Global Trade and the Transformation of Consumer Cultures

by Beverly Lemire (University of Alberta)

The Society has arranged with CUP that a 20% discount is available on this book, valid until the 11th October 2018. The discount page is: www.cambridge.org/ehs20

 

Our ancestors knew the comfort of a pipe. But some may have preferred the functionality of cigarettes, an alternative to the rituals of nursing tobacco embers. Historic periods are defined by habits and fashions, manifesting economic and political systems, legal and illegal. These are the focus of my recent book. New networks of exchange, cross-cultural contact and material translation defined the period c. 1500-1820. Tobacco is one thematic focus. I trace how global societies domesticated a Native American herb and Native American forms of tobacco. Its spread distinguishes this period from all others, when the Americas were fully integrated into global systems. Native American knowledge, lands and communities then faced determined intervention from all quarters. This crop became commoditized within decades, eluding censure to become an essential component of sociability, whether in Japan or Southeast Asia, the West Coast of Africa or the courts of Europe. [Figure 1]

pic01.png
Figure 1. Malayan and his wife in Batavia, with pipe.

 

Tobacco is a denominator of the early global era, grown in almost every context by 1600 and incorporated into diverse cultural and material modes. Importantly, its capacity to ease fatigue was quickly noted by military and imperial administrations and soon used to discipline or encourage essential labour. A sacred herb was transposed into a worldly good. Modes of coercive consumption were notable in the western slave trade, as well as on plantations. Tobacco also served disciplinary roles among workers essential to the movement of cargoes; deep-sea long-distance sailors and riverine paddlers in the North American fur trade were vulnerable to exploitation on account of their need and dependence on tobacco during long stints of back-breaking labour.

Early global trade built on established commercial patterns – most importantly the textile trade including the long-standing exchange of fabric for fur. The fabric / fur dynamic linked northern and southern Eurasia and north Africa, a pattern of elite and non-elite consumption that surged after the late 1500s, especially with the establishment of the Qing dynasty in China (1636-1912), with their deep cultural preference for furs. Equally important, deepening trade on the northeast coast of North America formalized Indigenous Americans’ appetite for cloth, willingly bartered for furs. The fabric / fur exchange preceded and continued with western colonization in the Americas. Meanwhile, on both sides of the Bering Strait and along the northwest coast of America, Indigenous communities were pulled more fully into the Qing economic orbit, with its boundless demand for peltry. Russian imperial expansion also served this commerce. The ecologies touched by this capacious trade extended worldwide, memorialized in surviving Qing fur garments and secondhand beaver hats traded for slaves in West Africa.

I routinely incorporate object study in my analysis, an essential way to assess the dynamism of consumer practice. I trawled museum collections as commonly as archives and libraries, where I found essential evidence of globalized fads and fashions. Strategies of a Qing-era man are revealed, as he navigated Chinese sumptuary laws while attempting to demonstrate fashion (on a budget). His seeming mink-lined robe used this costly fur only where it was visible. Sheepskin lined all the hidden areas. His concern for thrift is laid bare, along with his love of style.

Elsewhere in the book, I trace responses to early globalism through translations and interpretations of early global Asian designs, in needlework. The movement of people, as well as vast cargoes, stimulated these expressive fashions, ones that required minimal investment and gave voice to the widest range of women and men. The flow of Asian patterned goods and (often forced) relocation of Asian embroiderers to Europe began this tale – both increased the clamour for floral-patterned wares. This analysis culminates in North America with the turn from geometric to floral patterning among Indigenous embroiderers. They, too, responded to the influx of Asian floriated things. Europeans were intermediaries in this stage of the global process.

Human desires and shifting tastes are recurring themes, expressed in efforts to acquire new goods through various entrepreneurial channels. ‘Industriousness’ was manifest by women of many ethnicities through petty market-oriented trade, as well as waged employment, often working at the margins of formal commerce. Industriousness, legal and extralegal, large and small, flourished in conjunction with large-scale enterprise. Extralegal activities irritated administrators, however, who wanted only regulated and measurable business. Nonetheless, extralegal activities were ubiquitous in every imperial realm and an important vein of entrepreneurship. My case studies in extralegal ventures range from the traffic in tropical shells in Kirkcudbright, Scotland; the lucrative smuggling of European wool cloth to Qing China, a new mode among urban cognoscenti; and the harvesting of peppercorns from a Kentish beach, illustrating the importance of shipwrecks in redistributing cargoes to coastal communities everywhere. [Figure 2] Coastal peoples were schooled in the materials of globalism, cast up by the tides, though some authorities might call them criminal. Ultimately, the shifting materials of daily life marked this dynamic history.

pic02
Figure 2. Shipwreck of the DEGRAVE, East Indiaman. The Adventures of Robert Drury, During Fifteen Years Captivity on the Island of Madagascar … (London: W. Meadows, 1807). Library of Congress, Digital Prints and Photographs, Washington, D.C.

