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Response to Review of The Rise and Fall of the British Nation: a Twentieth Century History

I am immensely grateful to Scott Newton for his generous review of my book. I am pleased too that he has used it not so much to mark some points of disagreement but to take forward a discussion, and I will respond in kind. He makes four criticisms which I will address in turn, and then reflect a little on aspects of the book he does not touch on and which bear on his points.

His first criticism is that I indulge in a straw man criticism of the brilliant work of Cain and Hopkins. I am of course aware that they appreciate that British capitalism was a matter of ships and factories and so on. Who wouldn’t note that empirical reality? But they put finance and commerce not ships and production at the centre of their picture, for good reasons. It do not criticise them for this, rather I criticise their thesis, and the tradition they stand in, in a very general way. I see them as the most accomplished, by far, exponents of the view that foreign financial and commercial entanglements weakened the national productive economy, and challenge that. I also criticise their thesis by noting the very great importance of the politics of the national debt as opposed to the overseas debt which is central to their story.

The second criticism is that I underplay two key innovations of the 1940s welfare state – free medicine, and the ending of the means test. I do note the specificities and significance of the free to use NHS, but I follow specialist scholarship in pointing out that before the NHS lots of people could and did see the doctor for free. That free medicine was no longer a mark of poverty was indeed crucial but it was the universalism of the free medicine, not that medicine became free which was the crucial change. As to the means test, its humiliations did go away in the history books, but not in reality. The household means test had gone earlier, but the mean test did not disappear. It was the basis of the whole National Assistance system. That said it is true that had there been more unemployment among insured workers after 1945 they would not have been forced onto means tested benefits so soon as had happened in the inter-war years, but then it is worth noting that the means test most certainly did not apply to all benefits before the war. Indeed in my sections on welfare I go out of my way to discuss the differences between insurance and means-tested benefits. But the broader point is that the really big change in welfare across the second world war were not going from little welfare to the welfare state, but rather from a welfare state for the working class to a universal one, and one in which benefits financed by taxation (NHS, family allowances) were crucial.

The third criticism is that I don’t see that social democracy everywhere was necessarily national. I was rather assuming this to be the case, broadly speaking. But what was interesting in the British case was the British social democracy was not generally nationalist and protectionist before the 1930s – on the contrary, it was devoted to free trade!  As far as Alan Milward is concerned, again I could not agree more. In fact as I hope was evident my account of the UK was decidedly Milwardian, indeed my book is one of the very few general texts which takes his distinctive account of UK accession seriously and attempts indeed to expand on it.

On the origins of Thatcherism again I certainly don’t disagree that it was not a purely British phenomenon, and hoped that I had implied as much. I don’t think I implied Thatcherism was attacking paper tigers. Indeed I see some force in the Thatcherite point that they sought to reverse changes of the 1960s and 1970s, rather than the 1940s or 1950s. I also make the point that there was a decidedly systematic move to enforce the rule of property and to downgrade the power of labour – and in many dimensions. Indeed, one reason I don’t like the term neo-liberalism is that it focusses on ideology not practice and on markets not on capital/labour relations. In my account, the post-1979 story connects back to the pre-1945 story especially with respect to the relative power of capital and labour and the openness of the economy. Opening the economy, controlling trade unions, and privatisation, did indeed weaken and de-legitimate national social democratic action.  

In short, his criticisms and observations are I think already essentially in my text, though obviously not clearly enough. But I think there may be an underlying issue which is worth highlighting.

Newton, like most reviewers, sees my book as focussed on the years from 1945, and take its central point to be the nationalism of the period to the 1970s. Yet a very large chunk of the book is about the very different world that preceded it. And here I think I make, and report, many distinctive arguments which give a new picture of what changed between the inter-war and post-war years. My pre-1945 story stresses the power of global British capitalism. Indeed that part of the book especially is effectively a history of British capitalism. For example, contra the implications both of most histories and the gentlemanly capitalism theses I show that the strength of industrial businessmen in the House of Commons and in power. I also argue for the significance of the working class welfare state created in the 1920s. The story I tell runs counter to what I see as the nationalist critiques of liberalism (and imperialism) which are central to the historiographies of the British nation which emerged in the 1960s and which still structure our understanding. Indeed my book is as much a critique of these nationalist historiographies as it is a description of the post-war nation in which they emerged. What does this mean concretely? It means I reject the assumptions of the great New Left historiography emerging from the 1960s (including Cain and Hopkins) and also the welfarist national histories of the centre left.  Indeed I very much hope that my book will stimulate a discussion of the theoretical underpinnings of the historiography of modern Britain.