by Adrian Bell, Chris Brooks and Helen Killick (ICMA Centre, University of Reading)
While we might imagine the medieval English property market to have been predominantly ‘feudal’ in nature and therefore relatively static, this research reveals that in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, it demonstrated increasing signs of commercialisation.
The study, funded by the Leverhulme Trust, finds that a series of demographic crises in the fourteenth century caused an increase in market activity, as opportunities for property ownership were opened up to new sections of society.
Chief among these was the Black Death of 1348-50, which wiped out over a third of the population. In contrast with previous research, this research shows that after a brief downturn in the immediate aftermath of the plague, the English market in freehold property experienced a surge in activity; between 1353 and 1370, the number of transactions per year almost doubled in number.
The Black Death prompted aristocratic landowners to dispose of their estates, as the high death toll meant that they no longer had access to the labour with which to cultivate them. At the same time, the gentry and professional classes sought to buy up land as a means of social advancement, resulting in a widespread downward redistribution of land.
In light of the fact that during this period labour shortages made land much less profitable in terms of agricultural production, we might expect property prices to have fallen.
Instead, this research demonstrates that this was not the case: the price of freehold land remained robust and certain types of property (such as manors and residential buildings) even rose in value. This is attributed to the fact that increasing geographical and social mobility during this period allowed for greater opportunities for property acquisition, and thus the development of property as a commercial asset.
This is indicated by changes in patterns of behaviour among buyers. The data suggest that an increasing number of people from the late fourteenth century onwards engaged in property speculation – in other words, purchase for the purposes of investment rather than consumption.
These investors purchased multiple properties, often at a considerable distance from their place of residence, and sometimes clubbed together with other buyers to form syndicates. They were often wealthy London merchants, who had acquired large amounts of disposable capital through their commercial activities.
The commodification of housing is a subject that has been much debated in recent years. By exploring the origins of property as an ‘asset class’ in the pre-modern economy, this research draws inevitable comparisons with the modern context: in medieval times, much as now, ‘bricks and mortar’ were viewed as a secure financial investment.
Post-Brexit UK-European Union (EU) trading relations will take one of three forms:
(1) The UK will remain part of the EU customs union
(2) UK-EU trade will be governed by World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules
(3) The UK and EU will enter a free trade pact.
Option (1) is economically optimal but has been declared politically unfeasible because it requires the UK to commit to the free movement of labour between the EU and the UK. Such conditionality is essential because economies grow unevenly and, in the absence of independent currencies across Europe and/or a central European state to pool the risk of unemployment, free movement of labour is the mechanism for redistributing the gains from EU growth.
Economics (not history) is the best guide here.
Most parties agree that option (2) is the solution of last resort. Much has been made of its impact on complex cross-border trade in manufactured goods, but trade in services may be more problematic. The General Agreement on Trade in Services governs international trade, but can these rules handle disputes regarding trade in services across highly integrated economies subject to disintegration post-Brexit?
The law (not history) is the best guide here.
Britain’s economic history however is key to analysis of option (3).
by Clive Norris (Oxford Centre for Methodism and Church History, Oxford Brookes University)
John Wesley’s efforts to spread the Gospel throughout the British Isles and beyond in the later eighteenth century relied on resources generated and managed using a wide range of techniques. This study of contemporary financial records shows that the evangelistic energy and fervour of Methodist preachers and members was supported – but also frequently constrained – by the movement’s approach to financial management.
The central priority of Wesley’s movement or ‘Connexion’ was to supply enough preachers to meet the needs of the membership and attract new converts. Members’ dues provided the core financing for the growing cadre of travelling preachers, while tools such as central grants channelled resources from richer to poorer areas.
Although the increasing number of married preachers with children raised per capita costs, the annual preachers’ conference tried to keep the deployment of preachers within the envelope of the resources available. By 1800, preaching costs probably exceeded £40,000 a year, met by around 110,000 members.
A second preoccupation was the capital and revenue funding of the expanding network of Wesleyan chapels, which numbered almost one thousand by 1800, costing perhaps £9,000 in annual debt interest alone.
From the 1760s, increasing use was made of an essentially commercial model, overseen by a central committee of business advisers. The opportunity to provide loans at attractive interest rates was offered to wealthier members and supporters, and these both financed chapel construction and offered a good home for their surplus funds. Interest costs were met by renting out seats in chapel, though some seats were always made available free to the poor.
