THE ‘WITCH CRAZE’ OF 16th & 17th CENTURY EUROPE: Economists uncover religious competition as driving force of witch hunts

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“The Pendle Witches”. Available at https://www.theanneboleynfiles.com/witchcraft-in-tudor-and-stuart-times/

Economists Peter Leeson (George Mason University) and Jacob Russ (Bloom Intelligence) have uncovered new evidence to resolve the longstanding puzzle posed by the ‘witch craze’ that ravaged Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and resulted in the trial and execution of tens of thousands for the dubious crime of witchcraft.

 

In research forthcoming in the Economic Journal, Leeson and Russ argue that the witch craze resulted from competition between Catholicism and Protestantism in post-Reformation Christendom. For the first time in history, the Reformation presented large numbers of Christians with a religious choice: stick with the old Church or switch to the new one. And when churchgoers have religious choice, churches must compete.

In an effort to woo the faithful, competing confessions advertised their superior ability to protect citizens against worldly manifestations of Satan’s evil by prosecuting suspected witches. Similar to how Republicans and Democrats focus campaign activity in political battlegrounds during US elections to attract the loyalty of undecided voters, Catholic and Protestant officials focused witch trial activity in religious battlegrounds during the Reformation and Counter-Reformation to attract the loyalty of undecided Christians.

Analysing new data on more than 40,000 suspected witches whose trials span Europe over more than half a millennium, Leeson and Russ find that when and where confessional competition, as measured by confessional warfare, was more intense, witch trial activity was more intense too. Furthermore, factors such as bad weather, formerly thought to be key drivers of the witch craze, were not in fact important.

The new data reveal that the witch craze took off only after the Protestant Reformation in 1517, following the new faith’s rapid spread. The craze reached its zenith between around 1555 and 1650, years co-extensive with peak competition for Christian consumers, evidenced by the Catholic Counter-Reformation, during which Catholic officials aggressively pushed back against Protestant successes in converting Christians throughout much of Europe.

Then, around 1650, the witch craze began its precipitous decline, with prosecutions for witchcraft virtually vanishing by 1700.

What happened in the middle of the seventeenth century to bring the witch craze to a halt? The Peace of Westphalia, a treaty entered in 1648, which ended decades of European religious warfare and much of the confessional competition that motivated it by creating permanent territorial monopolies for Catholics and Protestants – regions of exclusive control, in which one confession was protected from the competition of the other.

The new analysis suggests that the witch craze should also have been focused geographically, located where Catholic-Protestant rivalry was strongest and vice versa. And indeed it was: Germany alone, which was ground zero for the Reformation, laid claim to nearly 40% of all witchcraft prosecutions in Europe.

In contrast, Spain, Italy, Portugal and Ireland – each of which remained a Catholic stronghold after the Reformation and never saw serious competition from Protestantism – collectively accounted for just 6% of Europeans tried for witchcraft.

Religion, it is often said, works in unexpected ways. The new study suggests that the same can be said of competition between religions.

 

To contact the authors:  Peter Leeson (PLeeson@GMU.edu)

Decimalising the pound: a victory for the gentlemanly City against the forces of modernity?

by Andy Cook (University of Huddersfield)

 

1813 guinea

Some media commentators have identified the decimalisation of the UK’s currency in 1971 as the start of a submerging of British identity. For example, writing in the Daily Mail, Dominic Sandbrook characterises it as ‘marking the end of a proud history of defiant insularity and the beginning of the creeping ­Europeanisation of ­Britain’s institutions.’

This research, based on Cabinet papers, Bank of England archives, Parliamentary records and other sources, reveals that this interpretation is spurious and reflects more modern preoccupations with the arguments that dominated much of the Brexit debate, rather than the actual motivation of key players at the time.

The research examines arguments made by the proponents of alternative systems based on either decimalising the pound, or creating a new unit worth the equivalent of 10 shillings. South Africa, Australia and New Zealand had all recently adopted a 10-shilling unit, and this system was favoured by a wide range of interest groups in the UK, representing consumers, retailers, small and large businesses, and media commentators.

