I have been reading David Cannadine's new survey of 19th century Britain, the first I've read since A Level History half a century ago. 19th century Britain doesn't seem to have changed much, but of course I have: we see things differently now. These were the things that struck me this time round – and they are relevant to the perpetual struggle, especially in the epoch of Brexit, to define our future by reference to our past.
1. Britain's economic dominance came earlier than one thinks - and it was astounding
During the early 19th century Britain became the first, and for a while, the only industrial power on Earth, that is, with widespread use of steam-powered machinery. The drivers behind this were various. Technological innovation, of course: but also the agricultural revolution of the late 18th century, the rapid population growth that it sustained (the population rose 50% between 1750 and 1800 and then doubled again by 1850) , a world trading empire (by 1815, an astonishing 1 in 5 of the world population were within the British dominions), backed by global naval supremacy and the first global capital market in the City (overseas investment increased five fold from 1800 to 1850). Nor were goods and capital the only exports: in the 1850s over 2 million Britons (including many starved Irish) emigrated, mostly to North America and the Antipodes, founding an Anglophonia that persist today.
The bare figures of Britain's economic dominance by mid-century are astounding. Britain produced half the world's coal, half the world's iron, consumed half the world's cotton. Britain had more miles of railway than France and what would later become Germany together. Per capita GDP was two-thirds bigger than in what would later become Germany. Britain accounted for nearly two thirds of the worlds shipping. London was the biggest city on Earth.
As I suspect is often the case, we reached our apogee almost before we fully realised it.
2. But it didn't last long, and by 1890 we were on the defensive
The technological innovation of the early industrial revolution occurred first here. But other countries soon caught up in volume – the USA surpassed us in steel production in the 1890s, Germany by 1900. By 1914 we were producing half as much steel as Germany – and a quarter as much as the USA. By the 1890s voices were heard urging that protectionism replace our national religion of free trade – sure sign, then as now, of a country on the defensive. More seriously still, other countries seemed more adept at subsequent waves of technological innovation: the car and the air plane were developed in Germany and the USA respectively. Britain continued to do well in pure science: but other countries were pulling ahead in applied science. Thus began the long, sad story of our amateurism, under-investment in skills and failure to apply new technology, which persist to this today (1).
3. 'Imperialism' came late in the century and seemed a bit irrational, even then
It is striking attitudes to 'empire' changed during the century. In the first half, the focus was on trade, not land. Indeed, successive Foreign Secretaries struggled to prevent local enthusiasts from conquering bits of the world on their own account (not easy, before the global telegraph network). Thus Napier in Sindh, Raffles in Singapore, Ellenborough in China, Dalhousie in Burma. In London, such adventures were often seen as regrettable, merely adding to administrative and military expense. In 1829, the entire staff of the Foreign Office was 28 – including a Turkish interpreter (2). Britain was a great naval power, but kept its land army small.
But as the century progressed, enlargement of Imperial dominion became an end in itself, reinforced by the fear that other burgeoning imperial powers would grab the bits still vacant, or even threaten existing British possessions – Russia in India and Afghanistan, later the French and Germans in Africa. In 1876, Victoria may have become 'Empress of India' in part out of pique at the crowning of a German Emperor. By the end of the century, 'the Empire' was a source of pride, but also of great anxiety, for example the threat of defeat at the hands of Boer guerillas. In 1902 Britain was obliged to agree joint Anglo-Japanese naval supremacy in the East, to see off the German and French naval threats. The Empire had become an encumbrance we could not afford to defend. Thus, our imperial decline began very early, as was felt imminent as early as 1900 (3).
4. What we did in Ireland was an atrocity
By 1800 Scotland and Wales were docile junior partners in 'Great Britain'. Ireland was another matter (4). A profoundly Catholic people had never made sense as part of a profoundly Protestant nation - always alien, always suspect, always repressed, rising with French help against the British Crown in the Revolutionary Wars. The Dublin Parliament was suppressed in 1801. Granted, the penal laws, which stopped Catholics even practising their religion and excluded them from society in many ways, were gradually relaxed from the late 18th century onwards, but always slowly, and against staunch opposition in Britain. 'Coercion Acts', a generic title for Acts to suppress basic liberties and rights in Ireland, were passed again and again throughout the century. Britain held Ireland by force.
Arguably the most important event in the domestic history of the United Kingdom in the 19th century was the Great Famine. The immediate cause was potato blight: but absentee landlords, rapid population growth, a history of Catholic landlessness, brutal mass evictions and and protectionism were all contributory factors. There was charitable help from England, and the whole world. But Government aid was inadequate: the official in charge, Charles Trevelyan, limited aid because it offended his belief in laissez faire: and because "the judgement of God sent the calamity to teach the Irish a lesson, that calamity must not be too much mitigated . . . the real evil with which we have to contend is not the physical evil of the Famine but the moral evil of ...the people ". In fact, there was no 'famine', strictly speaking: there was always surplus food in Ireland: and English absentee landlords continued to export it in huge amounts throughout the 'Famine' (4). Not 'famine' but human-contrived starvation (5).
A million men, women and children starved to death or died of disease induced by starvation. A million, in the richest country on Earth. Another million were forced to emigrate. England's very own Holomodor. Is it any surprise that the century ended with Irish terrorism, forerunner of bitter civil war in the next century, the terrorism of our own times, and the still unresolved issue of a partitioned Ireland?
