Roderick Floud, Jane Humphries, Paul Johnson, eds. The Cambridge Economic History of Modern Britain, Volume 1: 1700-1870. 2nd edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014. 505 pp. $54.99 (paper), ISBN 978-1-107-63143-4.
Reviewed by Tristan M. Stein (Centre for the Political Economies of International Commerce)
Published on H-Albion (June, 2016)
Commissioned by Jeffrey R. Wigelsworth
This volume offers a timely and accessible introduction to the current state of academic research on the economic history of Britain between about 1700 and 1870. As the editors emphasize, and as with the earlier editions of The Cambridge Economic History of Modern Britain, this is not a conventional textbook. Instead, chapters focus on topics where “research is moving ahead” in the study of the British economy during the period of the Industrial Revolution (p. xvi). The chapters are clearly written and the authors generally take care to explain key analytical and theoretical concepts to the reader. They further frame their chapters with respect to methodological challenges and historiographical debates so as to make their contributions intelligible to readers who do not have extensive background in the topic. Some chapters and sections are predictably more technical and data-driven than others and may prove a struggle for undergraduate readers who have not had exposure to economic history or to quantitative analysis. In general, however, the editors achieve their goal of crafting a volume that is “comprehensible to an intelligent lay audience” (p. xv). In so doing they offer a work that will be a convenient reference for scholars of British and economic history and a valuable introduction to the economic transformation of modern Britain for students.
The regular appearance of new editions of the Cambridge Economic History of Britain provides a convenient means to follow the developments in the field. The previous edition, which appeared in 2003, included chapters on the household economy and on industrial organization and structure. In this volume specific chapters on these topics are absent. Instead, these themes, like analysis of the contributions of women and children to Britain’s economy, are largely integrated into chapters on demographics and occupational structure (Leigh Shaw-Taylor and E. A. Wrigley), agriculture (Joyce Burnette), consumption (Sara Horrell), and labor markets and training (Patrick Wallis). Additional chapters survey new areas of exploration at the intersection of social and economic history, like that on nutrition and health by David Meredith and Deborah Oxley, or focus on issues that did not receive concentrated treatment in earlier editions, such as that on the regional dimensions and character of economic and industrial development by Nigel Goose. Gregory Clark and Neil Cummins, meanwhile, add an updated take on the optimist reading of the standard of living debate in a chapter that argues that inequality and social mobility remained constant or improved slightly during the period under study. The chapters on consumption and health, among others, offer a more pessimistic take on the impact of Britain’s economic transformation on the quality of life.
Whereas the chapters mentioned above illustrate and synthesize major developments and arguments in British economic history over the past decades, two general features of this volume stand out in comparison to its predecessors. First, this volume reveals growing interest in the influence of political institutions and, especially, economic ideologies on the development of the British economy. Five chapters--out of fifteen--focus directly or indirectly on the intellectual, cultural, and political contexts for economic change. Joel Mokyr offers a synopsis of his arguments regarding the industrial enlightenment and Britain’s culture of “progress,” while Julian Hoppit provides a welcome discussion of the relationship between political power and economic life between 1650 and 1870. Lecturers will probably find these two chapters particularly valuable for helping students understand the cultural and political frameworks of British industrialization. Anne Murphy’s chapter on the financial revolution and its consequences focuses on the relationship between state needs and Britain’s financial evolution, leaving detailed discussion of the development of Britain’s financial architecture to the relevant chapters in earlier editions, and proposes that the role of Britain’s evolving financial system in industrialization was larger and more positive than suggested by other historians. Dan Bogart’s chapter on the transport revolution focuses particularly on quantifying output and productivity growth in the transport sector, but further introduces the role of state intervention and regulation in the expansion of Britain’s transportation infrastructure. Finally, Roger E. Backhouse and Keith Tribe contribute a survey of the economic ideas that framed Britain’s eighteenth- and nineteenth-century economic history by exploring the emergence and development of British political economic thought through the period. This chapter offers the reader an accessible introduction to the development of classic British political economy but, unfortunately, does not incorporate recent reevaluations of the ideas and ideologies of early modern mercantilism.
