Foundations of Economic Growth – lessons from pre-industrial Britain – part 1

Among the several books I’m reading is one titled “The Social and Economic History of Britain (1760 – 1965)” by Pauline Gregg, which I picked up at the local bookstore over a year ago. It seems it was initially published as “Modern Britain: A social and economic history since 1760” [amazon copy here ]

As pleasure in reading goes, the beginning is not that interesting. But as the story progresses, it get’s rather animated. And revealing. Having been published in 1965,it also doesn’t look that appealing in terms of aesthetics, unless a hardback is something that tickles your fancy. But as they say, do not judge a book by its cover.

Yet this book is more informative than first appears, and references to a critical period of the Industrial revolution, when Britain was rising to cement its place as a great world power, its empire as the largest in the history of mankind, its economy as one of the biggest and most resilient.
Thus like many others who have an appetite to properly understand how economies develop (or more accurately in my case – how it was triggered in Britain),I’m inclined to share some of its contents.

Firstly the book acknowledges that every nation develops differently. In some its slow – occurring over centuries, in others, its revolutionary, noticeable over a lifetime.

But before I dig into it further, there’s a summary that encapsulates the content which I’d like to begin with:

Eighteenth-century Britain was still far from being a country of capitalist enterprise. In only one of the three parts of the country in which the woollen industry was located had the capitalist form developed on a large scale. Cotton was in an intermediate stage. The iron and coal industries employed comparatively few people, and other capitalist enterprises were not typical. The agricultural interest was still dominant, and the handicraftsman was more important than the industrial or commercial capitalist.
It was not until the second half of the eighteenth century that the change towards large-scale industry quickened, becoming so rapid as to appear revolutionary. A number of interconnected causes produced this acceleration. There was a growth of population, creating an increased demand for goods. There was improved transport, making possible the carrying of finished commodities to markets and raw materials to centres of production. There were the great mechanical inventions, new materials, and improved chemical processes, which quickened and cheapened production. It is useless to try to assign priority to any of these factors; together they comprised the Industrial Revolution

They are building an airport city in Manchester

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Someone please remind me again why I live in this city

Most readers will probably not know that Manchester is quite an experimental city. The first free electric intercity metroshuttle buses in the UK began operating in Manchester. Manchester is set to have a 100MBps fibre optic network corridor interconnecting homes, businesses and universities along the famous Oxford Road. Manchester is home to one of a handful of Fablabs [small-scale workshop offering (personal) digital fabrication] across the world, complete with 3-D printers and such kit, an outfit that helps innovators seamlessly bring their ideas to life. Manchester is now home to Media City, the home of the BBC, a futuristic Media installation that is undeniably as state of the art as it gets. It was in Manchester that Graphene was first successfully isolated in 2004, at the University of Manchester, (and the scientists who discovered it won the Nobel Prize in Physics), and the invention (touted a ‘miracle material‘ and the next big thing) is set to transform technology in ways never imagined before. Beetham Tower, which is home to the Hilton hotel, restaurants and apartments was the tallest building in the UK outside London when it was completed in 2006, and is currently the tallest residential building in the UK. Manchester was the first city in the UK to get a modern light rail tram system when the Manchester Metrolink opened in 1992. Manchester will introduce a water taxi service between Manchester city centre and MediaCityUK at Salford Quays, the only one of its type in the UK. And now, they are building an Airport city, right next to the airport:

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If you want to do something new and fresh to your town and city, or if you want to push the boundaries, you should look to Manchester, because the chances are, if it’s not been done around here before, it’s either not worth doing, or is about to be done.

At this point I must state the obvious. Yes, you saw it coming, here it goes: Manchester is also home to two of football’s greatest clubs (and recently a National Football Museum), although we can probably argue about the ‘greatest’ bit forever, since curiously enough, despite my unashamed infatuation with this city, I happen to be an Arsenal fan :-).

Oh, and Manchester is the third-most visited city in the UK by foreign visitors, after London and Edinburgh.

But that’s not even half of what makes this city great…

As with most things, it didn’t just start yesterday. Anthony Burgess, Manchester born writer and composer (best known for  A Clockwork Orange), recalled in his autobiography published in 1986 how London “was an exercise in condescension. London was a day behind Manchester in the arts, in commercial cunning, in economic philosophy” For Burgess, Manchester was the real deal. And I think he had a point. This city, in the somewhat narrow frame of liberty in which its officials have been allowed to operate has been a pioneer for many years. During the industrial revolution, German writers and scientists came to Manchester, to observe first hand what these things called ‘factories’ were. With cotton mills springing up everywhere across Manchester, the city’s economy boomed, and created wealth for the industrialists. Manchester became the world first industrialised city, not least because of the textile factories and the Port of Manchester. During this time, it was dubbed ‘Cottonpolis’. Despite the city’s reliance on cotton, and the ‘pro-slavery spirit of America‘ which Sarah Redmond, a free African American Activist and Abolishionist talked about in 1859 when she visited to raise awareness about slavery, the pioneering spirit of Manchester soon had a welcome outcome: In 1862, Lancashire mill workers, at great personal sacrifice,took a principled stand by refusing to touch raw cotton picked by US slaves.

With the cotton industry on its knees, [President] Lincoln acknowledged the self-sacrifice of the ‘working men of Manchester’ in a letter he sent them in 1863. Lincoln’s words – later inscribed on the pedestal of his statue that can still be found in Lincoln Square, Manchester – praised the workers for their selfless act of “sublime Christian heroism, which has not been surpassed in any age or in any country.

P1050639The dynamism didn’t stop there, in 1821 the Manchester Guardian was founded.

It will zealously enforce the principles of civil and religious Liberty, it will warmly advocate the cause of Reform; it will endeavour to assist in the diffusion of just principles of Political Economy. – Prospectus outlining  the aims of the Guardian [Spartacus]

In 1878 the GPO (which became British Telecom, the telecommunications giant BT) provided its first telephones to a firm in Manchester. The world’s first stored program-computer was built in Manchester, at the Victoria University of Manchester by Frederic C. Williams, Tom Kilburn and Geoff Tootill, and ran its first program on 21 June 1948.

And it’s not just inventions and infrastructure that defined the city’s dynamism. Manchester has also been home to some great minds including the Chemist and Physicist John Dalton, Physicist J. J. Thompson, Engineer and Philanthropist Joseph Whitworth, and the Textile Merchant and philanthropist John Rylands.

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels began to write the Communist Manifesto at Chetham Library (the oldest public library in the English-speaking world) in Manchester. As Luke Bainbridge of the Guardian puts it:

This is the home of the industrial revolution and the city that split the atom, the birthplace of the computer and the Guardian, the suffragette movement, the free trade movement, the co-operative movement, the anti-corn law league, vegetarianism, the nation’s first free library, the world’s first intercity railway and the engine room of rock’n’roll that has produced the country’s best bands of the past 30 years, from Joy Division to Take That. 

Basically, without Manchester, and a lot of its creativity, innovation and history, it’s quite likely that much of the world as we know it wouldn’t be where it is today. Certainly not in the shape that we know. We’d probably still be in the dark ages. Or worse. 😉

And that thought alone, whether you agree with it or think it is far-fetched, is enough reason to learn from what this city has achieved, and continues to achieve.

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