England & The Aeroplane: An interview with historian David Edgerton

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Image credit: www.justgiving.com

One of the most thought-provoking books I’ve read recently is England and the Aeroplane: Militarism, Modernity and Machines by the historian David Edgerton. I highly recommend the book which overturns several of the myths frequently perpetuated in British books about aviation. I tracked down David to find out more. 

What are the big myths in our popular ideas of British aviation or British aviation history? 

“It is hard to answer this question, since views differ, even popular views. Furthermore, stories change over time. I hope I had a good account of the dominant myths of British aviation prevalent when I was writing England and the Aeroplane in the late 1980s, but I am a bit loathe to speculate what dominant view is today. Back then, the story was one of aeronautical weakness, before 1914, in the interwar years, and indeed after the Second World War as well. The story of British aviation was basically the story of the fighter, of the moment of genius of 1940, the exception that proved the rule of decrepitude. That was the position I was arguing against then. Now, I fear that a certain kind of Brexiteer revivalist fantasising has overstressed British success in aviation.”

 Is Britain a particularly warlike nation? 

“Once upon a time the story would have been: most definitely no. Britain was seen as peculiarly peace-loving, and thus prone to underinvest in armaments, including aeroplanes. More recently, opinion has changed, perhaps not surprisingly given the policies of successive governments. Since the 1990s at least they have shown an unseemly desire to go to war, and have succeeded in doing so. The United Kingdom returned East of Suez, from where it had pulled out in the 1970s, to wage war in Iraq, in 1991, 1998, and 2003, and in Afghanistan, and then in Libya. Let it be noted that these and other places where British troops were engaged, were once under British control.    It is not historical destiny which makes the British warlike, but particular political and military programmes of the recent past.  So I would say that in the early twentieth century the United Kingdom was more warlike than myth suggested, much more so, but it is only in recent years that we have had a gleeful indulgence in military adventurism overseas. The United Kingdom did once have a major world role, now it just pretends to.  It is now really a big Canada, but political leaders want to see themselves at the head of a small United States.”

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It is commonly thought that British Governments destroyed or (at least badly damaged) the aviation industry in the ’50s and ’60s, is this true? 

“Yes, it is indeed commonly thought, in certain circles. It is a very strange view for without the support of British governments there would essentially have been no aircraft industry at all. The argument amounts to saying that if the government had given even more support that it actually did then we would have a stronger aircraft industry today. To which the response might be, more Concordes or TSR2s would have done even more damage to the industry rather than strengthened it. Indeed that argument was made – the problem was indeed too many aircraft projects, all supported by government, stretching the technical resources of the industry. Too much innovation was supported, rather than not enough. I must admit I have not heard a convincing argument that supporting the V1000 or developing the P.1154 would have materially affected aeronautical history, though there is plenty of assertion to this effect.  In short, it is a very complex issue which is discussed in simplistic ways. One common assumption was that governments were pig-headedly stupid and short-sighted. But the policies of governments were not stupid. There was a strong case for concentrating on fewer companies in the 1950s, and of pushing for European collaboration in the 1960s, and for reducing investment in a sector which for very good reasons would find it difficult to compete with the USA. Nor should be downplay success – the aero-engine industry has been successful, a very rare example of large British manufacturing firm having a serious place in world markets.  Without decades of government support there would  be no Rolls-Royce today.”

Was the mass bombing of cities a British idea? 

“Not entirely, but it was not a hideous foreign invention which the United Kingdom belatedly adopted in the throes of the Second World War. Indeed the British commitment to strategic bombing, to the notion of an independent air force, emerged early and strongly. Thus the RAF was the first independent air force, created in 1918, and was clearly committed to a policy of strategic bombing. In the Second World War, it started bombing German cities, or rather trying to, in May 1940, before the Battle of Britain, let alone the Blitz. The idea of bombing cities, industry and the working population, was an extension of the notion of naval blockade. One could win wars not by engaging and enemy army, but rather by depriving the enemy of the capacity to wage war. This was what I called liberal militarism (though it had other features too).”

There appears to be a correlation between an interest in aviation and a rightwing political bent in Britain: is this true, and if so why? 

“In England and the Aeroplane I wanted to pursue two separate arguments about the politics of aviation. The first was that liberals loved aeroplanes and saw them as means of overcoming barriers between nations and people, and indeed for waging efficient war against barbarians. This was the view of the great British liberal sage, H. G. Wells. A liberal account of the aeroplane has indeed been very influential in suggesting that aviation was fundamentally about transport, and in the end peace-creating.  But there were other kinds of politics involved. It turns out that though lots of people concerned with aviation in the 1930s claimed to have been prescient in seeing the dangers of Hitler and Mussolini, and thus argued for air rearmament, many were in fact Nazi and fascist sympathisers. A good example of many was the editor of The Aeroplane C.G. Grey. But one could add Oswald Moseley, who was ex-RFC, and Lord Londonderry; the ‘Londonderry Herr’ they called him. He was Air Minister no less. The slate was wiped clean by wartime propaganda films, like First of the Few and One of our Aircraft is Missing. In the first the pro-fascist Lady Houston is celebrated for the support she gave to aviation, with no hint of her politics. In the latter, there was no mention that the film told the story of one of the leading pro-Nazi MPs of the 1930s. The story after the Second World War was rather different, but there was an element of the Conservative party at work about the aircraft industry. It is telling that both Frank Whittle and Barnes Wallis ended up on the right wing fringe of British politics.”

