England and the Aeroplane

David Edgerton. England and the Aeroplane: An Essay on a Militant and Technological Nation. Basingstoke and London: Macmillan Academic and Professional, 1991.

This is a very short book, only some 108 pages long - as the subtitle says, an essay rather a fully researched monograph. The overall point of the book is to argue that contrary to most of the existing 'declinist' literature, Britain is a 'warfare state', not a welfare one, which relies on technological superiority rather than numbers ('liberal militarism'), and hence has always given a high priority to development of aviation, rather than being backwards as is often alleged. I think he is generally right on the latter point. On the warfare state, I'm less sure, but I look forward to his forthcoming Warfare State: Britain, 1920-1970 (Cambridge University Press, December 2005).

Probably of most interest to me is Edgerton's discussion of aviation's relationship with politics. On the right, he begins with Pemberton Billing -- founder of Supermarine, right-wing rabble-rouser as an MP during the First World War, agitator for a unified air force -- and goes on to discuss Joynson-Hicks, Sueter, Sempill, Londonderry, Rothermere, Mosley, A.V. Roe (as in Avro), Lady Houston, Churchill and Moore-Brabazon and later on the influential and openly pro-fascist editor of The Aeroplane, C.G. Grey. On the left, he draws attention to the liberal conception of the aeroplane as a force for peace and internationalism, particularly with H.G. Wells and (The Shape of) Things to Come, and the idea in the 1930s of a League of Nations air police to replace the disbanded air forces of the world.

Other interesting asides include the contention that imperial commitments helped advance British aviation rather than led it down blind alleys and the important point that Britain was prepared to go to war in 1939 despite fully expecting massive civilian casualties.

All in all, an interesting and thought-provoking book.

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