Virtually a lone voice in lobbying for retention of the pound was the City of London, and its arguments, articulated by the Bank of England, were based on a traditional attachment to the international status of sterling. These arguments were accepted, both by the Committee of Enquiry on Decimal currency, which reported in 1963, and, in 1966, by a Labour government headed by Harold Wilson, who shared the City’s emotional attachment to the pound.

Yet by 1960, the UK had faced the imminent prospect of being virtually the only country retaining non-decimal coinage. Most key economic players agreed that decimalisation was necessary and the only significant bone of contention was the choice of system.

Most informed opinion favoured a new major unit equivalent to 10 shillings, as reflected in evidence given by retailers and other businesses to the Committee of Enquiry on Decimal Coinage, and the formation of a Decimal Action Committee by the Consumers Association to press for such a system.

The City, represented by the Bank of England, was implacably opposed to such a system, arguing that the pound’s international prestige was crucial to underpinning the position of the City as a leading financial centre. This assertion was not evidence-based, and internal Bank documents acknowledge that their argument was ‘to some extent based on sentiment’.

This sentiment was shared by Harold Wilson, whose government announced the decision to introduce decimal currency based on the pound in 1966. Five years earlier, he had made an emotional plea to keep the pound arguing that ‘the world will lose something if the pound disappears from the markets of the world’.

Far from being the end of ‘defiant insularity’, the decision to retain a higher-value basic currency unit of any major economy, rather than adopting one closer in value either to the US dollar or the even lower-value European currencies, reflected the desire of the City and government to maintain a distinctive symbol of Britishness, the pound, overcoming opposition from interests with more practical concerns.

An Economic History of Europe: Knowledge, Institutions and Growth, 600 to the Present – 2nd Edition Cambridge University Press, 2015

by Paul Sharp (University of Southern Denmark)

The purchase price of this book is discounted by 20 per cent until the 7th of June if bought online here

p5An Economic History of Europe by Karl Gunnar Persson and Paul Sharp is a textbook on European economic history, designed to be taught over one semester, and aimed mostly at economics undergraduates. The second edition is a substantial revision of the first from 2010 with updates to reflect changes since the global financial crisis as well as the latest research. Although it is primarily aimed at students, it is also accessible to wider audiences looking for an easy introduction to the story of European economic development.

Economic history is first defined as the study of how mankind has used resources to create goods and services to meet human needs over time. As the subtitle suggests, the efficiency with which this is done depends on knowledge, i.e. the ability to produce more efficiently based on education and experience and embodied in technology, and institutions, which can both promote and obstruct the efficient use of resources. Thirteen propositions are laid out in the introductory chapter, the first of which sets the scene, proposing that economies that are richly endowed with resources are not necessarily rich but that economies which use resources efficiently are almost always rich irrespective of their resource endowment. Persson and Sharp then give a definition of Europe, noting (as illustrated in maps 1.1-1.3) that there has been a surprising continuity of the economic region of Europe from Roman times, through the Carolingian Empire of the ninth century, and to the present day European Union. It is argued that this is due to trade.

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The subsequent chapters argue that the slow record of economic growth which lasted for some centuries after the collapse of the Roman Empire and until the Industrial Revolution was based on a conflict between rival ‘Smithian’ and ‘Malthusian’ forces, as illustrated in figure 4.1. The latter describes the tendency of increases in economic productivity to be eaten away by population growth due to the constraints of an approximately fixed supply of land in a largely agricultural economy. However, as important institutions such as political order, money and markets re-established themselves in medieval Europe, increased population and urbanization led to division of labour, or specialization, promoting a slow growth of welfare based on skill perfection and learning by doing, giving slow technological progress. It was only with the birth of science that the pace of innovation speeded up sufficiently to allow for the demographic transition.