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What led you to writing about ‘England and the aeroplane’, and what was the most negative response to it? 

“A series of accidents. I had studied policy for the aircraft industry in the 1930s and 1940s for my PhD. I was then asked to write a short book on the history of the aircraft industry.  It then turned out the same publisher had already commissioned a book on exactly the same theme! This was a blessing, as my research was taking me into rethinking the history of British strategy and the whole issue of the British decline, then a hot topic.  I was thus able to fashion these new concerns into a much broader book, one which used a new history of the aeroplane to tell a new history of England, one which was not focussed on decline, or on the history of the rise of the welfare state. Indeed my aim was, at a time when declinism held sway, to write not simply an anti-declinist book, but a non-declinist alternative history which made sense of British history in new ways.

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Curiously enough I don’t recall any negative response to it. In fact I think I was rather disappointed by  the lack of reaction to what were some rather novel arguments which if true meant that declinist and welfarist accounts of the United Kingdom were finished.   As far as the RAF and aircraft industry history I told, I  hope the reason for the lack of a negative response has been that even if at first some arguments might have seemed outrageous the evidence to back them up was there. Indeed the story I was challenging was a very weird confection removed from much contact with historical reality. Where I was disappointed with the response was that while the anti-declinist elements were widely noted, the positive part of the story tended not to be noticed. But that was then.”

Our ideas of the aeroplane seemed tied to Modernity and Imperialism; what do our ideas about drones say how about current views? 

“I don’t know. I must admit I haven’t kept up with the issue of drones. But I can’t help noting that drones are in use by the RAF in parts of the world in which the RAF attempted to keep order by bombing. Perhaps we are being forced to stay locked in a past which has led in part to the tragedies of the present.”

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The TSR2, P.1154 and V1000 are often cited as potentially great aircraft killed by a short-sighted government: what is your opinion of each of these and how successful they could have been? 

“I don’t have an opinion on these questions. One would really have to know an awful lot about these particular projects, and the competition, and the requirements. I think it is up to those who suggest they were potentially great aircraft to make the case, but this is no easy task.”

What is declinism and why is it so appealing? 

“Declinism is in my definition the idea that the relative decline of the UK was due to British national failings.  In reality most of the relative decline is the consequence of other countries doing better, and growing more in terms of population and output, than the UK. That is even if the UK had the most efficient economy in the world, it would still have been subject to much the same relative decline. Declinism has  been appealing because it produces the illusory hope that if the country was able to overcome its failings it would be restored to its previous position.”

Many nations have martyr aircraft. The British have TSR2, the Canadians the CF-105 Arrow and the Australians the CAC Boomerang – how can weapon systems arouse such an emotional response? 

“It is not because they are weapons they arouse such a response, but because they seem to represent a future that could nearly have been better. There has to be something especially futuristic about these aircraft to make them work in this respect.  We need however to distinguish between cases of countries with small aircraft industries, and those with large ones. The martyr aircraft are characteristic of the former. Indeed it is worth remembering that in the 1940s and 1950s lots and lots of countries had jet fighter programmes that went nowhere. We need to remember that the engines for these fighters tended to come from the few countries which could make them. Alas there is much less appreciation of the real significance of engines, than the supposed significance of particular airframes.”

 What should I have asked you? 

“Perhaps how did it feel to reread and republish England and the Aeroplane more than twenty years after it first appeared? My answer would be this: I couldn’t change the book because it had a form which it would not have if I were writing now. On the other hand, the book’s original intentions are more easily read from it, essentially because it does not seem so strange as it once did. It has thus had a much larger readership now that it ever did when it first appeared. I would like to claim I was prescient, but I wasn’t – for all sorts of reasons, good and bad, the story I told of a militaristic nation enamoured of machines has become easier to accept over time.”

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David new history of twentieth century United Kingdom called THE RISE AND FALL OF THE BRITISH NATION to be published by Allen Lane/Penguin Summer 2018.

Hush-Kit would like to thank Rowland White for his assistance in this article.

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2 comments

  1. nzaircraftfan

    A interesting point of view. I think the British airlines did more to kill of the British aircraft industry than the British Government especially the Hawker Trident which was too small to compete with the 727. And not buying more VC10s I think it was a better aircraft than the 707. But of course Boeing had the air force contract for tankers to support them.

  2. John Usher

    I read the reprint a little whille ago – this is an excellent evaluation and extention. For me the whole thing breaks the shibboleths around British aviation history and rings true, and I detect a recent trend in the published literature to accept the realities, and this is becoming acceptable.

    Perhaps it is the distance of time and the passing of those who had close involvement which is allowing a more measured view – Even the 1957 White Paper and Duncan Sandys seem to be getting a revisionist view lately!

    I like the notion that the use of drones may be a re-run of the RAF ‘Air Policing’ (= control by bombing with minimal ‘Boots on the Ground) policies in the 1920’s & 30’s in the self-same territories (Afghanistan, Iraq etc.) – do we never learn?

    I also like the point on the availability of suitable engines – and the few countries/companies which can make (or originate) them – which can make or break airframes. So many examples here e.g. Avro Manchester/RR Vulture for one failure, MiG 15/RR Nene for another (with some German aerodynamics thrown in).

    Good stuff!

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