Proposals for new chapels were reviewed annually by the Wesleyan conference, and although many were built without its approval, the resulting pressure on the movement’s finances became marked only after 1800. Chapels also enabled the Connexion to draw income from non-members, who typically outnumbered members by three to one in congregations.
Third, Wesleyan Methodists sought to spread the Gospel through the publication and distribution of cheap and readable publications, including Charles Wesley’s hymnals.
From the 1750s, the so-called Book Room became increasingly profitable, largely because by 1780, almost every aspect of production and distribution had been brought in-house. In particular, Wesleyan preachers were exhorted to market the publications to their members and congregations, and received 10% commission on sales. By 1800, the Book Room’s profits – typically £2,000 annually – were making a significant contribution to overall Connexional finances.
Fourth, the Connexion developed a portfolio of other activities, including educational services such as Sunday schools, poor relief programmes and overseas missions, especially in the West Indies. Most of these activities were not financed directly by the membership.
A key approach was to appeal for public subscriptions, which were widely used outside Methodism to fund public buildings and services such as hospitals, but there were many variations. In the West Indies, for example, some Wesleyan missionaries supplied spiritual services to slave-owners under contract.
One major result of these developments was that the Wesleyan Methodist movement became increasingly dependent on its richer members and supporters. For example, though its areas of greatest membership strength were Yorkshire and the South West of England, subscription income came disproportionately from wealthy London.
But until well into the nineteenth century, this seems not to have blunted its expansion: membership almost doubled between 1800 and 1820. Indeed, the complex and flexible financial policies and practices that underpinned the movement were crucially important in enabling it to respond to the spiritual and (to an extent) material needs of Britain’s growing and geographically shifting population.
by Catherine Casson (University of Manchester), Mark Casson (University of Reading), John Lee (University of York), Katie Phillips (University of Reading)
How can modern economies reconcile the pursuit of international competitiveness with promotion of the common good? They could learn from the medieval period!
Contrary to popular belief, England in the late thirteenth century had a dynamic economy. Legal advances created a lively property market; cutting-edge technologies improved water management and bridge-building; commodity trade expanded; and towns grew dramatically, both in number and size.
But this was not an early form of individualistic capitalism. Family bonds were strong and community loyalty was intense. Economic ‘winners’ showed compassion for losers, rather than contempt.
Thirteenth-century expansion was not based on a consumer-driven boom. Its focus was on local infrastructure and local wellbeing. City churches were financed by local people to meet the needs of local people. Hospitals cared for the old, the poor and the needy, including special facilities for those affected by disease. Their legacy remains with us today: the most valuable real estate in a modern city is often occupied by medieval churches and hospitals.
Using recently discovered documents and novel statistical techniques, we have analysed the histories of over one thousand properties in medieval Cambridge over this period. Using evidence from the so-called ‘Second Domesday’ – the Hundred Rolls of 1279 – we show how wealth accumulated by successful businesses was recycled back into the community through support for local churches and hospitals and for itinerant preachers based in the town.
Town government was devolved by the king and queen to the mayor and bailiffs, and they encouraged the development of guilds, which promoted cooperation. New professions emerged in response to the growing demand for legal and administrative services.
The business centre of Cambridge shifted south as the town expanded. ‘New wealth’ replaced ‘old wealth’ as a local commercial class replaced Norman aristocrats. But local pride and religious devotion – expressed through high levels of charitable giving – helped spread the economic benefits throughout the town community.
This self-sustaining system was, however, broken in the 1340s by the Black Death, the outbreak of the Hundred Years War and the punitive levels of taxation imposed on towns thereafter. When prosperity returned in the Tudor period, a more ruthless form of capitalism took root, and it is this ruthless form of capitalism whose legacy remains with us today.
by Alexandra de Pleijt (Utrecht University), Chris Minns and Patrick Wallis (London School of Economics)
Many workers today worry whether robots will do away with their jobs. Most economists argue that the effect of automation is likely to depend on what workers do. Robots may replace some types of manual work, but new jobs will also be created to design, maintain and manage automated production.
A shift towards ‘new jobs’ would mean that different skills will be valued in the future, and many policy experts have argued that secondary and post-secondary education will have to change in response. But if young people and their parents anticipate how automation will affect their job prospects, the choices made among current educational opportunities could shift ahead of any changes in what is offered.