 

To contact the author: Lemire@ualberta.ca

IMPERIAL ROOTS OF TODAY’S GLOBAL TRADE: Evidence from 140 empires

by Wessel Vermeulen (Newcastle University), Gunes Gokmen (New Economic School, Moscow), and Pierre-Louis Vézina (King’s College London)

 

trade__commerce_in_greek_city-states__the_mediterranean_region_thumbnail0_140051.jpg

The rise and fall of empires over the last 5,000 years – from the Afsharid Dynasty to the British Empire – still influences world trade patterns today.

Their new data on the rise and fall of 140 empires across the world over the last 5,000 years reveals that present-day trade flows between countries that were once in a common empire are on average 70% larger than that between unrelated countries.

Empires facilitated trade within their controlled territories by building and securing trade and migration routes, and by imposing common languages, religions and legal systems. This led to the accumulation of ‘trading capital’, which outlives empires and shapes today’s trade patterns.

Throughout history, many empires were essentially created to facilitate trade; the Athenian Empire was established to secure food trade between Athens and Crimea.

Imperial formal and informal institutions as well as physical infrastructure might have played a role in the growth of trading capital and thus in shaping today’s trade patterns. For example:

  • Local institutions that emerged to support inter-ethnic medieval trade have resulted in a sustained legacy of ethnic tolerance in South Asian port towns.
  • Historical Habsburg-Empire regions have higher current trust and lower corruption than neighbouring regions, probably due to the empire’s well-respected administration, and countries of the empire trade significantly more with one another than with other neighbours.
  • Long-established commercial diasporas such as the Gujaratis in the British Empire still play an important role in world trade.

A novel dataset on countries’ imperial history going back 5,000 years makes it possible to measure this accumulated trading capital for all countries around the world and over the entire history of civilisations. In turn, it makes it possible to estimate its effect on trade today.

Imports from countries that were once in a common empire are on average 70% larger. The estimation in this study accounts for other important factors such as distance, shared borders, common legal systems, and genetic and linguistic distances. The effect of trading capital is related to but not entirely explained by these factors.

Some empires matter more than others. Trading capital builds up in times of common empire and depreciates slowly at other times. Hence, longer-lasting and recent empires matter most.

Trade is a major driver of economic growth without which isolated countries find it much harder to prosper. These results suggest that trading capital plays a role in reducing the trade costs that inhibit international trade.

While infrastructure such as roads or railways do promote trade, we know that transport costs do not account for most of the trade costs associated with borders and distance. Instead, cultural and informational frictions are the main culprits. Trading capital accumulated during empires could thus play an important role in making trade happen today.

Are businessmen from Mars and businesswomen from Venus? An analysis of female business success and failure in Victorian and Edwardian England

by Jennifer Aston (Oxford University)  and Paulo di Martino (University of Birmingham)

The full paper was published on the Economic History Review, accessible here

 

612fc5b1fca0c5d01f6f9f6d143f79d6
Fashion in Edwardian England

Do women and men trade in different ways? If so, why? And are men more or less successful than women? These are very important questions not just, or not only, for the academic debate, but also for the policy implications that might emerge, especially in countries such as the UK where, rightly or wrongly, we believe in personal entrepreneurship as one of the main antidotes to unemployment and to the crisis of big business.

In economic history, it has traditionally been argued that women and men traded in similar ways up to the industrial revolution but, since then, women have ben progressively relegated to a “separate sphere” allowed, at most, some engagement with naturally “female” occupations such as textiles or food provision. Although more recent literature has strongly undermined this view, a lot of ground has still to be covered, especially about the period post 1850s.

We approach this debate by starting with a simple question about business “success” across gender: did women happen to fail more likely than men? Thanks to the reconstruction of original data on personal bankruptcy derived from contemporary official publications by the Board of Trade, this research suggests that this was not the case. In fact, depending on how prudently data on the number of female entrepreneurs are looked at, women appear more successful in, at least, keeping their businesses alive.