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Some countries moved to modern economic growth faster than others, however, and much of the reason for this is attributed to differences between institutions. Among copious examples of both ‘good’ and ‘bad’ institutions, it is emphasized that the length of time an institution has been present is not necessarily related to its benefits for economic performance more generally: bad institutions can linger due to the interests of a small, powerful minority. Money and banks get a chapter of their own. Their importance for a well-functioning economy is explored, although the risk involved with the use of fractional reserves (by which banks only have in reserve a fraction of their liabilities in terms of deposits) is also acknowledged, with periodic banking crises, such as during the recent Global Financial Crisis thus somewhat inevitable.

A major theme, with considerable relevance given the climate of today, is the importance of openness. This might be in terms of trade or ideas, although the two are often interrelated. It was fast technology transfer with the opening of world economies after 1850 that led to a process of economic convergence between countries which continues until today, although with setbacks during periods of protectionism and ‘globalization backlash’ in the 1930s in particular. The possibility of such catch up relies, however, on having an appropriate educational and institutional infrastructure. Moreover, it is also acknowledged that although trade will bring net gains, there will be winners and losers, and often during bad times, small groups lobby successfully for protectionist policies.

The remainder of the book examines such diverse themes as the choice of monetary policy regime (fixed versus flexible exchange rates) from the nineteenth century until today, arguing that widespread democracy seems to be difficult to reconcile with a fixed exchange rate policy because such a policy constrains domestic economic policy options. There is a discussion of the recent troubles within the Eurozone. The emergence and working of the Welfare State and the ultimate failure of the Eastern European planned economies are also touched on in the context of the death of the nineteenth century liberal economy after the Great Depression. It is speculated that world income inequality has probably peaked, and (with the rise of large developing countries such as China and India) will most likely now begin to decline, as more nations get the institutional infrastructure needed for technology transfer. Finally, the challenges of globalization are taken up.

 

Karl Gunnar Persson sadly passed away in 2016, but his former PhD student Paul Sharp is working on a third edition of the textbook.

To contact the author: pauls@sam.sdu.dk

from VOX – The return of regional inequality: Europe from 1900 to today

by Joan Rosés (LES) and Nikolaus Wolf (Humboldt University)

 

Servants in Rural Europe 1400-1900

SAVE 25% when you order direct from the publisher. Discount applies to print and eBook editions. Click the link, add to basket and enter offer code BB500 in the box at the checkout. Alternatively call Boydell’s distributor, Wiley, on 01243 843 291 and quote the same code. Offer ends on the 9th February. For any queries please email marketing@boydell.co.uk

Jane Whittle ed. Servants in Rural Europe 1400-1900, Boydell and Brewer, Woodbridge, 2017, ISBN (978 1 78327 239 6).
Contributors: Christine Fertig, Jeremy Hayhoe, Sarah Holland, Thijs Lambrecht, Charmian Mansell, Hannah Østhus, Richard Paping, Cristina Prytz, Raffaella Sarti, Carolina Uppenberg, Lies Vervaet, Jane Whittle.

 

UntitledOne of the most distinctive features of the early modern economy of Europe was the presence of large numbers of servants. Across Western Europe servants typically made up between 5% and 15% of the total population. Rather than being domestic servants in the nineteenth-century sense, the term ‘servant’ was used in early modern society to describe wage workers who lived in their employer’s household, and were employed for several months to a year at a time. Servants were usually young unmarried people between the ages of 15 and 25, and men and women were employed in roughly equal numbers. Servants did all kinds of work, ranging from agriculture, craftwork, and retailing to housework and childcare, depending on the needs of their employer. The majority of days worked by wage workers in the rural early modern economy were undertaken not by casual labourers employed by the day or task, but by servants. Given this ubiquity, it is surprising how little attention servants have received from economic historians. There are a number of excellent studies of urban servants, but the majority of servants, like the majority of the population in early modern Europe, lived in rural communities. Servants in Rural Europe 1500-1900 is the first book to offer a European overview of the topic.