The effects of automation on educational choice will be seen in the future. But past experience can offer some ideas as to whether the arrival of new technology affects these choices, even before the technology is widespread.
This research examines how the arrival of a new production technology affected educational choices in late eighteenth century England. The period between 1760 and 1810 is at the beginning of the largest shift in history from hand- to machine-powered production, through the invention and spread of the steam engine that powered the British Industrial Revolution.
Our research combines detailed evidence on the location and timing of the adoption of steam engines with the records of over 300,000 English apprenticeships from the rolls of the Commissioner of Stamps.
The main finding is that the arrival of steam power changed the willingness of young people to pursue apprenticeships, which for centuries had been the main route to acquiring the skills required for the production of manufactured goods. Counties saw a fall of 40-50% in the share of population entering into textile apprenticeships once a steam engine was present.
Despite the possible association with machine design and maintenance, mechanical apprenticeships also saw a decline of just under 20% following the arrival of steam. Merchant and professional apprentices, who were trading the goods produced by craft or industry, were mostly unaffected.
These findings show that the workforce responded to the emergence of technology that would dramatically change the nature of production and work in the future, but that much of the response was local. Apprenticeships fell first in northern counties where industrial towns and cities with factory-based production had emerged earlier. A similar decline in how workers were trained was not seen in southern and eastern England in the early part of the Industrial Revolution.
In the early modern age, accounting was the site of finance.
From the sixteenth century onwards, the unprecedented growth of international trade and banking gave rise to the great exchange fairs (Lyon, Bisenzone, Castile, Frankfurt, etc.), with international clearing and banking functions. To exploit these new opportunities while limiting risks, a growing number of banks at the fair locations specialised in the commission business, which required a high demand for goods and capital to yield substantial profits.
Both these transformations deeply affected the international payments system. In particular, they gave rise to new uses of accounting as a payment and credit instrument.
The research, to be presented at the Economic History Society’s 2017 annual conference, analyses this transformation and highlights the role of accounting in shaping early modern financial markets. It shows that at that time, accounting tables were not only used as local means of payment through book transfers initiated by oral order: they also became the sole material support for a growing number of international fund transfers and credit operations.
Indeed, as chains of commission increased in length and density, both the exchange and the deposit business changed in form and started to be increasingly operated through the accounting medium.
The classical exchange operations, which usually involved four parties (a drawer, a remitter, a payer and a payee) and the circulation of a bill of exchange between two markets, could now be conducted by two parties through their corresponding accounting systems, on behalf of several clients.
In these transactions, bank A would draw on and remit monies to bank B on behalf of clients who appeared as drawers and remitters by proxy. Payments on both markets took the form of book transfers, and no bill of exchange was issued: banker A simply informed banker B in his usual correspondence to credit and debit the pertinent accounts according to agreed exchange rates.
Such transactions performed multilateral clearance between distant regions of the world, where the bankers’ clients had business.
Two-party exchange transactions reduced to accounting entries also served banking activity at the local level. In this case, at least one side of the exchange transaction (the remittance or the draft) was meant to lend or to borrow money in one of the two markets. The exchange was followed by a rechange in the opposite direction, and at a different rate, and interest was charged according to the differences in exchange rates.
Finally, the taxation of overdrafts on current accounts at the fair location enabled clients to buy bills of exchange on foreign markets without provision, and to postpone payment of those drawn on them. Consequently, deposits in Lyon, Antwerp or Castile could create credit in Florence, Paris, London, etc.
Furthermore, this old fair custom of deferments gave rise in the sixteenth century to autonomous deposit markets whose rate circulated publicly, enabling ‘outsiders’ who otherwise had no business in the fairs, to invest their savings there.
The research thus shows that in the context of the rapid development of international banking centres and the correlated rise of commission trading, accounting made financial markets.
Its function was similar to that of modern algorithms used to match orders and perform financial transactions. Accounting tables were used to make payments, transfer funds, operate clearance and grant interest-bearing loans – all of which could be combined in a single game of book entries in the accounts of corresponding partners.
