South Britain

Rosalind Mitchison

  • The Economic History of Britain since 1700. Vol. 1: 1700-1860 edited by Roderick Floud and Donald McCloskey
    Cambridge, 323 pp, £25.00, October 1981, ISBN 0 521 23166 3
  • The Economic History of Britain since 1700. Vol. II: 1860 to the 1970s edited by Roderick Floud and Donald McCloskey
    Cambridge, 485 pp, £30.00, October 1981, ISBN 0 521 23167 1

The introduction to these volumes states that the chapters ‘make up an economic history of England and Wales since 1700’, thereby displaying a curtailed concept of Britain. Most of the chapters concentrate on England, though almost all of the tables, of which there are many, are based on figures for Great Britain as a whole or, in Volume II, for the United Kingdom. Occasionally one of the distinguished team of authors recognises explicitly that he or she is writing only about England. R. D. Lee and R. S. Schofield, giving an early edition of the Cambridge Group’s population discoveries, gracefully slide out from any concern with Scotland. At the other end of the range of skill, Pat Thane commits herself unwisely to remarks about Highland clearances in the 18th century. The book is concerned almost entirely with English history: but it is offered as a textbook for students of British Economic History, and gives an interesting light on what courses on British Economic History cover in most English universities.

It will certainly be used in Economic History departments, and used heavily. It is intelligently geared to the needs and problems of students. The two volumes carry identical bibliographies and indexes, so that each can be used independently, and the indexes carry a glossary of the main specialist terms. This support material enables the authors to write freely, aware that the student, faced with conglomerate phrases such as ‘aggregate production function’ or ‘demand-deficient unemployment’, can translate from text to concepts without having to dig in reference works. Unfortunately not all these definitions can be considered authoritative. I would query that for ‘Gross Reproduction Rate’ – ‘a measure of how many children the typical woman will have over her Life’; and for ‘demographic crisis’ – ‘overpopulation relative to the amount of land available for agriculture’. These are not the normal usages in historical demography, and suggest that the editors, in spite of having done a great deal to make the contributions of the experts interlock, have their blind spots.

The books set out to produce a historical analysis in economic terms, and to supply the necessary equipment to make use of this. The bibliography, to which many of the articles refer, is itself a splendid base for study. Several of the standard debates in economic history, at least in the terms in which they have been conducted over the last 15 years, are now settled. Other discussions receive a new twist, or are taken down to an altogether deeper level of thought. In Volume I, McCloskey and R.P. Thomas measure the cost to the American colonists of trade control by the British Navigation Acts, and end up with the figure of under 1.8 per cent of colonial income: a new low. As a price to pay for the services of British military forces, participation in Empire cannot have been burdensome. W.A. Cole on his own revises the causation offered by ‘Deane and Cole’ for the fall in agricultural prices in the early 18th century, and now attributes it almost entirely to improved productivity. E.L. Jones looks critically but affectionately at the contribution of landowners to agricultural development, and goes on to give a cool evaluation of the degree to which 18th-century farming can be held to have been scientific. G.N. von Tunzelman destroys the idea that the early steam-engine was of crucial value, and if he does not know about this, nobody does. He asks us to accept that ‘a host of small-scale changes’ was of more value in technology than the few well-known landmarks. In the second volume McCloskey and C.K. Harley destroy the idea that free trade was ‘the key to mid-Victorian prosperity’, and suggest that it was positively harmful. L.G. Sandberg, offering a rethink on the hoary topic of Edwardian industrial weakness, is kinder to the entrepreneurship of that period than has been fashionable: in examining the industries usually criticised, he sees the failure as marginal. The topic is offered back to students with instructions to look for failures of ‘a more subtle and insidious kind’. Two other articles on the 20th century compel total admiration. Ian Drummond on ‘Britain in the World Economy before 1945’, despite a daunting page filled with unnecessary initials, presumably put there to make economists take his opinions seriously, has a text that is lucid and intelligible without such labelling, and asks questions which give a new base for the controversial issue of the return to gold in 1925. The climax of this volume is a fascinating survey by A.K. Cairncross of the post-war years. In its analysis of the reasons for Britain’s relatively poor growthmanship the only dimension missing is the political: the issue of the economic costs, direct and indirect, of the hangover of British imperialism. I would like to see this chapter republished in the series of pamphlets brought out by the Economic History Society, since it will be essential reading for any serious student of the recent years.

