The golden age of British History is now over, according to David Cannadine, not only as a nation but also as a subject of study—‘an account of the British past which reconciled repeated revolutions with a belief in ordered progress and which thus appeared to be simultaneously unique yet exemplary.’ footnote1 The concern with change and progress is now out of fashion. Continuity is the last word. The elaboration of ‘great arches’ footnote2 by the sociologists has replaced the economic historians’ search for discontinuities and their concern to explain them. If the interest in change exaggerated the discontinuities, the drawback of all great arches is that from such a great height only giants and mass movements are visible. They give us a wonderful panorama of the terrain, but fail to reveal what is happening in the groups down below and how they are regrouping within the great masses. Picking out the giants tells us little of the smaller men and women. Perry Anderson has always tended to take a synoptic view of great amplitude but little detail. In a series of articles twenty years ago—which Edward Thompson dubbed the ‘Peculiarities of the English’ footnote3 —he and Tom Nairn had sought to establish that there was never a proper ruling industrial bourgeoisie in Britain. footnote4 The manufacturers and mill-owners remained subordinate economically, politically and culturally to the aristocratic rulers of an earlier agrarian society. And this was the source of the malady of British capitalism today and equally of the failure of the British working class to challenge its masters for real power. What Anderson is now proposing is an even more radical argument—that there was no real hegemonic industrial bourgeoisie in Britain, for the very good reason that there was no real industrial revolution in Britain and British capitalism was rooted in commercial and not industrial capital accumulation. footnote5

To substantiate this, Anderson draws heavily on the work of Geoffrey Ingham, footnote6 which was already enthusiastically received by Colin Leys in an earlier nlr article. footnote7 He cites the creation of a British overseas hegemony after 1689 (the framework of a commercial imperialism within which the industrial revolution took place); the survival of the great landowners right through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and the emergence of a gentry and tenant agricultural economy in the eighteenth century; the defence of the gold standard in the 1820s confirmed by Peel’s Bank Charter Acts of 1844–45; the decline of British industry after 1850 and the growth of commercial income from abroad in the 1850s and 1860s; the establishment of a dominant ‘Treasury View’ in the 1870s; the persistence of a gentry culture and consequent absence of state support for education, transport, communications or industrial restructuring in the 1880s; the failure of Chamberlain’s Tariff Reform League in the 1900s; the growth of investment overseas rather than at home up to 1914; the return to gold in 1926 and the obsession of all post-Second World War governments with the defence of sterling at the expense of manufacturing industry. To this formidable indictment Anderson adds a further catalogue of crimes which he takes from Correlli Barnett’s Audit of War: footnote8 the failure of British industry to modernize in the 1930s, its dependence on us industrial aid in the War, the lack of any corporate strategy before or after Labour’s victory at the polls in 1945, the profligacy of the welfare state and the lack of any trade union economic strategy right through to the 1970s. All this, Anderson opines, created the necessary conditions for Thatcher’s total abandonment of British manufacturing industry in favour of the Big Bang in the City—as he would expect from the whole history of a commercial and not industrial capitalism.

History is more complex than what appears in the Olympian view from great arches. Closer to the ground we may find ups and downs in British history over three hundred years—periods of rapid industrial development at home, periods of expanding investment in production overseas, periods of great commercial activity; and corresponding to these, many twists and turns among the dominant fractions of an often divided ruling class. Sometimes Labour has succeeded in taking advantage of these divisions. Sometimes, as today, it has failed. The picture that Anderson, Leys and Ingham draw of a continuing City–Bank–Treasury nexus, with a hegemonic role in British capital, is fatally flawed. In a short article I can only give a few examples of factual errors and then concentrate on what, to my mind, are the rather large conceptual confusions. In doing this I shall defend a fairly traditional Marxist view, often shared by non-Marxists, of the origins of Britain’s industrial revolution, of the economics of British imperialism and of what Ingham calls ‘the constitutive class relations of the capitalist mode of production—that is to say, between productive capital and exploited labour’. footnote9 The whole of this view is questioned by Ingham, and his doubts are strongly supported by Anderson and Leys.

At the outset this revision jettisons all Maurice Dobb’s careful studies, footnote10 which suggested that it was ‘outsiders’ like Edwin Sandys who, in the seventeenth century, challenged the great City merchants and went on to replace the old colonial trade with the triangle of British manufactures exported to Africa, for slaves to the Caribbean plantations, for sugar and tobacco on the final leg of the trip. Nothing, Dobb insisted, could be more obvious than that this involved the exploitation of wage labour by capital, although needing, as Marx put it, ‘for its pedestal, slavery pure and simple in the new world’. footnote11

From the early eighteenth century British capital distinguished its overseas development from Dutch, Spanish and Portuguese predecessors and rivals by its participation in the ownership and management of estates, mines, plantations, forests, fisheries, railways, ports, shipping, rather than in purely commercial activities. Cromwell’s Navigation Acts, together with the conquest of Jamaica, the exploitation of Northern Ireland, the reconstitution of the East India Company and the building of the Navy, had all, in Christopher Hill’s phrase, ‘removed the obstacles to the development of British capitalism.’ footnote12 What Knowles first called ‘the new colonial empire’ could then be established. footnote13 British manufacturing industry and the industrial revolution emerged out of the application of capital to production in the West Midlands factories, footnote14 in Bristol’s shipbuilding, footnote15 and in the plantations of the Caribbean.

This is the traditional view. But now Anderson insists on ‘the framework of an English commercial imperialism’ within which the industrial revolution proceeded. footnote16 He enthusiastically quotes Colin Leys’s assertion that ‘British capitalist manufacturers never did compete successfully against other capitalist manufacturers. What they did was to overwhelm pre-capitalist production everywhere, and it was the comparative ease of this victory rather than the commitment of capital to particular sectors such as textiles or railways, or to particular forms of business organization characteristic of early capitalism, that led to later problems.’ footnote17 It is not made entirely clear why an easy victory should create problems later, but I would argue that the assertion is wrong in every particular.

The revolutionary industrial innovators in textiles and railway-building—Arkwright, Watt, Hargreaves, Boulton, Paul, Darby and Brindley in the eighteenth century, Brassey, Stevenson, Brunel, Wilkinson, Faraday in the nineteenth footnote18 —are reduced to some sort of commercial intermediaries or considered at best just lucky to have been first in the field. The one element of truth in Leys’s account lies in the fact that pre-capitalist production the world over was overwhelmed by British capitalist manufacturers. But to underestimate the great textile mills of Lancashire, or the railway builders who established the rail networks not only of Britain and Europe but of North and South America, India and Africa and China, or the invention of the joint stock company, is to miss the point of how the world was overwhelmed.