International trade and banking were supported by a network of interconnected accounting systems. This accounting network appears as a major infrastructure of early modern trade, without which the whole European payment system would have collapsed.
by Matthias Blum (Queen’s University Belfast ) and Claudia Rei (Vanderbilt University)
At Europe’s doorstep, the current refugee crisis poses considerable challenges to world leaders. Whether refugees are believed beneficial or detrimental to future economic prospects, decisions about them are often based on unverified priors and uninformed opinions.
There is a vast body of scholarly work on the economics of international migration. But when it comes to the sensitive topic of war refugees, we usually learn about the overall numbers of the displaced while knowing next to nothing about the human capital of the displaced populations.
Our study, to be presented at the Economic History Society’s 2017 annual conference in London, contributes to this under-researched, and often hard to document, area of international migration based on a newly constructed dataset of war refugees from Europe to the United States after the outbreak of the Second World War.
We analyse holocaust refugees travelling from Lisbon to New York on steam vessels between 1940 and 1942. Temporarily, the war made Lisbon the last major port of departure when all other options had shut down.
Escaping Europe before 1940 was difficult, but there were still several European ports providing regular passenger traffic to the Americas. The expansion of Nazi Germany in 1940 made emigration increasingly difficult and by 1942, it was nearly impossible for Jews to leave Europe due to mass deportations to concentration camps in the east.
The Lisbon migrants were wartime refugees and offer a valuable insight into the larger body of Jewish migrants who left Europe between the Nazi seizure of power in Germany in January 1933 and the invasion of Poland in September 1939.
The majority of migrants in our dataset were Jews from Germany and Poland, but we identify migrants from 17 countries in Europe. We define as refugees all Jewish passengers as well as their non-Jewish family members travelling with them.
Using individual micro-level evidence, we find that regardless of refugee status all migrants were positively selected – that is, they carried a higher level of health and human capital when compared with the populations in their countries of origin. This pattern is stronger for women than men.
Furthermore, refugees and non-refugees in our sample were no different in terms of skills and income level, but they did differ with respect to the timing of the migration decision. Male refugees were more positively selected if they migrated earlier, whereas women migrating earlier were more positively selected regardless of refugee status.
These findings suggest large losses of human capital in Europe, especially from women, since the Nazi arrival in power seven years before the period we analyse in our data.
The civil war in Syria broke out six years ago in March 2011, making the analysis of the late holocaust refugees all the more relevant. Syrian refugees fleeing war today are not just lucky to escape, they are probably also healthier and coming from a higher social background than average in their home country.
History provides us with many examples of asset bubbles which have led to systemic crises in the economy. Popular examples are that of the Tulip mania and the South Sea Bubble. This blog discusses the case of an indigo price bubble in nineteenth century India, perhaps the first of its kind, which lead to a contagion like crises in the economy.
Almost 17.4% of Indian GDP was derived from the agricultural sector in 2015-16, with nearly half of the Indian population being dependent on agriculture and allied activities for livelihood. This makes smooth functioning of commodity markets of considerable importance to policymakers. Throughout time, there have been many episodes of commodity price surges and ensuing market volatility due to traditional demand-supply gaps, monetary stress and financialization of commodity markets inclusive of speculation (Varadi, 2012). What role did agriculture play in commodity market volatility during the late 18th/ early 19th century? Little is known about perhaps the first asset bubble of its kind in India – the indigo crisis, the reasons attributed to it and the cost it imposed on different sectors of the economy.
With the advent of the East India Company, India was a global trade destination for a number of commodities including cotton, silk, indigo, saltpetre and tea. In order to trade these commodities with global markets, European traders needed banks to finance foreign trade. Indigenous bankers in India did not provide this particular banking function and hence the East India Company diversified its business by introducing agency houses in Calcutta which amongst others also performed banking functions. These agency houses performed all the banking functions of receiving deposits, making advances and issuing paper money. Their responsibility of note circulation crucially helped them in carrying out their diversified lines of businesses as ship-owners, land owners, farmers, manufacturers, money lenders and bankers (Cooke, 1830). It was the agency house of Messrs. Alexander & Co. which started the first European bank in India, called the Bank of Hindostan, in 1770 (Singh, 1966).
