Half a century beyond its publication in 1958, W H B Court's A Concise Economic History of Britain now makes truly fascinating reading. Its subtitle, From 1750 to Recent Times, is somewhat misleading, perhaps deliberately vague, since the book avoids crossing the Second World War divide into the author's own era, perhaps in an attempt to avoid becoming embroiled in contemporary politics. How many authors, writing a similar text today, would exercise such caution?
It was just after 1750 that the jewel of India was added to the British crown, creating an empire out of existing opportunism. Twenty years later, the future jewel of the North America colonies embarked upon their revolution and split with the old country, at least politically, if not economically. Twenty years on again saw Britain embark on yet another war with France. It was a war that lasted a generation and then, apart from a couple of minor tiffs far away from home, such as Crimea and South Africa, there was a hundred years of peace. The Great War bankrupted the British people, and the nation's economy, it seems, never did fully recover.
W H B Court uses this broad structure of historical narrative to set a framework for his history. Each segment of the era is then dissected into its salient parts as the author considers the contemporary state of foreign trade, manufacturing, banking and investment, agriculture, and the general social setting. War inevitably set different priorities from peace, and the changes imposed on economic life by those different demands are admirably described and comprehensively contextualised in the book.
But this economic history also looks back beyond 1750 to the seventeenth century revolution and the creation of the Poor Laws in Elizabethan times. Cromwell, the Parliament and the Civil War are largely missing from the account, perhaps implying that the writer's view is that this particular conflict's contribution to the nation's economic history was negligible. There are other possible interpretations.
It is W H B Court's attention to detail, however, that makes this book such an interesting as well as informative read. If anyone is in any doubt about just how short-lived some famous economic activities might have been, then this book will also surprise. Even at the height of British economic ascendancy, we are only looking at annual growth of around 3.4%. Much of the late eighteenth century and early nineteenth century growth possibly stemmed from the demand of a growing population. Despite common parlance ascribing the growth of the industrial towns to employment decline in the rural areas, Court reminds us that the number of people employed in agriculture during the period in question was roughly static.
And we all forget that the only king in Britain during its period of economic power was cotton, since the commodity and manufactures deriving from it dominated the nation's trade. We also forget that the industry was built on technological advantage born of innovation, and it began its decline as soon as other countries began to build up their own technological base.
The almost constant and eventually severe decline in Britain's fortunes that had begun by the time of the First World War and continued apace in subsequent decades is admirably charted. What the book does not examine in any detail are possible explanations for this decline. But throughout Britain's history, it was the contribution of invisibles to the economy that usually repainted a poor picture into better shape. Times do not always change. The bottom line, it seems, can always be used to hide a trend.
Books such as W H B Court's A Concise Economic History of Britain may not often attract the casual reader. But anyone who has the slightest interest in political economy would benefit from and surely enjoy at least a dip into this volume. There is not much here that is either new or different, and certainly nothing that is sensational, but the book's detail and clarity are nothing less than vivid.