The industrial revolution was the turning point in global history…
William Hogarth, The Fellow ‘Prentices at their Looms, 1747 (detail)
Much as they might wish it were otherwise, politicians and their economists never get to write on a blank page. Choices made by their predecessors shape the range of options available to them. Marx wrote that “men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-elected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.” Which is really just a fancy way of telling the old joke about the tourist asking for directions and being told “I wouldn’t start from here.”
Those making choices about the direction of Britain’s political economy in 2021 are working in a 200-year-old tradition of economic liberalism that is almost hardwired into our institutions. That is not to say the economy can never be shunted off these tracks, just that doing so is far trickier than generally assumed—which might be why so many previous attempts at a fundamental reset have failed.
If you want to grasp the course of British economic—and indeed political—history, the essential starting point is that Britain was the first country to industrialise in a meaningful and widespread manner. The industrial revolution was the turning point in global history, the point at which technology opened up a path to a future—far in the distance at first—where life would no longer be nasty, brutish and short for most people. Along with the dark satanic mills came many social problems as well as great riches for the few. But so too did it see the first stirrings of sustained economic growth at the sort of rate that would, for the first time ever, translate into improvements in living standards, wealth and longevity that could be felt within a single human life.
The fact it happened first in Britain was a historical accident, but a crucial one. It made the country richer, faster and more confident than its neighbours. It allowed what was, in the grand scheme of things, a reasonably small island nation off the coast of Europe to capture an outsized global role and rule the largest empire the Earth has ever seen.
Unless one believes that there is something innately special about the inhabitants of these islands, however, such a lead could never be maintained forever: others were bound to look at what we had achieved and imitate, adapt and improve on it. In the bigger picture, the economic history of Britain since the mid 19th century is, inevitably, a history of relative economic decline.
Frontpage image: Read & Co. Engravers & Printers, View from the Knightsbridge Road of The Crystal Palace in Hyde Park for Grand International Exhibition of 1851 (detail)