The Rise and Fall of the British Nation: A Twentieth Century History

David Edgerton


The Rise and Fall of the British Nation: A Twentieth Century History

Review by:

Simran Rakkar

9 May 2021

Provocatively named ‘The Rise and Fall of the British Nation’, Edgerton tackles the declinist narrative that historians traditionally applied to twentieth century Britain. Though Edgerton writes a deeply political history, detailing the key developments of the century, from free trade to protectionism, from empire to nation, and from warfare to welfare state, it is also interesting to note that he is a historian of science and industry, a passion which comes through in his focus on the industrialisation and economic development of Britain. This book is an excellent entry into modern history and politics, broadly surveying events through a compellingly argued narrative of the construction and deconstruction of British identity. In this way, it offers both a good education in the time period at hand for those wanting to become more familiar with it, and intriguing points to think about and debate in an interview scenario.

I came across this book on the pre-term reading list I was given in preparation for studying history at university. It was suggested as an overview to a paper I took on modern British political history. Since the topics are punctuated by subtitles and the book follows a chronological pattern, it is easy to flick through to parts you are interested in. Furthermore, the book serves as an example of public history, published by Penguin. In many ways, the fact that Edgerton intended this book to be read by a popular audience outside of the academic sphere is a merit: it uses accessible language, its critically reviewed and features an index for easy searching. Yet, one must be weary of what might have been missed to allow for a neat, story-like argument that could appeal to the masses. Ultimately, this book was written with the intention of not just education, but entertainment. That said, Edgerton frequently cites scholars of academic history as opportunities for further reading. In fact, Literary Review labels him “a myth-buster extraordinaire” for the book’s bold challenges to traditional historiography. Not only is declinism refuted by the assertion that new technologies did not at once supersede old ones and Britain was more than an industrial match for Germany in 1940, he shows that Lloyd George’s People’s Budget was not, as it’s usually portrayed, just about welfare, and the ‘people’s war’ against Hitler is not an example of equality of sacrifice as the old and indigent suffered disproportionately. Overall, The Rise and Fall of the British Nation is original, striking and incredibly helpful to a budding historian.