Thoughts on the New Economic History

David Cannadine

  • 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 Population History of England 1541-1871: A Reconstruction by E.A. Wrigley
    Edward Arnold, 779 pp, £45.00, October 1982, ISBN 0 7131 6264 3
  • The Decline of British Economic Power since 1870 by M.W. Kirby
    Allen and Unwin, 211 pp, £15.00, June 1981, ISBN 0 04 942169 7
  • The Coming of the Mass Market 1850-1914 by Hamish Fraser
    Macmillan, 268 pp, £16.00, February 1982, ISBN 0 333 31034 9

The covers of two of these books display very similar views of Manchester, the ‘shock city’ of early 19th-century England. One is for 1836 and the other for 1851, and both embody a familiar picture of the Industrial Revolution: of factories pouring out goods, and chimneys belching forth smoke; of burgeoning exports, spiralling output and rising productivity; and of improved land, unceasing labour, accumulating capital and inspired enterprise. Here is an epic drama: Coketown in the making, the workshop of the world in operation, and the factors of production in fertile fusion. Taken together, these two illustrations project an image of the Industrial Revolution as an heroic happening, characterised by vigour, energy, inventiveness and courage, or (depending on your point of view) by exploitation, cruelty, avarice and shame. Either way, to look at these pictures, to visualise the events which they capture for a moment, and to imagine what is required to render such changes historically comprehensible, is to see at once why Floud and McCloskey claim that ‘economic history is an exciting subject.’

Or is it? Undeniably, in the years from the mid-1950s to the early 1970s, economic history was exciting, as an ever-expanding army of scholars, stirred by the theories of development economists, and buoyed up by the apparent successes of the post-war welfare state, turned with relish to Britain’s industrial past, partly to test and refine the grand generalisations of Toynbee, the Hammonds, Clapham and Ashton, and partly to see what (if any) guidelines that past might yield for those who wished to transform the Sahara Desert of the present into the Sunset Boulevard of the future. As a result, the Economic History Review scintillated with provocative, seminal and wide-ranging articles, many of them nurtured and inspired by that most creatively entrepreneurial of editors, M.M. Postan. Major controversies, such as the storm over the gentry and the standard of living debate, were fought within its pages, as the protagonists assailed each other like Punch and Judy – with a great deal of punching, if rather less judiciousness. And a wide variety of substantive problems – the growth of population, capital accumulation, home and overseas demand, technological change and innovation – were identified, investigated and then synthesised in a new generation of late Sixties textbooks which remained the last word for undergraduates until the appearance of Floud and McCloskey’s volumes.

Since then, the wheel has turned again, as these second-generation generalisations have themselves been further tested and refined. But the scrutiny to which they have been subjected has been fundamentally altered by the emergence of the ‘New Economic History’, which rose to prominence in the United States in the late 1960s, and which has profoundly shifted the subject’s status, from being a client of history to a vassal of economics. The two most famous works in this genre were both written by Robert Fogel, who was thus established as midwife and guru, entrepreneur and high priest, of this new cult. The first, Railroads and American Economic Growth, was an audaciously-conceived study which cut the iron horse so emphatically down to size, by exploring a hypothetical late 19th-century American economy without railways, that some critics wondered whether Professor Fogel himself was any longer on the rails. The second, Time on the Cross, was a co-authored, revisionist investigation into the economics of the American slave experience, which made many people angry at the time by suggesting that slaves did not fare as badly on the Ante-Bellum plantations as had generally been supposed. Both these books were bold and brash, trumpeting their new methodology with such messianic zeal and impassioned conviction that it seemed only a matter of time before old-fashioned economic historians became the hand-loom weavers of their generation – doomed to sad decline and slow extinction.

From the beginning, this ‘New Economic History’ was characterised by a distrust of literary and impressionistic evidence, by a heavy reliance on quantitative data elaborately manipulated and computed, by the explicit and widespread employment of economic theory, by the careful specification and testing of hypotheses, and by the use of the counterfactual technique, which required imagining how an economy would have evolved if certain specified ‘factors’ had not actually been there – a sophisticated version of the ‘If Napoleon had won the Battle of Waterloo’ school of history. Old-fashioned economic history was condemned for its unsystematic and unscientific marshalling of unreliable data; the new discipline ardently aspired simultaneously to bring economic standards of logic to history and historical standards of fact to economics; and its practitioners spoke with relish of having ‘captured’ the Journal of Economic History and moulded it to their new creed. The military metaphor well reflected the embattled and belligerent status of the ‘New Economic Historians’ who soon found themselves waging war on two fronts: crusading against the infidel without, and quarrelling among themselves within. And the weapons with which these battles were fought were fashioned in the white-hot heat of the Sixties technological revolution. The solitary scholar-gladiator of old, replete with lance and trident, was replaced by a new model army of research assistants, computer experts and applied economists who, under the guidance of a lab-coated field-marshal, launched massive bombardments with all the scholarly firepower (and some of the strategic futility) of a Somme offensive.

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