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

reviewed by
Alex Barder

Rethinking and reexamining the history of the vital relations between science, technology and the state is an increasingly urgent task. Any serious endeavor to do so must bring back into the policy equation the military connection, spotlighting what  Deleuze and Guattari in  A Thousand Plateaus bluntly call the War Machine. Since Eisenhower’s 1961 farewell address the ‘military-industrial complex’ has come to be recognized as a key influence on state decisions in the US, though much less so in Britain. Today, these state elites all too plainly appropriate science and technology so as to extend their power over society in order to wage a perpetual and self-serving ‘war on terror’. In the US and UK we now witness barely veiled, long-existing ‘warfare states,’ each accompanied by a seductive ideology of ‘liberal militarism,’ which is only a new guise of mission civilisatrice

A dominant neoconservative critique at the same time tirelessly decries the decadent ‘welfare state’ for its alleged inability to promote economic and, more importantly, military power. Decline clearly is the favorite bogeyman of neoconservatives who wield it as a polemical sledgehammer against whomever dares to questions the insatiable appetite of the War Machine, as if the health of the state was identical with weapons expenditure. Today’s Europe, hence, is portrayed in US mass media as militarily ‘weak,’ as only able to engage in effeminate peace-keeping operations, if that. What Donald Rumsfeld derides as  ‘Old Europe’ must be an economically ‘sclerotic’ realm suffering high unemployment and anemic growth rates – whether or not it is true. According to this moralizing narrative, Europe, through self-imposed weakness, finds that its foreign policy choices shrink to a preposterous faith in flimsy ‘liberal’ rules and norms, and therefore resorts readily to appeasement even of deadly enemies. The neoconservative movement (and its ideological cousins in Western Europe) have propagated what Edgerton dubs technocratic and militaristic ‘anti-histories’ so as to buttress their own beliefs and to serve their designs on power. Needless to say, these reigning smug narratives are sorely in need of sustained and in-depth critiques themselves.

David Edgerton’s Warfare State is a very welcome and successful revising of the history of the Britain from 1920 to 1970.  His foremost accomplishment is to demolish the conventional narrative of the 20th century British state, one supposedly of a pathetic nonstop long-term decline since the First World War, and for which sad fate many historians blame the ‘welfare’ social model. Professor Edgerton, by reasserting the importance of the ‘military-science complex,’ and demonstrating the robust design and production of first class armaments during this supposedly slack period, establishes a far more nuanced historiography that illuminates the strong relationships between the state, intellectuals, technocrats and scientists. Edgerton is not interested in dichotomous views of the state in terms of welfare/warfare or decline/growth.  Rather, his Warfare State “subverts” these dichotomies and reveals them as problematic conceptualizations that work to obstruct our comprehension of what really happened.

In Part One Edgerton investigates the armaments industry in the inter-war period and run-up to the Second World War and, in doing so, debunks the still widespread scholarly notion that a weak-kneed Britain full of appeasers foolishly failed to produce enough armaments in response to obvious rising threats. Edgerton identifies and dissects severe methodological problems in the traditional explanation as expressed in the work of Paul Kennedy and innumerable other scholars who claim that Britain’s sinfully lackadaisical rearmament in the interwar years was the source of a reprehensible policy of appeasement.

Edgerton conclusively shows, regarding a state-of-the-art equipped Royal Air Force and Royal Navy, that Britain’s pre-war military budget and production was by far greater than that of Japan, Italy and Germany. Before the outbreak of the Second World War, for example, Britain launched seven aircraft carriers while the Germans and Italians, though spoiling for a fight, built none. Edgerton’s thoroughgoing reinterpretation of statistical sources shows that British armament production in no way slackened at the time and, quite the contrary, that its material capabilities really were as strong as any power of the era.  

Edgerton also delves into and reinterprets the inter-war liberal literature on global political-economy as promoting a fairly vigorous militaristic approach, not a pacificist one,  as E.H. Carr famously accused at the time. Carr’s canonical text The Twenty Years’ Crisis, published in 1939, was a polemic against what he saw as dangerous ‘utopian’ or ‘idealist’ thinking that downplayed the supreme variable of power. But Carr’s analysis rested on his inadvisedly amalgamating under the heading ‘idealism’ a complex and varied set of perspectives, derived from classical 19th century liberalism , on the proper relationships between international law, norms and trade. This unworldly brand of liberalism emphasized a harmony of interests as well as Wilsonian democratic values. But a careful reexamination of the texts of the time reveals that inter-war liberals, far from being pacifists with a blind faith in the power of international law, were acutely aware of the need of the use of force in the service of Britains’s global capitalist aims. Indeed, they were keen apologists for the use of force for the maintenance of empire. As Edgerton convincingly shows, the mood in Britain in the decade up to the Second World War was not one of pessimism or defeatism, as is regularly attributed to it in seminar rooms and periodicals up to this day.

