THE SUCCESS OF THE INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION AND THE THE FAILURE OF POLITICAL REVOLUTIONS:
HOW BRITAIN GOT LUCKY
1789 was a great year, and many thought the following years were better — “Bliss was it in that dawn ...” etc.1 Not for the first time, or the last, was there the hope that a change of gov- ernment would bring about improvement. Since it was all hap- pening in France, the most populous and arguably the richest state in Western Europe, it was bound to be important. And what had to be done seemed so simple — to strike from the majority of the population the shackles which (to mix meta- phors) prevented them from putting their talents to good use, and to remove the privileges from the parasitic nobles for much the same reason. There was even an example, if they wished to follow it, of what they should do, on the other side of the Channel. True, the English Revolution (of 1688, rather than 1642) had had somewhat different causes, but the result was very much what seemed desirable — a limited monarchy with the conduct of affairs in the hands of solid citizens, who could be changed for another bunch of solid citizens without the first lot risking their lives, or even their property.
THE FRENCH REVOLUTION ...
Well, we know what happened. Perhaps it would have been too much to expect idealistic French intellectuals to lead a rev- olution that demanded anything less than Utopia, or even to keep their mouths shut in a competition between demagogues. Of the other European continental powers, Spain was torpid, as usual, while Austria, Prussia and Russia were preoccupied with digesting Poland between them. However, since they were all absolute monarchies, even though ruled by benevolent despots, they were bound to consider whether all the rhetoric might not make democracy infectious. A coalition mustered, then lum- bered across the French border, at first with some success. Then things took off. The Revolution turned into a Great Pa- triotic War and the French discovered somewhat to their sur- prise that mass enthusiasm in the rank and file, together with the execution of a few generals to encourage the others, re- sulted in an unstoppable army and a series of victories. The politicians back home — all strictly amateurs, after all — inau- gurated a blood-bath and exterminated each other like Kilkenny cats. Finally Napoleon came out on top and the attempt at the conquest of Europe got under way. In simplified form, this is what happened to the French Revolution.
... AND THE INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION — CIVILIZATION’S LIFT-OFF
storage for forty years as Britain — or England, as everyone forgetfully called her — set doggedly to work to ensure that the balance of power resumed its sway. But almost unknown to its government another revolution had been running for some t i m e . N o o n e c a n p i n i t s i n a u g u r a t i o n t o a p a r t i c u l a r d a t e ; a r - guments of a chicken-and-egg nature continue about its origin. Was population growth, for example, a cause or an effect? Fas- tidious intellectuals, repelled by the squalor of its smoke- shrouded birth and the outlandishness of its locality — could any good thing come from north of the Trent? — refused to be enchanted by its uncouth products and even more uncouth by- products. Those whose income came from the land regarded with hauteur those whose brass derived from a different kind of muck. But something unprecedented in the history of man was happening — civilization was achieving lift-off. 2
WHY IN BRITAIN?
Why did the Industrial Revolution begin in Britain? Hypo- theses can only be brought out and examined for plausibility, rather than tested by observation against apparent repetitions of anything similar to it in other countries at later times. After all, it is only necessary to demonstrate that something works once to promote its imitation, supposing the product is desirable. To produce cotton cloth, iron and steel and other products3 on a large scale, employing numerous people in buildings called fac- tories, seemed a very obvious thing to do once it had been done, but how had it been done in the first place?
BRITAIN’S POLITICAL BACKGROUND
To answer this question a start must be made with a consider- ation of the political set-up. Complete anarchy, where the peas- ant cannot be certain that he will reap what he has sown, where it is questionable that goods dispatched will reach their destina- tion or be paid for if they do, and where every man depends on his own right arm for his protection — such a state of affairs may be rare, but the measures taken to counteract it may stifle the initiative of the entrepreneur as well as that of the male- factor. Whether the threat of anarchy comes from the exterior or from the interior of a nation or state, or any other population unit (usually territorial), such a threat will ultimately generate the response of armed force. In the nature of things the use of such force is uncommon, its mere presence usually being suffi- cient. Wars are infrequent, and so are occasions when armed police surround a house.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the Channel ... Parliamentary reform, which was cautiously being suggested, went into cold