Economic History in Britain

The ‘first industrial nation’

Authored by: Pat Hudson

Routledge Handbook of Global Economic History

Print publication date:  December  2015
Online publication date:  December  2015

Print ISBN: 9781138838031
eBook ISBN: 9781315734736
Adobe ISBN:


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This chapter considers how and why particular sorts of knowledge, and methods of enquiry, have come to the fore in economic history in Britain. There are some detailed studies already of the evolution of the subject, especially up to the 1980s (Harte 1971; Coleman 1987; Kadish 1989; Hudson 2001, 2003). Here, we bring the story up to date and provide an analysis of the political, social, cultural and economic forces that have made economic history in Britain different from that practised elsewhere. Some of these forces relate to Britain’s peculiar historical trajectory: the early rise of a centralised fiscal–military nation state; the impact of Scottish enlightenment writers; the response to early and drawn-out processes of industrialisation and urbanisation; the position and needs of the nation in global industry, trade and finance; the imperatives and attitudes of a major imperial power in rise and decline; and the influence of changing British political and economic policy priorities. To these one must add the distinctive intellectual position of economic history in Britain: how it arose from parent disciplines that have travelled different methodological roads. The degree of exposure and openness of the subject to approaches and ideas from outside Britain is also important. The geographical, imperial and political position of Britain in the past century and a half has made the country particularly accessible to intellectual exchanges. However, as we shall see, external ideas can be rejected or misunderstood and their reception is affected by the absence of translation, or translation bias. They are also adapted to and moulded by, as well as combined with, existing traditions to produce particular hybrids. Finally, our analysis includes more serendipitous factors such as the zeal, career development, rivalries and early deaths of particular individuals.

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