Secondly, several chapters amply demonstrate the benefits of growing scholarly interest in approaching Britain’s economic history from an international perspective. Brian A'Hearn’s opening chapter effectively frames within a European and comparative context major themes and topics that feature through the volume. Nuala Zahedieh, meanwhile, brings a more global perspective to the volume in a chapter that summarizes the significant findings of several decades of research on the importance of overseas trade and empire for Britain’s economic development. Whereas historians once downplayed the significance of trade and empire for industrialization, both overseas trade and colonial settlement increasingly seem to have been critical for Britain’s economic transformation. The importance of such global contexts and influences is perhaps clearest in Robert Allen’s chapter on technology, which focuses on understanding the causes for technological innovation in Britain and particularly emphasizes the interplay between global economic competition and Britain’s high-wage economy in explaining British technological development and industrialization. An international and comparative perspective further informs other chapters in the volume, including those on agriculture and labor markets.
Although attention to the political and international contexts of industrialization illustrates the direction of current research, this volume does reveal the varying degrees of integration of these areas of study into British economic history. The international context that defines the volume is primarily European and, apart from the chapters by Allen and Zahedieh, the wider world is still largely missing. This is somewhat surprising considering the extent to which historians of Asia and Africa have shown that we can only fully appreciate the significance of overseas trade and empire on the economic histories of Britain and Europe if we approach those histories from a global perspective. The editors observe in the preface that newfound interest in economic ideologies stems partially from the financial crisis of 2008 and its aftermath: in the face of a globalized economy, how long can historians continue to study the economic development of Britain from a largely, if no longer entirely, insular and European perspective? Meanwhile, the volume does little to bring analysis of the economic impact of trade and empire into dialogue with consideration of the political and intellectual dimensions of British industrialization. The chapters on the financial revolution, overseas trade, political power, and ideas about political economy all point to significant advances in British economic history. The reader would benefit, however, from better understanding the relationship between these topics. Sven Beckert’s recent global history of cotton demonstrates the potential for more thoroughly integrating economic, political, and social history within a global and imperial setting. Hopefully the next edition of the volume will show that scholars have integrated economic ideologies, political institutions, and global perspectives into the economic history of Britain as thoroughly and successfully as they have absorbed the contributions of social history.
Overall, this edition of The Cambridge Economic History of Modern Britain captures the current state of research on the transformation of the British economy between 1700 and 1870. As its chapters show, long-standing debates about the nature and timing of British industrialization will continue. Shaw-Taylor and Wrigley, for example, emphasize that understanding how eighteenth-century Britain overcame the ecological and demographic constraints that led to stagnation in other advanced, pre-industrial economies, like the Netherlands, rests on appreciating Britain’s technological advances in the latter half of the century, a view which “permits a partial return to a more traditional view of the industrial revolution” (p. 86). The editors do not seek agreement on such points among the chapter authors and thus provide the reader with a view of scholarly debate and disagreement. It is, however, in seeking to analyze British industrialization in a more fully international context and, particularly, in incorporating new work on the political, intellectual, and cultural underpinnings of industrialization that this work stands out. By making plain such avenues for further inquiry and research, this volume shows how fresh perspectives continue to enrich understanding of the economic history of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Britain. As we experience another period of dramatic technological, social, and economic change in an interconnected world, the relevance of this history and importance of these new perspectives is evident.
. Sophus A. Reinert, Translating Empire: Emulation and the Origins of Political Economy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011); and Philip J. Stern and Carl Wennerlind, eds., Mercantilism Reimagined: Political Economy in Early Modern Britain and its Empire (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014).
. Sven Beckert, Empire of Cotton: A New History of Global Capitalism (New York: Vintage Books, 2014).
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Tristan M. Stein. Review of Floud, Roderick; Humphries, Jane; Johnson, Paul, eds., The Cambridge Economic History of Modern Britain, Volume 1: 1700-1870. 2nd edition.
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