This finding, however, only paved the way for more questions. In particular, had the narrative of women only dealing with traditional and safe industries and operating in semi-informal businesses been true, what we observe via the lens of official statistics would be just a distorted view. This researched focussed on other primary sources: the reports of about 100 women whose businesses failed around the turn of the century. The findings support the initial hypothesis: although smaller than male counterparts (hence, in fact, riskier), female businesses were not hidden away from the public sphere, the official trading places, or the rules of the formal credit market. So, boarding house keeper Eleanor Bosito and the hotelier Esther Brandon were declared bankrupt and subject to formal proceedings despite having very few creditors who all lived within five miles from the businesses of the two women.  with unsecured debts of about £160 faced bankruptcy as a result of the petition filed by Jane Davis, a widow who lived less than half a mile from Agnes’s home and had lent her the sum of £5. This was the same destiny faced by Elizabeth Goodchild a businesswoman who, contrary to the other cases, operated on a large scale with suppliers and clients from all around Britain and Europe. This evidence reveals that, first of all, small scale trade was thus not necessarily the rule for women and, even when it was the case, it did not coincide with informality or sheltering from the “rules of the game”.

Businesswomen then did not come from, nor traded on, a different planet and certainly did not need the patronising protection of a male-dominated institutional environment. Instead the legal system forged ad hoc rules for married woman, via specific provisions in Bankruptcy Laws which lifted them from any responsibility. These level of defence, similar only to the one available to lunatics and children, proved ineffective. Or, in fact, the perfect background for frauds: in 1899 a spinster who was due to be declared bankrupt got married before the actual beginning of the procedure, thus avoiding any legal consequence (and, hopefully, having found love too).

In conclusion, this research indicates that Victorian and Edwardian businesswomen were perfectly able to trade in a fashion similar to the one of their male counterpart and, if anything, they were more successful. This leads to a basic and probably intuitive policy implication: if we want more women to successfully engage in business, all we have to do is to remove the economic, social, and cultural barriers that limit their access to opportunities.

Retail revolution and the village shop (1660–1860)

By Jon Stobart (Manchester Metropolitan University)

Today, village shops are often seen as central to village life and their closure is greeted with alarm because, like pubs, they act as a litmus for the health and vitality of our rural communities.

Yet we know little about the long-term history of village shops: how widespread they were, what they sold, how they traded, who their customers were and how they related to the wider community. This is partly because they have been overlooked by historians of retailing, who are dazzled by the bright lights of the city and the seemingly revolutionary changes wrought by department stores and chain stores, who are seen as ushering in “modern” practise like display, fixed prices and leisure shopping. Rural historians have long focused on the production of the countryside; marketing is of interest only when it comes to selling the produce of farms.

1fc7a39bd9764afedb16fa59f7185a6b

This article rescues village shops from both the neglect of historians and the rose-tinted perspective of nostalgia. It reveals how shopkeepers like Ralph Edge, an ironmonger in late seventeenth-century Cheshire, stocked goods from around the world, including calicos from India, tobacco from across the Atlantic, raisins from the Mediterranean; how Rebecca Course managed the credit of her customers to her shop in early-Victorian Buckinghamshire; and how Hardy Woolley mixed retailing in rural Lincolnshire with writing books of trade hints for his fellow shopkeepers.

We know about these people through their entries in trade directories, often with people listing several trades alongside their shop; their inventories, which tell us about their stock held, shop fittings, and sometimes their by-employments; their account books, which reveal prices, identify their customers and their shopping habits and uncover often complex credit arrangements; their diaries and memoirs, which let us into the lifeworld of a small number of shopkeepers and give us some understanding of their motivations and concerns.

Not every village had its own shop, of course, but most of England’s rural population was within easy walking distance of a shop. Whilst the image of the general store is perhaps misleading, they supplied a wide range of items, bringing the expanding world of goods into rural society. We should not judge them against the contested and problematic standards of urban modernity, but rather as businesses and social spaces that served the needs of their customers. The entries in Charles Small’s mid nineteenth-century account book which record mending baskets and mangling clothes for some of his customers may seem quaint and old-fashioned at a time when department stores were emerging in major cities. And the agonising of Thomas Turner about whether to execute an order for distraining the goods of Mr Darby, who owed him about £18 in shop debts, could be seen as a sign of weak business practice. Yet these men – and thousands of other men and women like them – were running businesses that thrived on customer loyalty and their place within the socio-economic fabric of their village communities. They were in the swing of broader changes in retail practice, but deeply embedded in their localities.

 

The full article is published on the Economic History Review and is available here

To contact the author: @Jon_Stobart

 

 

 

British exports and American tariffs, 1870-1913

by Brian D Varian (Swansea University)

B. Saul (1965) once referred to late nineteenth-century Britain as the ‘export economy’. During this period, one of Britain’s largest export markets—in some years, the largest market—was the United States. To the United States, Britain exported a range of (mainly manufactured) goods spanning such industries as iron, steel, tinplate, textiles, and numerous others.

