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New Left Review I/238, November-December 1999


Patrick O‘Brien

Imperialism and the Rise and Decline of the British Economy, 1688–1989

Historians seldom consider the metanarratives within which academic articles, monographs, models and analyses must eventually become embedded, if they are to inform public debate in modern societies. [*] Many friends participated in the construction of this metanarrative, if only by way of illuminating disagreement with several parts of the story. I thank and apologize to Andrew Adonis, Daniel Baugh, Nicholas Crafts, Francois Crouzet, John Davis, Martin Daunton, David Eastwood, Stanley Engerman, Lawrence Goldman, Anthony Howe, Paul Kennedy, Andrew Lambert, Colin Matthew, Roland Quinault, Patricia Thane, Barry Supple, Frank Trentman and Donald Winch for prolonging a conversation opened by Adam Smith when Britain was losing thirteen colonies in North America. Yet, however micro the problems they tackle, their findings can always be situated within some ‘greater story’. [1] R.F. Berkhoffer, Beyond the Great Story: History as Text and Discourse, Cambridge, ma 1995. Since the Second World War, the central preoccupation of our national politics has been with the search for a post-imperial identity. After prolonged discussion, and at the very end of the twentieth century, the British seem to be on their way to recovering a cultural consciousness and reconstructing an economic system reconnected to active participation in intra-European trade, capital movements and labour markets. [2] P. Clarke and C. Trebilcock, eds, Understanding Decline: Perceptions and Realities of British Economic Performance, Cambridge 1997. To address the large problem concerned with the benefits and the costs that flowed from the realms, a move away from Europe into more than three centuries of engagement with Empire, seems opportune. Furthermore, the theme resonates beyond European into global history because a majority of intellectuals from Asia, Africa and Southern America continue to claim that the relative backwardness of their economies compared to the West can—to some degree—be imputed to the malign effects of imperialism. They suggest that economic relations with Britain—and with other European powers—operated to retard the development of their countries but, at the same time, promoted the progress of Europe’s imperial and neo-imperial economies. [3] J.M. Blaut, The Colonizers’ Model of the World, London 1993.

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