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A Warfare State? Britain, Science and Policy, c1900-1970 - 30 credits (HS1771)

Module Tutor: Dr Ian Pincombe

Course Description

The direction of twentieth-century British history is ordinarily seen as based on 'welfare'. This module introduces students to an alternative idea: that of Britain as a 'warfare' state, in which governments employed science and technology more extensively than has often been assumed. Traditional and revisionist perspectives on Britain's progress from the early decades of the century to the 1970s are examined, and to that end the role of professional historians as well as scientists and politicians in policy formulation is considered. The influence of think-tanks (such as the Society for Freedom in Science) also features. The module looks at appeasement in the 1930s, the role of intellectuals, research and development (e.g. in radar and nuclear power), ‘declinism’, the Haldane Principle and the adaptation of state apparatus for and during war. The module also prompts wider questions about the role of science and technology in the direction of present and future public policy.

Credits: 30

Availability of module: Every year


Necessary for

Teaching methods

A range of teaching methods will be used in each of the sessions of the course, comprising a combination of lectures and seminar discussion of major issues. The syllabus is divided into a series of major course themes, then sub-divided into principal topics for the study of each theme.

The aim of the lectures is to provide a brief introduction to a particular topic, establishing the salient features of major course themes, identifying key issues and providing historiographical guidance. The lectures aim to provide a basic framework for understanding and should be thought of as useful starting points for further discussion and individual study. Where appropriate, handouts and other materials may be distributed to reinforce the material discussed.

The primary aim of seminars will be to generate debate and discussion amongst course participants. Seminars for each of the course topics will provide an opportunity for students to analyse and further discuss key issues and topics relating to lectures.


Students will be assessed by means of a combination of one 1000 word assessed essay [15%], one 2000 word assessed essay [35%] and one two-hour unseen written examination paper in which the student will answer two questions [50%].

Course assignments:

Assessed Essay 1 will contribute 15% of the final mark for the module. It is designed to give students the opportunity to demonstrate their ability to review evidence, draw appropriate conclusions from it and employ the formal conventions of scholarly presentation. It must be no longer than 1,000 words (excluding empirical appendices and references).

Assessed Essay 2 will contribute 35% of the final mark for the module. It is designed to give students the opportunity to demonstrate their ability to review evidence, draw appropriate conclusions from it and employ the formal conventions of scholarly presentation. It must be no longer than 2,000 words (excluding empirical appendices and references).

The Examination will take place during the second assessment period [May/June] and will consist of an unseen two hour paper that will contribute the remaining 50% of the final mark for this module. Students must write 2 answers in total.

Summary of course content

The course will cover a wide range of topics including:
Introduction: themes and concepts
The traditional narrative: anti-histories
A proto-warfare state? The Edwardian Age
The First World War
Interwar disarmament: cliché, misnomer?
A Communist science?
The Second World War: science & policy
The ‘welfare’ state: cliché, misnomer?
Britain and biological warfare
The two cultures
Ban the bomb: Britain and the nuclear state
Representations…in film
Wilson’s ‘white heat’: cliché, misnomer?
R & D and international perspectives

Learning outcomes

  • Demonstrate a broad and systematic knowledge of the role of science and technology in the twentieth century British state, and an understanding of the complex relationship between them and economic performance.
  • Identify the main features of characterisations of the British state as presented in the secondary literature and in histories 'from below'.
  • Demonstrate an understanding of how certain traditional views of twentieth century Britain have been entrenched, and how these have been challenged.
  • Analyse and compare the different historical perspectives in light of recent reconsiderations of the role of science and technology in policy.
  • Identify the nature and scope of the issues raised concerning the British civilian and military states.
  • Summarise and appraise the relative merits and demerits of alternative views and interpretations about the role of science and technology in government and the influence of the military, and to evaluate their significance.
  • Identify problems, assess evidence, and reach conclusions using both traditional and current interpretations of the relative importance of R & D and innovation in the function of the civilian and military states.
  • Devise and sustain lines of critical thought concerning these issues using theoretical constructs, statistical data, 'history from below', a wide range of case studies, and related film/literary narratives.
  • Present, accurately, succinctly and lucidly, and in written or oral form their arguments in accordance with appropriate scholarly conventions.
  • Express their ideas and assessments on the British state in the period 1900 to 1970 (and beyond).
  • Discuss in an informed manner the degree to which the British state responded to innovation and followed a warfare trajectory.
  • Evaluate a range of alternative historiographical interpretations such as differing views of the role of science, technology and R & D in the evolution of the British state, and to compare it with others.
  • To demonstrate an understanding of the types of source material on which historians, scientists and politicians have based their views (and actions).

Skills that will be practised and developed

  • communicate ideas and arguments effectively, whether in class discussion or in written form, in an accurate, succinct and lucid manner.
  • formulate and justify arguments and conclusions about a range of issues, and present appropriate supporting evidence
  • an ability to modify as well as to defend their own position.
  • an  ability to think critically and challenge assumptions
  • an ability to use a range of information technology resources to assist with information retrieval and assignment presentation.
  • time management skills and an ability to independently organise their own study methods and workload.
  • work effectively with others as part of a team or group in seminar or tutorial discussions.

Suggested book purchases


Suggested preparatory reading

Correlli Barnett, The Audit of War: the Illusion and Reality of Britain as a Great Nation (1986)
J.D. Bernal, The Social Function of Science (1939)
David Coates, The Question of UK Decline: The Economy, State and Society (1994)
David Edgerton, Science, Technology and the British Industrial 'Decline' 1870-1970 (1996)
David Edgerton, The Warfare State: Britain 1920-1970 (2011)
G.C. Peden, Arms, Economics and British Strategy: From Dreadnoughts to Hydrogen Bombs (2007).
C.P. Snow, The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution (1959)