of policies unfriendly to manufacturing in an economy that already had an overbearing financial sector.

  3. Herbie Kills Children14 August 2018 at 17:15

    "was struck by a couple of elements"

    The biggest thing that struck me was the lack of fences around playing fields!

    “ modernity - an unblinking, unsentimental welcome for the new - ever really 'took”

    Modernity is whatever the ruling class say it is, so Grammar schools are modernity but hardly new! Fences round playing fields are modernity but hardly unblinking!