It is perhaps mean to object to some of the less effective articles, but the volumes indubitably have their disappointments. P.K. O’Brien and S.L. Engerman, discussing income and its distribution during the industrial revolution, seem here to lack the drive they have separately shown in other writings, and produce an uncomfortable mixture of uncertain figures and theoretical generalisation. C.O. Grada on the 19th-century agricultural decline offers a piece that is amusingly written – and not all agricultural historians have a light touch – but which contains little that is substantially new. B. W. E. Alford on interwar industry is on ground which he himself has ploughed frequently before; the title shows that he is here bringing together his earlier work.

Many years ago T. S. Ashton referred to economic theory as the net with which the economic historian has to catch his fish: no net, no fish. But those of us teaching daily in this discipline also know that the material features of the past have to be made real to students. Too much talk of income may obscure the fact that it is an artificial concept, whereas a wheat crop, on which most people in 1700 were dependent, was something that the farmer could let run through his fingers to assess quality. Most students today in economic history courses cannot even identify the basic grains grown in the country, distinguish the weave of one textile from another, or even note the influence of terrain on the feasability of different types of transport. A book which discusses transport development as if ‘social saving’ were the only difference between canals and railways, or that has no index entry for ‘sail’, ‘worsted’, ‘potato’ or other of the basic material features of life for our ancestors, is not going to succeed in enabling a student to envisage the real world of the past. At one time economic history spent too much time on the shape of ploughs, and social history too much on the fantastic impact of railways. Now we tend to go too far in the other direction. Perhaps a compulsory visit to a folk museum or the railway museum at York should be demanded of all readers of these volumes. Somehow the teaching of economic history has to get across not only the basic economics of the past but its material features too. These twin books enormously help the analysis of development, but do not irrigate the imagination. There is not even a hint of the breakthrough from the narrow range of goods enjoyed by the mass of the population in the 18th century to the cheap but less elegant products of the 19th, and the further chemistry-based change into the contemporary world of synthetics, plastics and detergents. These volumes are splendidly helpful on the one aspect of the teaching of economic history, but frustrating on the other.

They also raise some problems even within the strictly economic aspect. Figures may sit on the page, but unless accompanied by a knowledge of how they have been arrived at, and what sort of margin for error must be assumed, they call for faith of a kind the historian is specifically trained not to offer. Professor Feinstein on capital accumulation shows how a pair of numbers can sum up an age, but to accept this summation we need to know the derivation of each in detail. This is said not to question whether he is right, but to reassert that all historical judgments must start from the primary evidence, and such numbers are a long way from such a starting-point. The presentation of evidence is a vital difference between the approach of the economist and of the historian. A sample of this aspect is the issue, here, of the so-called Macmillan gap. Von Tunzelman gives this airy nothing a local habitation and a name as an important inhibitor of development in the 1920s. Alford has, by contrast, the traditional economic historian’s view that the gap is an unproved allegation. It ought to have been possible, in the fifty years since the allegation that the gap existed was first made, for someone to have located it, or found it merely the smile on the Cheshire Cat, and to have written the answer up in terms which historians can assess.

Thinking in terms of economic theory has other limitations for the history student. The scattered chapters of social history, included here as a very junior partner, are weak, and seem to be so because social history has been outlined as those aspects of social history of significance to the economy. This is to leave out most of what has made the subject alive in the last fifteen years. Even where the pieces touch on the link topic of labour supply, preoccupation with the official economy distorts judgment. Pat Thane refers to married women in the later 19th century as people who ‘conventionally did not work’ – tacit acceptance of the interpretation of work as activity for which wages are paid. Similarly her analysis of the middle class in the mid-Victorian age calls it ‘a small group’, and lists the members – merchants, bankers, shipowners. But middle-classdom extended to other things than income-gathering: in attitudes and standards of living there are wives and children to be considered. An even more remarkable judgment in the income-generating sphere is the statement by Cairncross, on the expansion of the labour force in the 1950s by 1.55 million, that this ‘exaggerates the rate of expansion for if one takes male workers alone the increase...was no more than 3.5 per cent’. Surely labour is labour even if it comes to work in curlers and a skirt?

At its most theoretical, we step into areas which have little to do with history. T. Thomas offers pages of initial letters on Aggregate Demand, 1918-45’, sets out the Keynesian view in a diagram and asserts that the use of explicit models is one of the primary virtues of the new economic history. I am prepared to wager that this chapter proves the least read section of the two volumes. An excursion into another area of economic theory, by S.Howson, leads the author, while discussing the inter-war slump, to devote some paragraphs to the topic of whether all unemployment should be considered voluntary. At least the student who places himself on the labour market in the 1980s with a degree in economic history, and who is bound to have used this book intensively, will have a sound standard by which to evaluate such flights of fancy.