Edgherton explains that Carr’s assault on inter-war liberals concerned their depiction of Britain as a ‘welfare state’ versus that of Germany’s ‘power state.’  So the term ‘welfare state’ first arose not within socio-economic literature but rather within the nascent international relations debates of the era. As Edgerton shows, Britain was defined as a ‘welfare state’ only insofar as it represented “a state governed by law, rather than power…an image of a classical liberal democracy.” There was no hint anywhere in this analytical approach that the principal concern of the state must be understood as managing the material welfare of its citizens (at the expense, by implication, of military needs or ambitions). So although the Second World War accentuated the British state’s role in defense procurement, R & D,  and industrial capacity, postwar historiography mischaracterized the nature of the state as rooted in a vibrant commitment to “Keynesian” welfarism.  As Edgerton shows, the reality is that the proportion of welfare spending to warfare spending would not reach its 1932 peak again until 1970.

The Second World War, of course, undeniably changed the socio-economic landscape of Britain. The role of the British state increased dramatically, even compared to previous wars, because the sheer necessity of massive logistics and supply required such centralization. The upshot was a greater willingness by British governments to take “a greater direct role in the R&D, design and production of weapons than before the war.” The way in which this was accomplished, however, was a good deal more complicated than mere nationalization of armament industries or outright government ownership. Even the Labour government under Clement Atlee (1945-51) engaged in forms of privatization within the arms industry, despite their own discourse of nationalization. Edgerton shows how the concept of ownership, and its portrayal in the historiography of the British state, has been so consistently misleading. A key revelation he uncovers is a virtually  “invisible industry, comprising 1.6 million workers and 1 billion in assets does not figure in standard accounts of public ownership…” because historians registered changes in ownership only via nationalization rather than also account for significant indirect investments in production and research & design.

Contrary to textbook wisdoms, the British state progressively extended its control over essential productive assets by creating separate supply ministries, and by combining the Ministry of Aircraft Production with the Ministry of Supply to run a formidable aircraft industry. The historiography usually focuses on ministers such as Sir Stafford Cripps or Lord Beaverbrook’s initiatives in transforming particular industries, so that scant attention has been paid to the phalanxes of technocrats and technicians who gained greatly in importance in this period. Edgerton makes his greatest contribution by refuting the ‘decline’ critique that Britain neglected its latent technological talent and so plummeted into long-term economic decline. As Edgerton writes:

This technocratic critique is a central common feature of declinism, which some historians have associated with other proximate causes. For declinism, the view that the relative decline of Britain was due to British failings, almost always took those failings to be ones which more, and more powerful, technocrats would have avoided.

But, in contrast to a thriving research core of experts who supposedly were undervalued and underutilized, civil service and other top state administrators were portrayed afterward as clueless dilettantes from Oxford or Cambridge, shackled to their classical arts educations. A fundamental disconnect between the two classes is then posited and made to account for a continuous friction and for inefficient state economic management. Edgerton takes to be the principal propagators of this British ‘anti-history’ such writers such as C.P. Snow, P.M.S. Blackett and Perry Anderson.

Snow’s description of ‘the two cultures,’ the literary and technocratic, is taken by Edgerton as emblematic of the constructed anti-historical narrative that rests on highly dubious or, indeed,  disproven assumptions, methodology and conclusions. However, as Edgerton makes clear, robust and plentiful technocrats exerted a potent influence in policy-making throughout the 1960s. Scientists, beginning with the Second World War, became very prominent in every ministry that had a strong research and design component. The Fulton commission, set up  to inquire into the lack of “expertise” at within the civil service in the 1960s, failed to note the deep level of integration between “specialists” and “generalists” at Ministry of Technology.  The management of the nuclear submarine project, Polaris, like most other such projects, liberally “mingled administrators with professionals.” Yet, such ‘anti-history,’ Edgerton complains, have been too lazily accepted by writers across the political spectrum. Thus, for example, right-wing nationalists prominent in the British aircraft industries, such as Sir Roy Fedden and Sir Barnes Wallis, would write “alarmist” and “pro-technology” tracts.  On the left, Perry Anderson came down hard, as Edgerton notes, on a “British state [that] needed to be interventionist, technocratic, but all it offered was [quoting Anderson] ‘universal dilettantism and anachronistic economic liberalism’, while the British educational system was only belatedly and weakly scientific.” One result, upon the advent of Harold Wilson’s Labour government in 1964, was the creation of a Ministry of Technology (Minitech) to directly inject governmental resources and technocratic expertise into the industrial sector -- only for the facts to dawn on them that research and design was not at all deficient and also that there was a startling lack of evidence correlating research & design with economic growth. Wilson’s policy was a way of going nowhere faster and more expensively. Towards the end of Wilson’s touting of the “white heat of technology,” and its disappointing results, there predictably emerged the neo-liberal criticism of state intervention with the Thatcherite call, “No more Concorde’s.”

Edgerton provides us with a remarkable scholarly work deconstructing the prevalent conventional narrative which, as he points out, instead of offering a detached historical inquiry into the formation of the British state wound up reflecting partisan aims in “particular contests about reforming the state” at the time. His book is a major contribution to a growing revisionist literature on the inter-war period which corrects muddled histories that have been put too easily into the service of militarist agendas.  The Warfare State powerfully undermines a host of accounts that seek to justify expanding the War Machine without bound.