Empires and their aftermath

Heavy-hitters tackling big subjects of direct relevance to Britain today — now that is good news

Kathleen Burk: A fresh reading on familiar topics (©ALEXANDRA MOONEY)

Heavy-hitters tackling big subjects of direct relevance to Britain today — now that is good news given the propensity of so many academic historians to chase prestige, preferment and profit (well, in the shape of research grants) by pursuing micro-history and the faddish favouritism of the politically-correct grant-awarding system. Kathleen Burk, Professor Emerita of Modern and Contemporary History at University College London (and a noted expert on wine), brings her sparkling style to consider Britain and America as imperial presences, and to assess their interaction, impact and imperial styles. David Edgerton, who on the American pattern has a title that uses up much of my review — Hans Rausing Professor of the History of Science and Technology and Professor of Modern British History at King’s College London — adopts a more idiosyncratic approach to the 20th-century history of the United Kingdom, advancing the idea of a distinctive post-imperial British nation that flourished from 1945 to the 1970s and was associated with the Labour Party. His is a less happy approach than that of Burk.

On the pattern of his earlier work, Edgerton is good on the state and the economy and notably so in mid-century, but less happy on politics, recent decades, and Conservatism. He is also very parti pris in his writing. His publisher should have warned him about the use of exclamation marks. Outrage, as in his account of Mrs Thatcher’s funeral and Tony Blair, is a tone that sits ill within the work, and I wonder what mark he would award a student who closed an essay: “Only satirists, not historians, could do justice to this turn of events.”

Edgerton’s judgments do not always work well. For example, on Gordon Brown: “He repeatedly invoked the trinity ‘liberty, responsibility and fairness’, as if this tawdry trio could match up to ‘liberty, fraternity, equality’.” Leaving aside the many crimes committed in the name of the latter trio, what basis does Edgerton have for making this judgment? Many indeed are problematic. Edgerton writes that “anyone looking for consensus in British political history will find it in ‘Blatcherism’ rather than ‘Butskellism’.” Well, only to a point. The creation of the Scottish parliament and the Welsh assembly is reduced to the start of two sentences, there is no discussion of the attempt to create assemblies in the English regions, a sphere Edgerton largely ignores, and he prefers to cite Hobsbawm on Blair rather than examine the Conservative critique.

All this is a pity as Edgerton’s thesis about a British nationalism of the Left is interesting, not least his understanding of some of its core weaknesses. Edgerton presents a patriotic and nationalist Labour in the aftermath of the Second World War, a Labour very different to the situation today. He argues that it put nation before class, and repeatedly invoked the national interest and national victories from the past, not class victories or defeats. The national interest is open to different definitions, and readers may be forgiven for assessing Margaret Thatcher as better able to grasp and defend the national interest than Harold Wilson had been. However, Edgerton’s thesis fits with his presentation of post-1945 Britain as a New Sparta. This links to his longstanding interest in the “warfare state”. As he points out, even in the 1970s defence spending was, at around 5 per cent of GDP, higher than it had ever been in times of peace before 1938.

Looked at differently, the Cold War was scarcely a period of peace, and indeed, aside from preparing to resist a large-scale and far-flung Soviet attack on Western Europe, Britain was at war in Korea in 1950-3 and faced a range of insurrections, including  Malaya, Kenya, Cyprus and Aden. Edgerton is inclined to offer assessments that ignore alternatives, for example: “The warfare state helped maintain the highly masculinised university that had emerged in the late 1930s.” What about social attitudes and assumptions?

Burk offers an energetic look at an established topic and does so with considerable panache. In January 1945, she notes, Roosevelt said to Oliver Stanley, the British Colonial Secretary, that Hong Kong, which Roosevelt wanted returned to China, had not been acquired by purchase, only for Stanley to retort, “That was about the time of the Mexican War, wasn’t it?”

Burk begins with a sensible question — “What is an Empire?” — and points out that, whereas Britons are divided on the value of theirs, Americans cannot agree on whether they had or have one. As she notes, the very issue calls into question American’s self-identity as citizens of a country devoted to the rights of men and women. Her conclusion is that the Americans had, at the least, an informal empire, and that, throughout most of recorded human history, empires have been the normal way of organising peoples. The latter seems to have passed by many British critics of empire: Britain often replaced other imperial powers, such as the Mughals in India.

Throughout, Burk is interesting and writes well. Her history of the relationship between the two powers may take a largely familiar course, but she focuses on the interactions of the British and American empires on the periphery, which is not a particularly well-covered topic. The focus is on the “borders” between the two empires, where there could be conflict, as in Central America, and Japan and China, where there was more usually co-operation. Burk clearly enjoyed writing about Japan and the chapter on the United States, Great Britain and Japan, 1854-1895 is the second-longest in the five-chapter book. Burk argues that an anti-British drive was important to the opening-up of Japan as it offered the Americans an opportunity to achieve a position of equality with Britain there and thus to offset the British role in China. In contrast, the British devoted less attention to Japan. Drawing ably on diplomatic material, Burk handles the interaction of domestic developments in Japan with international power politics. As she notes, British policy toward Japan diverged from that of the United States in the first two decades of the 20th century. However, they were to align more thereafter, which caused a major rift in Anglo-Japanese relations.
Burk has a fine grasp of political contingencies and geopolitical realities, and offers a fresh reading on familiar topics. For example, the Suez Crisis is profitably discussed in terms of the British success in 1955 in ending the Saudi occupation of the Buraimi Oasis, which the Saudis, with Aramco’s backing, had occupied in 1952. Burk does not then devote adequate attention to the Conservative “bolt from empire”, but is good on American concern about the domestic as well as international crises of the 1964-70 Wilson government. Wilson’s explanations for the withdrawal from East of Suez were cogent, as Edgerton’s account explains, but the American response discussed by Burk was also pertinent. She ends with Britain thus becoming what she terms brief. There is no conclusion. This is a great pity and we can only hope that Burk will continue her study on the topic with a new book.

Anglo-American relations since 1972 certainly merit such a treatment from an informed and thoughtful specialist in international relations. Several elements that Burk does not really cover could do with discussion. First, the salience from the 1980s of a commitment to freedom in both Britain and the United States. The overthrow of communist dictatorships in Eastern Europe was an important triumph for both, and much more than geopolitical in its intention and consequences. So also, earlier, but more obscurely, with the significant thwarting of the communist attempt to take over Portugal.

The intelligence dimension is also underplayed, as it is in other general histories. The British empire and Britain itself were on the front line in the Cold War with communism that began as a hot struggle in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution. That had a range of consequences for general history. For example, the political economy discussed by Edgerton and his theme of a Labour British nationalism should be complemented by an understanding of the implications of the   anti-American links of some prominent trade unionists. So also with the question of Harold Wilson’s apparent stance. Given recent Russian efforts, many successful, with assassination, it is pertinent to look again at Gaitskell’s sudden death. As a related point, the BBC series on the Jeremy Thorpe affair and the Panorama documentary broadcast immediately afterwards, while noting the friendship of Thorpe and Wilson, did not address the possibility that in protecting Thorpe by referring to South African intelligence, Wilson was also covering himself in a somewhat different direction.

Another sphere largely missing in general histories is that of the local dimension. The top-down approach is understandable for Burk, although it leads her to ignore the local manifestations and meanings of empire within Britain and the United States. Edgerton is focused on policy. Yet, as recent events have shown, the way in which change is felt in local communities, in families and neighbourhoods, is important not just to the texture of politics, and thus history, but also to their content. Maybe historians should get out more and talk to those they claim to seek to interpret.