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In the late 19th century, Britain’s economy was supreme. It held a position in the world almost impossible to imagine today, fulfilling the late 20th-century roles of the US as global centre of finance, of China as dominant export manufacturer, and of Saudi Arabia as the world’s largest net exporter of energy — all rolled into one. And even this is an understatement. While China’s share of global manufactured exports in 2018 was 13 per cent, Britain’s in 1870 was 40 per cent.
Given the sheer magnitudes involved, one would think that such facts would be common knowledge among the wider public. Yet for all the popular history published about, say, Anne Boleyn’s third cousin thrice-removed, books that outline the fundamental forces of British history — the tectonic economic changes beyond any individual’s or even government’s control — are surprisingly rare.
Thankfully, Duncan Weldon has written just such a book. He pans out from the trees we’ve become so accustomed to squinting at to show us a vast, wild and unpredictable wood. Here is the history that really matters, from which the political rigmarole of Westminster, of campaign slogans and briefings, is all simply downstream.
Two Hundred Years of Muddling Through outlines the contours of Britain’s changing economic landscape, covering the essential topics from the 1800s through to today — from the Corn Laws to Brexit, with the not-so-roaring 1920s and the rise and fall of organised labour between. He touches only briefly on the causes of Britain’s 19th century economic hegemony, but that is not the focus of the book.
Broadly speaking, it is the story of how that hegemony was suddenly squandered — a twist that takes place halfway through, with Britain’s grip on global finance and export markets all sacrificed to the first world war — and how our policymakers ever since have been bounced from frying pan to fire and back again, doing all they can to survive the global forces beyond their control.
With a talent for cutting through the parochial, journalistic narratives of even the most recent events, Weldon, a journalist with The Economist, reveals the deeper forces at play behind the scenes of any individual political successes or failure.
The Suez Crisis, for example, was not precipitated by mere politics. The military campaign against Egypt was in fact highly successful. But Britain’s economic hegemony had long since gone. The plates had shifted, and the countless political and economic decisions of decades prior had come to bite. Britain, having once been creditor to the world, its capital flowing abroad to build the railways to span continents, and the factories to make them, was by 1956 entirely beholden to the US for its financial system to stay afloat. America, now holding the purse strings, forced Britain to withdraw.
For at least its latter half then, the book’s title is accurate. It does become a story of muddling through, with even the boldest of political entrepreneurs who forged new coalitions — think Attlee or Thatcher — finding their ideological projects constrained by economic reality. Ideas are given relatively short shrift, though Weldon is not wholly dismissive. He describes how developments in economic understanding could change how, exactly, politicians’ muddling was done. Regarding the decision to give up on keeping to the gold standard in 1931, for example, he quotes the dismay of a minister who had put the country through severe austerity to do anything but — “no one told us we could do that”.
So Weldon gives the likes of John Maynard Keynes and Milton Friedman their due. But he prefers to use the lens of political economy: how economic forces such as globalisation or industrialisation changed the structure of the political system — who votes, and for whom — and how the constraints imposed by those political forces had an impact on the economy.
Weldon is as comprehensive as he can be in so short and readable a book. It is almost a textbook in disguise, introducing many of the key concepts and jargon from economic history. Only rarely does the disguise slip, as when he takes on the unenviable task of outlining the difference between the capital and current accounts — something he need not have done, if aiming purely to entertain. And it could have occasionally done with some charts: there are only so many statistics a paragraph can take unaided.
Yet, by being comprehensive, Weldon has written the essential beginners’ guide for anyone who wishes to understand Britain’s history and politics, let alone its economy today. For all the politicians’ promises of recovery or boom, the trend of the past hundred years is still the same: we’re still very much muddling through.
Two Hundred Years of Muddling Through: The Surprising Story of the British Economy by Duncan Weldon, Little, Brown £20, 352 pages
Anton Howes is a historian of invention, and author of ‘Arts and Minds: How the Royal Society of Arts Changed a Nation’
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