The book has chapters on Norway, Sweden, the Netherlands, Germany, Belgium, England, France and Italy, with research focusing on periods from the early fifteenth century to the early twentieth century, and varying in scale from in-depth studies of single farms to national overviews. Yet strong common themes underpin the contributions. For everyone the starting point is the ground-breaking work of Peter Laslett and John Hajnal. From the 1960s onwards Laslett and Hajnal repeatedly asserted the importance of acknowledging and understanding the ubiquity of (and variations in) the employment of servants for the comparative demographic history of Europe. The institution of service allowed young people to circulate between households before marriage, acquiring skills and saving wages, and redistributing labour according to demand. It was part of the European marriage system which was characterised by a first age of marriage for women in their early to late twenties, and a relatively high proportion of people never marrying: service was how many adults supported themselves when they were not married. It also allowed young people to accumulate the resources to set up a new household at marriage and to do so independently from their parents. This contrasts with the situation in many societies based on small-scale agriculture in which parents controlled the choice of marriage partner and timing of marriage, women married in their mid to late teens and marriage was almost universal, and where young people began married life as junior members of the parents’ household.

But service, or working as a servant, was much more than part of demographic system. It was an integral element in the development of wage labour in early modern Europe, and an element that was heavily controlled by law. From the late medieval period onwards governments passed legislation that attempted to regulate servants’ contracts, wage rates and mobility. A consistent theme was the insistence that young unmarried people should work as servants rather than day labourers. Once within a contracted period of service, servants became the legal dependents of their employer, with a status similar to children within the household. For early modern governments, concerned about the implications of growing numbers of landless labourers for levels of poverty, crime and social unrest, service was a far more attractive prospect. It combined the flexibility of wage labour with social control within landholding households, as part of the existing social order. In countries such as England and Sweden, service was compulsory for young unmarried people. In England this was inconsistently enforced, but in eighteenth-century Sweden enforcement was very effective. There, the government even regulated how many children could stay at home and how many servants each household could employ. Servants remind us that the story of western Europe’s economic development during the early modern period was not simply one of smooth transition from an economy based on small scale agriculture (peasant society) to one where the majority of the population were landless wage earners (capitalism). The early modern economy had characteristics which set it apart from both earlier and later periods, and service is perhaps the most important of these.

To contact the author:
J.C.Whittle@exeter.ac.uk
Twitter: @jcwhittle1

On archives, macroeconomics and labour markets

Everything (well,… most things) you know about wages 1650 -1800 is wrong. That’s a great opportunity for historians

by Judy Stephenson (University of Oxford)

 

My forthcoming paper in the Economic History Review (abstract available here) makes some big claims about the level of nominal and real wages in urban England before industrialization. There is an early working paper version here

Specifically, I argue that the data used for the years between 1650 and 1800 are completely wrong because the people who compiled them (who go back in some cases to the 1930s and late nineteenth century) took figures from bills for construction services rather than actual wage books. As an actual wage book from the contractor who built the South West Tower of St Paul’s shows, men were not paid these charge out rates, they were paid considerably less.

This has some big ramifications for some influential economists and historians who have relied on long established data sets of ‘builders wages’, such as those of Phelps Brown and Hopkins (1955, 1956) to create macroeconomic models of the past to calculate real wages and infer GDP; to argue that Britain had ‘high wages’; or a comparative advantage in traded goods; or a narrower ‘skill premium’ and better institutions.

In truth, that these wages were ‘wrong’ is in no way surprising to anyone who has ever done work on early modern earning. Any historian of the eighteenth century sensed that these ‘average wages’ were unreasonably high and that their implied welfare ratios gave a falsely rosy picture. (As someone face palmed; ‘A labourer in London able to afford a respectable basket of goods for a family in the mid eighteenth century?? Have you read Dorothy George?’). Those who have ever worked with labour records and account books know that the homogenous figures found by Elizabeth Gilboy were questionable, and indeed in 2011, John Hatcher had successfully called into question the golden age of the fifteenth century. ‘Real’ day wages and wage accounts are always fascinatingly messy, unpredictable, and varied, yet econometricians clung to the old data sets because they believed it was too difficult to find anything else.

