Clement Attlee, the Labour Prime Minister of 1945–51, is usually awarded a starred first by progressive historians. Edgerton thinks him overrated and misunderstood. Attlee’s government, he shows, fostered nationalism. It introduced peacetime conscription, under the euphemism of National Service, strove to make the nation more self-sufficient in agricultural production, protected manufacturers with tariffs, controlled the use of capital overseas, and introduced the British Nationality Act of 1948. The expensive process whereby the Attlee government took companies owned by private shareholders into public ownership was called “nationalization” rather than “socialization”. The controlling body of the state-owned coalmines was called the National Coal Board so as to sound patriotic rather than syndicalist. Labour’s vaunted welfare programme, which extended previous Tory provisions for the housing and health care of the working class so as to benefit the entire nation regardless of financial need, was named the National Health Service to chime with the contemporary mood. The old Poor Law system was replaced in 1948 by National Assistance. New versions of nationhood were strenuously promulgated by the Labour government of this period.What forced Britain to open itself to the world was, first, that it was steadily falling behind the US and Germany in standard of living, and, second, joining the European Common Market:
For at least two decades after 1945 the “United Kingdom” had proportionately the world’s largest and perhaps most uniform urban working class. Yet neither Labour nor Tory governments projected a proletarian “United Kingdom” image either in the colonies or overseas generally. Labour, Edgerton shows, consistently presented itself as a national rather than socialist party. Its manifesto for the general election of 1945 promised to “put the nation above any sectional interest”. “Socialism” was mentioned once, “socialist” twice, “Britain” fourteen times, “British” twelve times, and “nation” or “national” nearly fifty times. Similarly, Labour presented itself in its general election manifesto of 1950 as “the true party of the nation”.
During the 1930s the Labour Party had opposed tariff protection as a device to prop up failing capitalism. After 1945, without explicit declarations, it relinquished free trade for economic nationalism with deleterious consequences, which Edgerton analyses with painstaking authority. For nearly thirty years, until British admission into the European Economic Community in 1973, the London government regulated the national economy by tariffs, quotas, import surcharges, Bank of England controls on capital exports, and draconian curbs on the cash that business travellers and holidaymakers could spend abroad. Consumers were badgered to “Buy British” even when products were of poor quality. As Prime Minister Harold Wilson and one of his backbenchers, Robert Maxwell, promoted the ludicrous “I’m Backing Britain” campaign of 1968. As Brexiteers and Corbynite protectionists prefer to forget, controls over imports before Britain joined the European Economic Community in 1973 were complex, chaotic, liable to sudden change and never reduced import bills by large margins. It was a system that brought the UK close to insolvency and necessitated the International Monetary Fund rescue of 1976.And then there's this:
Seven years after British entry into the EEC, the launch of the Austin Metro motor car in 1980 was disfigured by a xenophobic television advertising campaign with the slogan “A British Car To Beat the World”. The advert described Britain being “invaded by the Italians, the Germans, the Japanese and the French. Now we have the means to fight back!” Metros landed on a beach from Second World War landing craft, were driven through villages with bemedalled old soldiers saluting and Union flag bunting, while the foreign cars retreated over the Channel to the resounding tune of “Rule Britannia”.The "neoliberalism" of Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, and Barack Obama was novel partly because it was both liberal and international. Neoliberal leaders thought the experience of explosive technological and social change in the open era of 1980 to 2008 showed that economic nationalism could never keep up, so it was necessary to keep nations open to trade and somehow keep the working class employed by other means
What has happened since 2008 is that workers in Europe and the US have said, to hell with openness. We want barriers to trade and migration back, and the factory jobs they protected.
But how can this be achieved in a world where left-wing leaders hate nationalism and think immigration restrictions are just racism, and where conservative parties are in thrall to business interests that have wax fat on free trade and openness? Most likely it can't, but the only people who seem likely to even try are cranky nationalists like Donald Trump and the Brexiteers.