In the early nineteenth century these agency houses were tested for their endurance and continuance due to three factors. Firstly and most importantly, during the early 1820s, agency houses borrowed money at low interest rates and invested it prodigally in indigo concerns-the crop being the only profitable means of remittance in Europe. The crisis multiplied when newly formed agency houses, besides investing capital in their own indigo concerns, fiercely competed with the old houses in making indiscriminate advances to indigo planters and paid little regard to the actual state of the market. Excessive demand of indigo fuelled the prices in the mid 1820s and encouraged increased production of the commodity which eventually led to a glut in the market and sharp decline in its price. This rise and fall in prices is evident from the fact that the indigo price shot up from Rs. 130/maund in 1813 to Rs. 300 in 1824, and then fell to Rs. 145/maund in 1832 (Singh, 1966).
The second challenge, along with indigo price volatility, was the start of the first Anglo Burmese war in 1825. This further led to stressed monetary conditions resulting in a scarcity of metal in Calcutta (Sinha, 1927).
Thirdly, in terms of the global landscape, this period marked the peak of investment boom in Britain, which characterized an explosion of company promotions and bond issues by foreign governments, mining companies, railways, utilities, docks and steamships. In total during 1824-25 some 624 companies hoping to raise £372 million were brought to the market. However, with the investment boom peaking out in 1825, market conditions had changed. Interest rates had risen making borrowing more expensive, investor sentiment had become more cautious which eventually led to a panic like situation resulting in bank failures and bankruptcies (Brunnermeier & Schnabel, 2015).
In such times of local and global economic stress, several minor agency houses failed in 1827 which shook investor confidence in the remaining agency houses. A notable case is that of the agency house of Messrs. Palmer and Co., known as the ‘indigo king of Bengal’, which faced heavy withdrawals from their partners and eventually led to the closure of their private bank and finally their own demise in 1830. This panicked the market and led to further withdrawals of capital investments.
During this period agency houses made desperate appeals to the government for financial relief and highlighted their importance in the Indian financial system at that time. In a minute dated 14th May 1830, Lord William Bentick, Governor General of India from 1828-35, accentuated systemic importance of agency houses. He highlighted that not only would there be a dislocation of trade in some staple commodities, any damage to the ‘conglomerate’ nature of the agency houses would cause severe disruptions in other industries, most notably shipping. Finally, loans were granted to these houses in the form of treasury notes bearing 6 percent interest.
Despite the monetary aids provided by the government, the wave of agency house failures could not be curbed. More agency houses failed in January 1832. In addition to this, the unexpected fall in the price of indigo created difficulties for one of the biggest agency houses Messrs. Alexander & Co. It is important to note that the relief package came under stringent conditions. They were obliged to withdraw their bank notes from circulation, and were given an extended period for the payment of their debts provided they end their banking operations (Savkar, 1938). This resulted in the demise of the Bank of Hindostan and the Commercial Bank.
Overall seven great Agency Houses of Calcutta failed within a short span of four years which had detrimental effects on the Indian economy at that time. It may be summarized that speculation in indigo and mixing of trading and agency business were the pivotal reasons behind the failure of these agency houses. More importantly, this episode of a commodity price bubble spreading its tentacles to the entire economy had a phenomenal impact on the structure of business. It is recoded that from a handful of firms in the year before 1850, there were 170 firms working as joint stock organizations in 1868. The first commercial register to identify firms with tradable stock was established in 1843 which listed eights firms (Aldous, 2015). Joint stock organizational form also entered banking. A key example is the rise of the Union Bank of Calcutta (Cooke, 1830). The crisis also led to the establishment of a number of private banks by the British expats (Jones, 1995).
David Clayton (University of York) and David Higgins (Newcastle University)
Campaigns to promote the purchase of domestic manufactures feature prominently during national economic crises. The key triggers of such schemes include growing import penetration and concern that consumers have been misled into purchasing foreign products instead of domestic ones. Early examples of such initiatives occurred in the United States in 1890 and 1930, with the introduction of the McKinley tariff and the ‘Buy American’ Act, respectively.
In Britain, similar schemes were launched during the interwar years and in the post-1945 period. For the latter, Britain’s share of world trade in manufactures declined from 25% to 10%, and between 1955 and 1980, import penetration in the manufacturing sector increased from 8% to 30%.
Simultaneously, there were numerous government public policy interventions designed to improve productivity, for example, the National Economic Development Council and the Industrial Relations Commission. Both Labour and Conservative governments were much more interventionist than today.