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Chart showing comparative real wages, in grams of silver, of European cities 1650 -1800, based on Allen, (2001), where the nominal wage has been reduced by 25%.

My findings make the idea that Britain was a ‘high wage’ economy in the long eighteenth century hard to sustain. If paid wages were 25% lower than we thought, the real wage for labourers through this period in London was not the highest by far. Rather, it seems, they were at the lower end of NW European advanced economies.

This is exciting for economists who think that explaining why the industrial revolution happened in Britain is the ‘Holy Grail’ (it’s back up for grabs). But, the debunking of these inaccurate wage series also makes it a really exciting time for people who want to understand the role of labour in the economy, and who think that the period before collective bargaining and factories has some strong parallels with our own. Lots has been written about the decline of ‘history’ in economic history, but the new opportunity is as wide and bright for historians as it is for economists and econometricians. This breakthrough in this long-run view on wages came not from new statistical techniques, but from the margins of dusty parchment, little iron pins, raggy old papers, smudged watered down ink, and the tentative ‘x’s’ and proud flourishes of the archives.

It’s time to stop recycling tired old data sets and expecting new technology to tell us something different about them. There is a wealth of sources and data in London archives, which have never been used before because they didn’t look comparable to Elizabeth Gilboy’s ‘day rates’, but which offer historians and economists the potential to look at earning, bargaining and the capital labour relationship in new ways. There is exciting work in progress from established and new scholars in the field. No one data set will ever be able to replace the supposed reliability of Phelps Brown and Hopkins, but even they were very tentative about their sources.

To contact the author: judy.stephenson@wadham.ox.ac.uk

References list available here

The Travelling Kingdom during Medieval Period in England, France and the Holy Roman Empire: An Economic Interpretation

by Daniel Gottal (University of Bayreuth)

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Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa on his Third Crusade

 Noblemen, knights and kings had always been on tour in Medieval Period. Weather on campaign, pilgrimage or on itinerant court – mobility was unexpected high to this specific aristocratic peer group. When capital cities had not emerged yet, the king as the political centre was on continuously travelling through his kingdom. This travelling kingdom had a political and an often missed out economic dimension.

At a time without newspapers, television or other mass media, dealing ‘oral contracts’ in personal relationships with his vessels, was essential. In the 13th century written documentation re-emerged and contributed to a slowdown of the royal itinerant court. Hence travelling kingdom was part of most mediaeval societies to a specific point of their cultural and institutional evolution.

The first modest beginnings originated from Merovingian dynasty on ox carts. Centuries later, Italian campaigns since Charles the Great (742-814) till the Ottonian dynasty, had a specific itinerant court character with their long stays in the three Italian capital cities: Pavia, Ravenna and Rome. Henry II (973-1024) – starting after his crowning in 1002 – bethinks on these older traditions and established the travelling kingdom in the Holy Roman Empire for centuries. Until the mid of the 15th century under Frederick III (1415-1493), where Late Middle Ages, Early Renaissance and Early Modern Period overlapped, the travelling kingdom survived, until it fossilised at the end of the century.

Besides of the fragility of the political system solely relying on personal relationships, the travelling kingdom had also an economic dimension. At the time food was rare in Europe in the Middle Ages and the king did not travel alone. He was accompanied by his royal court, including nobility, knights, bodyguards, and servants. This entourage could make up thousands of people. Because the transportation facilities were poor, the agricultural resources to provide the itinerant court food and shelter were scarce. Thus there was economic pressure for travelling around.