5. Enterprise made Britain wealthy; State intervention made it civilised
Britain in the early 19th century would strike us now as essentially Third World, especially in the newly industrialized cities which just grew up higgledy piggledy around the new factories. Stinking open sewers and middens in the street, no safe water supply, the streets dark at night, no police, rampant theft and robbery. In 1858, the Thames stank so of untreated sewage that Parliament had to be hung with heavy curtains soaked in lime chloride. Workers were housed in over-crowded, shambolic, disease-ridden slums, and kept going on massive qualities of gin. Drinking shops and brothels abounded. Many children had no education, and worked incredibly long hours in dangerous factories and mines that killed or maimed them. Cholera, typhus and dysentery was rife. Life expectancy in the 1840s was very short indeed: in Manchester, just 28 years, in Liverpool, 27, less for the poor. Cannadine concludes that in industrialised towns, the 1840s were the worst for life expectancy since the Black Death!
By the end of the century Britain was recognisable as a civilised country. Much of that change was down to State intervention and regulation and public services. Factories Acts limited the hours children could work , made factories safer, and established an Inspectorate to check compliance. Education Acts ensured children got some education, at public expense, in publicly run schools. The Sale of Food and Drugs Act made food safer. Licensing Acts limited opening hours, protected the young, repressed public drunkenness (and prevented the adulteration of beer). The Artisan Dwellings Act enabled local authorities to clear slums and build safe public housing. The Municipal Corporations Act replaced corrupt and ramshackled local corporations of the 18th century and created the structure of proud, well funded local government that did so much for Victorian Britain: built proud Town Halls, libraries, schools and public housing, and supplied safe water, sewage. education, street lighting and police.
Studying the past often tells us more about ourselves, now, than about them, then.
I am struck now by how unthinking, unquestioning I was at 17. Despite the best education, I did not worry much about what 'Empire' actually meant. I was happy in the warm bath of British Providentialism – well not warm, by then tepid, but still not cold enough to force me to get out of – the idea that History with a capital H has a special destiny marked out for Britain and 'meant' Britain to rule large chunks of the world. I just thought of Imperialism as something we did, and thank God were better at than everyone else, and that by and large we did good. I was clever but stupid.
Now, of course, I see that attacking other peoples and occupying their country is wrong, and cannot be excused by doing some good along the way. Yet I am not one who thinks that by measuring the past against today's values, we can simply dismiss as 'wrong' the bits that do not measure up. For no epoch fully measures up to those values – including the present itself, needless to say. And what sense does it make to condemn, say, the civilisation of 5th century Greece because it was founded on slavery? Should Rome have stayed within its city boundaries and forsworn all conquests? What possible sense can history make if read in that way? And I admit to being further perplexed by the fact that my grandfather was a British official in imperial India, where he built the railways that made 'India' and ran them safely and sternly combatted endemic corruption. He was no Nazi, for me to be ashamed of. In short, I am less sure than ever what to make of our imperial past. That probably counts as progress.
I am also struck afresh by the delusion of modern British nostalgia. Our relative decline industrially and economically dates back a century and half. By 1940, we could not afford to fight the War, could not make half the equipment we needed, could not make at all some of the technology we invented, and so we relied utterly on American money, industry and technology. To see Boris Johnson wax lyrical about British know-how and Victorian entrepreneurialism and what a great trading nation we are and the spirit of 1940, 'we stand alone' etc is to stare unbelievingly at an idiot about to step off a cliff while loudly boasting how well he can fly. It is the sort of hubris that must be punished. Perhaps, in a sense, the British now 'need' the self knowledge of defeat that the French and Germans got in spades in WW2. But that would we be capable of using that knowledge? I suspect we will just hate foreigners even more.
The main lesson from this book is surely the one that I believe all history teaches us: the futility and wrong headedness of looking back to some imagined Golden Age as the model for what we should do now, today. There was no settled, unchanging Golden Age. The past, when it was being lived, was never secure, there was always uncertainty, anxiety: invasion scares in the 1800s, rural unrest and violence in the 1820, the threat of violent urban revolution in the 1840s, fear that extending the franchise would destabilise Britain, and later, violent resistance and terrorism in Ireland (and by the Irish in England), mass immigration from Eastern Europe, the Empire under threat from foreign powers, the threat to British naval supremacy from Germany, industrial unrest and radicalism at home.
The challenges of the present are different, to which the past cannot hold pre-prepared answers, and which can only be tackled by working out our own salvation afresh now, as best we can, based on what we value, how we think we should live, in short, what we would like our future history to be.
1. Wonderfully analysed in Corelli Barnett's coruscating 'Pride and fall' sequence
2. Today, 14, 000
3. Kipling's 'Recessional', published in 1897, captures that mood:
Far-called, our navies melt away;
On dune and headland sinks the fire:
Lo, all our pomp of yesterday
Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!
4. The language of statehood makes this clear. Ireland was not part of 'Great Britain' but of 'the United Kingdom', as is still the case with Northern Ireland.
5. It has been asserted that in the worst year of the Famine, Ireland exported about 4 million litres of butter to England: http://www.jrbooksonline.com/PDF_Books/irish.pdf
6. Shaw, 'Man and superman':
Malone: Me father died of starvation in Ireland in the black 47. Maybe you've heard of it.
Violet: The Famine?
Malone: No, the starvation. When a country is full of food, and exporting it, there can be no famine.
I was formerly Finance Director of the Prison Service and then Director of the National Offender Management Service responsible for competition. I also worked in the NHS and an IT company. I later worked for two outsourcing companies.
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