The search for an explanation for why Britain was the first nation to industrialise

Many observers of modern social science are convinced of the maxim: ‘There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics’. Yet good historical scholarship has always used statistics as the antidote to the ‘damned lies’. This is especially useful with the Industrial Revolution, where wild theories dominate. Below I examine three famous theories of the Revolution and show why they do not tell us the whole story.

Underpinning my analysis is the recent work of Professor Nicholas Crafts, Professor of Economics and Economic History at the University of Warwick. In November the Legatum Institute welcomed Professor Crafts to explore the question: ‘why Britain got there first?’

What do we understand by ‘Britain was first to industrialise’? Professor Crafts is one of the leading scholars unpacking the Industrial Revolution and his work reveals a number of salient points. First, there was no great ‘take-off’ in industrialisation or productivity: in Britain industrial employment increased by just 12% between 1759 and 1851, similarly total factor productivity increased by just 0.4% a year until the 1830s. By 20th century standards such growth was underwhelming.

Second, the ‘great divergence’ had already occurred by the time Britain was industrialising. Real GDP per person was far higher in Britain, the Netherlands and Italy than in China by 1600: the West was far ahead of the rest by the time of the Industrial Revolution.

Third, Crafts shows that industrialisation was concentrated in a limited number of sectors, such as textiles, and largely bypassed the service industries.

Despite these reservations, something remarkable did occur. By the middle of the 19th century Britain accounted for 23% of global industrial production, British workers were the richest in Europe, and comparatively few of them worked on the land. What is clear is that this unique position was not the result of a century of rapid change; Britain’s was a slower, more incremental revolution than previously thought.

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One Comment Add yours

  1. A fascinating topic. One of the great questions of world history, in my opinion!


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