Unsurprising, that more frequented routes and stops were highly correlated with the most prosperous regions in Europe. In the Holy Roman Empire regional focus was on Franconia, Bavaria, Swabia and along the Rhine, the Franco-German border. The king and the king’s follower’s hostage were an enormous economic burden for cities and monastics they visited. Royal accommodation, the servitia regis, was an expensive duty for all his vassals. The average visit lasted three days but could be as long as two weeks. As prestigious as the king’s hostage might have been for a city, from a budgetary perspective his hoosts were relieved when he left for his next destination.

In contrast to continental Europe, England was once more special. A travelling kingdom was not common under Norman regimen. Power was less challenged than on the continent and Westminster early emerged as capital city. But John Lackland (1167-1216), king and heir to the throne after the death of his elder brother Richard the Lionheart (1157-1199), had done longer travels to secure his power, as well as his brother did before. But the tradition of a travelling kingdom was much more common to the north of the island, to the Scottish, than to the English.

Meanwhile, in the transition from the High to the Late Middle Ages the duty for king’s hostage was replaced by a financial grant – in France, Flanders and Bourgogne. Records from the French droit de gîte revealed, that most cities from 1223 to 1225 payed something in between 100 and 200 pound sterling silver a year. The combined income for the French crown was 3,000 pound sterling silver a year, covering 1% of Louis VIII of France (1187-1226) total expenses. The cities and monastics made a good deal in transforming the servitude into money. Fixing the amount via privilege, unadjusted by high inflation in the Late Middle Ages, the financial grant completely vanished over time – as well as the travelling kingdom.

 

 

Economic roots of Jewish persecutions in Medieval Europe

by Robert Warren Anderson (University of Michigan-Dearborn), Noel D. Johnson and Mark Koyama (George Mason University).

 

 

Jewish communities in pre-industrial European societies were more likely to be vulnerable to persecutions during periods of economic hardship.

The authors’ study finds that colder springs and summers, which led to reduced food supply, were associated with a higher probability of Jewish persecutions. What’s more, the effect of colder weather on the probability of Jewish persecutions was larger in cities with poor quality soil and in states that were weaker.

Throughout most of history, religious minorities were the victims of persecution. Violence against religious and ethnic minorities remains a major problem in many developing countries today. This study investigates why some societies persecute minorities.

To answer these questions, the researchers focus on the persecution of Jews in medieval and early modern Europe. Violence against Jews was caused by a complex set of factors that have been studied intensively by historians. These include religiously motivated anti-semitism, the need to blame outsider groups and the economic role that Jews played in pre-industrial European societies.

The new study focuses on the hypothesis that Jews were more likely to be vulnerable during periods of economic hardship. The researchers test this hypothesis by combining two novel datasets.

The first dataset is drawn from the 26-volume Encyclopaedia Judaica and contains yearly information on 1,366 city-level persecutions of Jews from 936 European cities between 1100 and 1800. The location of these cities as well as the intensity with which they persecuted Jews is illustrated in Figure 1.

 

Figure 1: The distribution of cities with Jewish persecutions and total persecutions, 1100-1800

 

 

The second source contains data on yearly growing season temperature (April to September), which have been reconstructed from proxies including tree rings, ice cores and pollen counts (Guiot and Corona, 2010).

The first result is that colder springs and summers are indeed associated with a higher probability of persecution. A one standard deviation decrease in average growing season temperature in the previous five-year period (about one-third of a degree Celsius) raised the probability that a community would be persecuted from a baseline of about 2% to between 3% and 3.5% in the subsequent five-year period or a 50% to 75% increase in persecution probability.

To explain this effect, the researchers develop a conceptual framework that outlines the political equilibrium under which pre-modern rulers would tolerate the presence of a Jewish community. They argue that this equilibrium was vulnerable to shocks to agricultural output and why this vulnerability may have been greater in locations with poor quality soil and in polities where sovereignty was divided or which were more susceptible to unrest.

Consistent with their conceptual framework, the researchers find that the effect of colder weather on persecution probability was larger in cities with poor quality soil and in states that were weaker. Moreover, the relationship between colder weather and persecution probability was strongest in the late Middle Ages.