Currently, the rise of protectionist sentiment in the United States and across Europe may well generate new campaigns to persuade consumers to boycott foreign products and give their preference to those made at home. Indeed, President Trump has vowed to ‘Make America Great Again’: to preserve US jobs he has threatened to tax US companies that import components from abroad.
Using a case study of the ‘Buy British’ campaigns of the 1960s and 1980s, our research, to be presented at the Economic History Society’s 2017 annual conference in London, considers what general lessons can be learned from such initiatives and why, in Britain, they failed.
Our central arguments can be summarised as follows. In the 1960s, before Britain acceded to the European Economic Community, there was considerable scope for a government initiative to promote ‘British’ products. But a variety of political and economic obstacles blocked a ‘Buy British’ campaign. During the 1980s, there was less freedom of manoeuvre to enact an official policy of ‘Buy British’ because by then Britain had to abide by the terms of the Treaty of Rome.
In the 1960s, efforts to promote ‘Buy British’ were hindered by the reluctance of British governments to lead on this initiative because of Treasury constraints on national advertising campaigns and a general belief that such a campaign would be ineffective.
For example, the nationalised industries, which were a large proportion of the economy at this time, could not be used to spearhead any campaign because they relied on industrial and intermediate inputs, not consumer durables; and in any case, the ability of these industries to direct more of their purchases to domestic sources was severely constrained: total purchases by all nationalised industries in the early 1970s were around £2,000 million, of which over 90% went to domestic suppliers.
Efforts to nudge private organisations into running these campaigns were also ineffective. The CBI refused to take the lead on a point of principle, arguing that ‘A general campaign would… conflict with [our] view that commercial freedom should be as complete as possible. British goods must sell on their merits and their price in relation to those of our competitors, not because they happen to be British’.
During the 1980s, government intervention to promote ‘Buy British’ would have contravened Britain’s new international treaty obligations. The Treaty of Rome (1957) required the liberalisation of trade between members, the reduction and eventual abolition of tariffs and the elimination of measures, such as promotion of ‘British’ products, ‘having equivalent effect’. Attempts by the French and Irish governments to persuade their consumers to give preference to domestic goods were declared illegal.
The only way to overcome this legislative restriction was if domestic companies chose to mark their products as ‘British’ voluntarily. This was not a rational strategy for individual firms to follow. Consumers generally prefer domestic to foreign products.
But when price, quality and product-country images are taken into account, rather than origin per se, the country of origin effect is weakened considerably. From the perspective of individual firms promoting their products, using a ‘British’ mark risked devaluing their pre-existing brands by associating then with inferior products.
Our conclusions are that in both periods, firms acting individual or collectively (via industry-wide bodies) did not want to promote their products using ‘British’ marks. Action required top-down pressure from government to persuade consumers to ‘Buy British’. In the 1960s, there was no consensus within government in favour of this position, and, by the 1980s, government intervention was illegal due to international treaty obligation.
In a post-Brexit Britain, with a much weakened manufacturing capacity compared even with the 1960s and 1980s, the case for the government to nudge consumers to ‘Buy British’ is weak.
The House of Commons has voted overwhelmingly to trigger Article 50, on the explicit basis that this process will be irrevocable and that, at the end of the negotiations, Parliament will have a choice between a hard Brexit (leaving the Single Market and the EEA) and an ultra-hard Brexit (WTO terms, if available).
It follows that arguments about whether the UK should remain in the EU, or should stay in all but name (the so called Norwegian option) are now otiose. What role can economic historians play as the terms of exit unfold? I think that there is an important role for scholars in seeking to analyse the promises of the Brexiteers and how feasible these appear in the light of previous experience.
Thus far, the economic debate over Brexit has been conducted on a very general basis. Remainers have argued that leaving the EU spells disaster, whereas Leavers have dismissed such concerns and promised a golden economic future. But what exactly will this future consist of? Doing the best one can, the Brexit proposition must surely be that the rate of economic growth per capita will be significantly higher in the future than it would have been if the UK had retained its EU membership. Since, at the same time, there was to be a massive and permanent reduction in EU and non-EU immigration (from c.330,000 p.a. net immigration to ‘tens of thousands’), it is per capita improvements that will have to be achieved.
The path to this goal will, it is said, be clear once the UK leaves. In particular:
the UK will be able to make its own trade deals and become a great global trading nation;
the UK can develop a less restrictive regulatory framework than that imposed by the EU;
industries such as manufacturing, fisheries and agriculture will revive once the country is no longer ‘tethered to the corpse’ of the EU;
the post-referendum devaluation will provide a boost for exporters.
