Why Did Britain Industrialise First?
And why does the Department for Education care so much about it?
Hey there 👋🏻
Let's start today by going back to that tantalisingly brief snippet about industrialisation in the National Curriculum for History:
“Britain as the first industrial nation – the impact on society.”
It's clear, then, that industrialisation has become a canonical topic for British children because the powers-that-be feel that this is an achievement of particular note. That Britain was the FIRST nation to industrialise deserves a special mention (and a clap and a bow 👏🏻)
A problem with this Britain-first focus is that it sets up industrialisation as a race. It makes us think that lots of countries were trying to do it and that Britain got there first.
Although I love the idea of world nations competing in the economic equivalent of an 18th-century egg and spoon race 🥚🥄 it (sadly) didn't happen that way.
I think a lot of this BRITAIN DID IT FIRST stuff is rooted in the colonial mindset. While Britain is no longer the colonial power that it once was, that mindset is still prominent among many groups of British society. When I first heard about the government's new policy of sending people seeking asylum to Rwanda, that patriotic, colonial arrogance was STRONG: "Britain couldn't possibly share her resources with you because you're not
white special enough." More and more, members of government are sounding like officers of the East India Company.
What's also worth remembering is that people weren't hanging around in the early 18th century and saying things like, "Gosh, John, the economy feels stale, doesn't it? We could really do with industrialising!”
Just as there wasn't a race, there wasn't a 'plan' to transform the economy from being agricultural to becoming industrial.
And because there wasn't a plan, there wasn't a specified list of things that needed to happen for industrialisation to take place. John wasn't standing around with a clipboard, ticking off activities. (As much as it amuses me to think that happened).
It was much, much later that economic historians looked back and realised that certain things or conditions needed to exist for industrialisation to begin. (Remember: industrialisation was a process, not a revolution). And because it was a process, these things didn't happen in a particular order. They all came into being and coexisted at different times and in different ways.
🥕 Some of those things include innovative ways to grow more food. Historians call this the Agricultural Revolution. (You remember *that* turnip lesson, right?) Food is vital for the growing workforce.
💷 Finance was also required for investors to innovate, not just in agriculture but across the economy. Without a banking system, inventors couldn't finance their new creations and companies couldn't loan the money to buy and install them. Finance was also a prerequisite for the new factories and workshops.
(Some historians argue that 'the spirit of entrepreneurialism' was another prerequisite for British industrialisation but all humans are born with the innate desire to create. It isn't a British thing. Again, I think that smacks of the colonial mindset).
Because we tend to view industrialisation as being uniquely British, we also tend to forget that Britain was already heavily involved in trade with other nations in the early 18th century. India, for example, was a major supplier of Britain's cotton. In fact, wealthier British people preferred Indian cotton and textiles to anything else. So if the Indian cotton industry was so strong, why didn't India industrialise first?
Again, this has nothing to do with Britain being 'special' or ‘'better.’ Conversely, India wasn’t ‘worse.’ The economic situation in Britain around 1700 was just very different from India (or China or anywhere across Europe, in fact). This gave Britain an edge but Britain didn't know it.
🔥 Firstly, in the 17th century, people stopped burning wood and started exploiting natural coal resources. This made Britain cheaper for fuel than anywhere else in the world.
OH HOW TIMES HAVE CHANGED, I say, with a tear rolling down my face as I mentally prepare for the next electricity bill.
💷 Secondly, Britain didn't have a population explosion before 1700, as other countries did. This kept wages high, unemployment low and prices down.
Interestingly, this was a throwback from the 'glory days' after the Black Death. With the population halved, wages were generally higher and prices lower than before - despite a strong pushback from the social elites.
But going back to the question about India, it was this economic situation that gave Britain the edge.
Think about it like this:
If you're going to spend a lot of money on a product, you want to know you're getting a good return on that investment, don't you?
It has to be financially worth it if you're going to shell out your hard-earned cash.
Our ancestors had the same predicament when it came to new inventions that would mechanise the cotton industry. (That was the first big change in the move from agricultural to industrial).
In India, where prices were relatively high and wages low, the capital to develop an invention wasn't prioritised, neither was the potential return on investment for the cotton pickers and spinners.
In Britain, however, it was a no-brainer. Finance was available for R&D phases of new inventions. When the spinning jenny came along, people bought as many as they could.
And voila, Britain mechanises its cotton industry before anyone else.
If you take anything away from today (and well done for making it through the economic history, by the way. Have a star ⭐), it's that we need to question the motivations and perceptions that form the foundation of everything we teach. This isn't just about history, but across all subjects. Without challenge, children grow into adults who teach the next generation of children more of the same. With industrialisation, all I see on repeat is the transmission of that colonial mindset: Britain did it first, so Britain must be amazing.
If anything needs challenging, surely it's this attitude?
Until next time,
P.S. For an extra history fix:
🖤 Read Dr Alka Raman’s cool AF research into Indian cotton textiles and why British factories began making imitations.
🖤 This ‘perfect diet’ for working adults from 1879 might surprise you.
🖤 Check out these posters made by the groups who opposed women’s suffrage.