Furthermore, as Figure 2 illustrates, the relationship disappeared after 1600, which the researchers attribute to various factors: the rise of stronger states (which were better able to protect minorities); increased agricultural productivity; and the development of more integrated markets, which reduced the impact of local weather shocks on the food supply.

 

Figure 2: The effect of cold weather shocks on persecution probability over time

 

 

The researchers support their results with extensive narrative evidence consistent with these claims and with further evidence that the relationship between colder weather and higher wheat prices also diminished after 1600.

‘Jewish Persecutions and Weather Shocks: 1100-1800’ by Robert Warren Anderson, Noel D. Johnson and Mark Koyama is published in the June 2017 issue of the Economic Journal.

A blog article also appeared on the media briefings of the Royal Economic Society.

 

 

Inching Towards the Meter: Britain, Europe and the Politics of Economic Integration

by Aashish Velkar (University of Manchester)

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On Brexit day (23 June 2016), The Guardian reminded its readers about the ‘Euro myth’ of how European metrication laws had criminalised the use of the Imperial inch such that even the Queen was forced to ‘obey Europe’.[1] Since then, there have been several reports in the popular media about the need for Britain to abandon the ‘European’ metric system and return to its ‘traditional’ imperial measurement system.[2] These reports are yet another reflection of the festering anti-Europe sentiments and the perception that joining the EU led to the ‘loss’ of British sovereignty. Such popular sentiments may be traced to the EEC Directives aimed at harmonisation of ‘technical’ standards such as measurement units (e.g. 71/354/EEC). Harmonisation was one of the key principles of economic integration established by the Rome Treaty in 1957, primarily aimed at eliminating trade restrictions within the European communities. The case of the metrication policy in the 1970s clearly demonstrates how conflicting ‘framing’ of the pro- and anti-metrication arguments in popular politics led to the abandonment of the metrication policy, exacerbated the uncompetitiveness of British industry, and crystallised the popular perception that Brussels was imposing European laws that the British parliament had no choice but to implement.

The metric system was not imposed on Britain upon joining the European Communities between 1973 and 1975. This decision was made almost a decade earlier by Wilson’s government in 1965, when he promised at an EFTA meeting that the UK will adopt the metric system as its primary system of weights and measures. No doubt Wilson’s commitment to inch closer to Europe by giving up the imperial inch was made in anticipation of Britain’s application to join the EEC. The British industry had lobbied fervently between 1955 and 1965 for the adoption of international measurement standards. Most major associations such as the Confederation of British Industries, British Association for Advancement of Science, and the Trade Unions Congress (TUC) supported the policy of complete metrication.

In the early 1970s, even as political opposition to creeping metrication was crystallising, much of the popular literature on the subject conveyed a sense of inevitability concerning metrication in everyday lives. People did not like the change to metric measures – just as they had not liked currency decimalisation in 1971. However, most were prepared to go along with it. Popular opinion against the metric system really hardened following the high inflation in the mid-1970s. Opinion polls between 1972 and 1975 suggest that between a third and a quarter of those surveyed blamed currency decimalisation for high inflation (almost as high as those who blamed inflation on the decision to join the EEC). This view was exploited by several politicians who claimed that metric change was not in the interests of the consumers. In this period of ‘collective puzzlement’, when even experts were divided about the causes of inflation and how to tackle it, the linking of price increases to change of measurement units provided yet another reason to attack metric change. Media reports that EEC directives were compelling the British government to effect this change by 1978-79 added to the popular view that Europe was imposing its laws on Britain. The fact that Brussels had threatened to take the British government to court if it did not complete the metrication programme added fuel to this fire. The British government negotiated with EEC and secured a way of retaining the most popular Imperial units such as the pint and the mile in an amendment to the original EEC directive. The anti-metric lobby claimed this as a victory of how the principle of ‘free choice’ had triumphed over the ‘compulsory metrication’ that was being imposed upon Britain.