In relation to each of these claims, there is plenty of helpful evidence from economic history. After all, the UK was the first nation to embrace a global trading role. As Keynes pointed out in a famous passage, in 1914:
The inhabitant of London could order by telephone, sipping his morning tea in bed, the various products of the whole earth, in such quantity as he might see fit, and reasonably expect their early delivery upon his doorstep; he could at the same moment and by the same means adventure his wealth in the natural resources and new enterprises of any quarter of the world, and share, without exertion or even trouble, in their prospective fruits and advantages…
Yet, despite this background, and despite the economically advantageous legacies of Empire, the UK spent the period between 1961 and 1973 making increasingly desperate attempts to join a (then much smaller) Common Market. British policymakers were initially dismissive of the European Community. Exports to the Six were thought less important than trade with the Commonwealth. Britain’s initial response was to establish EFTA as a rival free trade area. However, it soon became apparent that this arrangement was lopsided: Britain was part of a free trade area with a population of 89m (including its own 51m), but stood outside the EEC’s tariff walls and population of 170m. Will the 2020s be different from the 1960s? In any event, ‘free trade’ is an elusive concept. As John Biffen, a Tory Trade Minister in the Thatcher government (and no friend of the EU), acknowledged, free trade has never existed ‘outside a textbook’.
As regards to decoupling from EU regulations, the UK was, of course, completely free to devise its own regulatory framework prior to accession to the EU in 1973. Nonetheless, in this period, much of the current labour market structure, such as protection against unfair dismissal and redundancy, was enacted. EU regulations, such as the Social Chapter, have complemented, not undermined, this domestic framework. In any event, does the evidence suggest that a mature economy, such as the UK, will be able to establish a more rapid rate of growth with a looser regulatory framework? The obvious comparisons in this respect are the developed North American and Japanese economies. The data suggests that the UK has performed extremely well within the EU framework.
Table: GDP per capita (current US $, source: World Bank
Of course, much higher rates of growth have recently been achieved in developing economies such as China and India. But it cannot seriously be argued that an economy like the UK, which underwent an industrial revolution in the eighteenth century, can achieve rates of progress comparable to economies that are industrialising now. The whole course of economic history shows that mature economies have much slower rates of growth and that the increases achieved by the USA and the UK over the last few decades are close to optimum performance.
The maturity of the UK economy is also germane to arguments suggesting that it will be possible to revive industries that have suffered long term decline, such as manufacturing, agriculture and fisheries. After all, one consequence of the UK’s early start in manufacturing is that primary industries declined first and most rapidly here. Economic historians have been pointing out since the 1950s that in advanced economies the working population inevitably drifts from agriculture to manufacturing and then from manufacturing to services. In 1973, the American sociologist Daniel Bell greeted the arrival of the post-industrial society. He pointed out that the American economy was the first in the world in which more than 60% of the population were engaged in services, and that this trend was deepening in the USA and elsewhere. Brexit is scarcely likely to reverse these very long-term developments.
The British economy has also had considerable past experience of enforced devaluation (for example in 1931, 1949 and 1967). Research following the 1967 devaluation suggested that a falling pound gave only a temporary fillip to the trade balance, whilst delivering a permanent increase in inflation. Over the same period the West German economy performed extremely strongly, despite a constantly appreciating currency.
Finally, one may question whether the UK can achieve an economic miracle whilst, at the same time, pursuing a very restrictive approach to immigration. Successful economies tend to be extremely open to outsiders, who are both a cause and a consequence of growth. After all, in the pre-1914 golden age to which Keynes referred, there were no controls at all, and the British businessman ‘could secure forthwith, if he wished it, cheap and comfortable means of transit to any country or climate without passport or other formality…and could then proceed abroad to foreign quarters…and would consider himself greatly aggrieved and much surprised at the least interference’. Our putative partners in trade deals are not likely to be offering such access and, if they do, they will want substantial concessions in return.
Of course, past performance is no guarantee of future prosperity. Historic failure does not preclude future success. And sections of British public opinion have, it appears, ‘had enough of experts’. Even so, economic historians can hold up to scrutiny some of the more extravagant claims of the Brexiteers.