A forthcoming article in the Economic History Review argues that the total volume of British exports to the United States was significantly affected by American tariffs during the interval from 1870-1913. The argument runs contrary to the more general finding of Jacks et al. (2010) that Britain’s trade with a sample of countries, i.e. not just the United States, was uninfluenced by foreign tariffs.

This argument complements some previous studies that focused on specific commodities that Britain exported to the United States in the late nineteenth century. Irwin (2000) found that Britain’s tinplate exports to the United States were indeed responsive to changes in the American duty on tinplate. Inwood and Keay (2015) reached a similar conclusion regarding Britain’s pig iron exports to the United States. However, as this research claims, the determinacy of American tariffs for the volume of British exports was not limited to only certain commodities, but rather applied to the bilateral flow of trade, as a whole.

The United States imposed different duties on different commodities. Because the composition of commodities that the United States imported from all countries collectively differed from the composition of commodities that the United States imported from Britain, the average American tariff is an inaccurate measure of the tariff level encountered by, specifically, British exports to the United States. For this reason, this research reconstruct an annual series of the bilateral American tariff toward Britain for the interval from 1870-1913, using the disaggregated data reported in the historical trade statistics of the United States. This reconstructed series is crucial to the argument.

chart

The figure above presents the average American tariff and the reconstructed bilateral American tariff toward Britain, both expressed as percentages (ad valorem equivalent percentages, to be precise). In the 1890s, the average American tariff and the bilateral American tariff toward Britain do not follow a similar course. For example, whereas the tariff revisions of the Wilson-Gorman Tariff Act of 1894 had little effect on the average American tariff, these tariff revisions resulted in the bilateral American tariff toward Britain declining from 45% in 1893/4 to 31% in 1894/5.

This econometric analysis of the Anglo-American bilateral trade flow relies upon the empirically-correct bilateral American tariff toward Britain. In this respect, the forthcoming article in the Economic History Review departs from other historical studies of trade, which use average tariffs as approximations of bilateral tariffs.

Perhaps the reconstruction of another country’s bilateral tariff toward Britain—Germany’s tariff toward Britain is an obvious choice—would reveal that the effect of foreign tariffs on British exports was more widespread than just the bilateral American case. Nevertheless, the importance of the bilateral American case should not be diminished, as the United States was a large export market of Britain, the ‘export economy’ of the late nineteenth century.

 

Link to the article: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/ehr.12486/full

To contact the author: b.d.varian@swansea.ac.uk

 

References

Inwood, K. and Keay, I., ‘Transport costs and trade volumes: evidence from the trans-Atlantic iron trade, 1870-1913’, Journal of Economic History, 75 (2015), pp. 95-124.

Irwin, D. A., Did late-nineteenth-century US tariffs promote infant industries? Evidence from the tinplate industry’, Journal of Economic History, 60 (2000), pp. 335-60.

Jacks, D., Meissner, C. M., and Novy, D., ‘Trade costs in the first wave of globalization’, Explorations in Economic History, 47 (2010), pp. 127-41.

Saul, S. B., ‘The export economy, 1870-1914’, Bulletin of Economic Research, 17 (1965), pp. 5-18.

From History&Policy – What does British imperial economic history tell us about the future of UK-EU trading relations?

by David Clayton, originally published on 25 April 2017 on History & Policy

British_isles_eezs

 

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).

Full article here: http://www.historyandpolicy.org/opinion-articles/articles/what-does-british-imperial-economic-history-tell-us-about-the-future-of-uk

 

How accounting made financial markets in the Early Modern age

by Nadia Matringe, London School of Economics

6a0120a570a392970b014e5fc06b14970c2

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.

THE INEFFECTIVENESS OF GOVERNMENT EFFORTS TO PROMOTE PRODUCTS MADE AT HOME: Evidence from the ‘Buy British’ campaigns of the 1960s and 1980s

David Clayton (University of York) and David Higgins (Newcastle University)

keep-calm-and-buy-british-18

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.

Holding Brexiteers to account

by Adrian Williamson, University of Cambridge

fbd5393b-0a6b-4101-9803-2a0eb6e6e36b
Margaret Thatcher and Ted Heat campaigning during the 1975 Common Market Referendum, when conservative leaders took a rather different approach to Europe. Source: http://www.eureferendum.com

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

Country

1980

2015

Cumulative increase

USA

12,598

56,116

345%

UK

10,032

43,876

337%

Canada

11,135

43,249

288%

EU

8,314

32,005

285%

Japan

9,308

34,524

271%

 

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.