Meanwhile, British industry found themselves in an intractable position. Many firms had voluntarily converted to metric units anticipating economic gains in the long term. However, the political resistance to metrication of retail sectors meant that most industrial sectors could not entirely switch to metric units. This was a worst-of-both-worlds scenario. Using the imperial units for some operations in addition to using metric measurements meant firms had to carry extra inventory, incurred higher design costs, and added to the general confusion by operating on multiple standards.

The historical research shows that popular opinion was shaped by little factual information or over-simplification of quite complex economic issues. Framing of opposing arguments involved selecting particular bits of information to highlight, to the exclusion of other (often contradictory) information. The more that one group framed an issue in a particular way – such as EEC directives meant a loss of sovereign law-making powers for Britain – the more that particular bit of information gained salience over other information. Such historical analysis is useful in demonstrating how certain arguments dominated over others. The arguments that metrication of retail sectors was harmful for the consumer and that industry was exaggerating the consequences of dual measurement standards is an example of this. The argument that limiting metric conversion to industry was worse for Britain in economic terms received almost no traction. Analysing how people frame arguments potentially helps unpack why public opinion is shaped in ways that is contrary to ‘expert’ opinion. Certain frames, loaded with political rhetoric – such as metrication means giving up British tradition and heritage – can trump economic logic, as the Brexit debate has clearly demonstrated.

[1] The 10 Best Euro Myths’, The Guardian, 23 June 2016, https://www.theguardian.com (accessed online on 6 July 2016)

[2] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/04/01/now-sovereign-nation-must-bring-back-imperial-units/ (accessed online on 2 April 2017)

Brexit, Globalisation and De-Industrialisation

by Jim Tomlinson (Glasgow University)

brexit downloadIn seeking to understand the economic basis of the Brexit vote, we should concentrate not on globalisation but on the long-term impact of de-industrialisation.

The evidence is certainly strong that economic disadvantage played a significant part in the patterns of voting in the referendum (though age and educational qualifications seem to have played a large, independent role). But this disadvantage seems best linked to de-industrialisation, which has left a legacy of a much more polarised service sector labour market, with large numbers of people condemned to poorly paid and insecure jobs.

Globalisation has contributed to de-industrialisation, but it is only one contributor, and historically not the most important. De-industrialisation began in Britain in the 1950s. It was driven by shifts in patterns of demand and technological change, most strikingly in increasing the growth of productivity (and lowering the relative price) of manufactured goods. (Total industrial output has not fallen, but grown slowly on trend.)

These broad trends have affected all industrial countries, so that industrial employment has fallen substantially even in successful industrial countries with a manufacturing trade surplus, such as Germany. Industrial employment as a share of the total has more than halved in that country since its peak in 1970.

The long-run nature of these trends is illustrated by the fact that many more coal-mining jobs were lost in Britain under Harold Wilson’s government of the 1960s than under Margaret Thatcher’s government of the 1980s.

Similarly, the big collapse of industrial jobs in Lancashire began in the 1950s and accelerated in the 1960s; across the country, textiles and clothing lost 123,000 jobs between 1964 and 1969.

Proportion of workers in industrial employment in the UK

1957               48%

1979               38%

1998               27%

2016               15%

Serious errors of policy have undoubtedly accelerated this process, and compressed it into short time periods (most obviously, the extraordinary appreciation of the pound in 1979-81 as a result of the Thatcher government’s policies). But overall the process has not mainly been policy-driven.

In responding to the economic problems that underpinned the Brexit vote, it is important to be clear that globalisation is only one part of the story. To put it crudely, if globalisation were somehow reversed, it would not return Britain to having anything like the number of industrial jobs that existed in the 1950s.

While there are certainly powerful arguments for seeking to offset the impact that globalisation has had on particular groups of workers, the biggest challenge is how to make a service-dominated economy deliver much better outcomes for those who currently occupy the lousy jobs in the service sector.