How the Warfare State Failed

Peter Forbes
6 min readJul 20, 2019

That’s us — Great Britain, the UK — I’m talking about. If the term “Warfare State” is unfamiliar to you, as it will be to most I will explain. The term was coined by the historian David Edgerton; I have taken issue with many of the contentions in his book The Rise and Fall of the British Nation elsewhere but his concept of the warfare state is the vital key to understand the position of Britain in the world today.

A Vulcan bomber

In a familiar popular narrative, the defining element of post-war Britain is that it became a Welfare State. The Empire was wound down, we ceased to be a world power, but the Beveridge report and Butler Education act defined the post-war ethos: an almost Dutch/Scandinavian style social democracy.

This was true up to a point but obscured an important side of the equation. Britain was not resigned to losing World Power status after WW2 and in fact to this day — to use the crass expression — tries to “punch above its weight”. Britain had been indisputably the world’s greatest power in 1900 and entered WW2 as clearly a player on a similar scale to Germany, Japan and America.

An obvious play on “Welfare State”, Edgerton’s coinage reveals his contrarian nature but there’s more to it than being different for difference’s sake. He defines post-war Britain as a state that privileged military over civilian investment. It happened because WW2 elided into the Cold War with barely a caught breath and Britain, having entered the WW2 as a Great Power believed itself to have a similar role in the new conflict. But in 1947 Sir Henry Tizard, soon to become the Ministry of Defence’s Chief Scientific Advisor, said:

“We persist in regarding ourselves as a great power, capable of everything and only temporarily handicapped by economic difficulties. We are not a great power and never will be again. We are a great nation, but if we continue to behave like a great power we shall soon cease to be a great nation.”

These words, so prescient then, now read like an epitaph for the soon to be Brexit nation.

But at the time, denial wasn’t hard to justify. The impetus of war had kept Britain apace technologically. When Tizard wrote, the country was more or less on a par with America in aircraft, electronics, advanced materials, and the nascent technology of computing…

Peter Forbes

I write about biomimicry and nanoscience in books and review science books for the Guardian and Independent. Teach Narrative Non-fiction at City University.