Economic Development, Political Institutions and Geo-Politics

In the last few days, Brad Delong and Andrew Smith have both written informative posts on an interesting question. Namely, the relationship between political institutions and early modern economic development. I am hoping to start a major research project that deals with these questions, and have a few thoughts on their posts.

One thing that strikes me in large-scale histories of industrialization is that they are often state-based and that geopolitical prominence influences which states are included in the discussion. For instance, Smith discusses 16th century Spain, while his 19th century focus is Britain, France, Germany, United States and Japan. In essence, his post looks at economic development amongst the Great Powers. While there is some research on industrialization in smaller or more peaceful nations, Smith’s description resembles the ways in which Anglophone historians teach the subject. Historians also seem more interested in economic development of regions that become the core of major nation-states than in those that did not. This makes me wonder, whether the historical narrative is primarily concerned with the Industrial Revolution in terms of how it impacted geopolitics, empires and wars. Put differently, would we teach undergraduates about Rhineland industrialization if Germany had not unified and gone to war with France in 1870 and 1914?

Economic history still has merit if it were to become less concerned with the geopolitical importance of large states. Changing living conditions, economic organization and environmental relationships matter as much if they occurred in smaller states as the cores of large empires. Including smaller states in economic analysis would allow historians to better explore the relationship between political institutions and economic development. A better understanding of living standards and economic development between such regions might also inform current political debates. One example, is the debates over Scottish independence and whether Scots are better off living in a smaller or larger state.

As an eighteenth-century historian, Liège is a particularly interesting example of the relationship between representative political institutions and industrialization. Prior to its 1789 revolution, Liège was an independent state governed by a prince-bishop. Its Estates General was quite powerful, and it may have had the most representative political institutions in all of Europe. I do not know of any political histories of 18th century Liège, so it is both an area worthy of study and difficult to offer more detail on its politics. Meanwhile, Liège was one of the most industrialized regions in the world with its coal, nails, woollen textile and arms manufacturing. It is an open historical question whether Liègeois industrialization was an equal first-mover to the English or the earliest of the second-wave nations. For that reason, it is well worthy of historical study and would help answer the question Smith raises of whether representative political institutions contributed to or resulted from industrial development.

These are a few thoughts that arose from Delong and Smith’s thought-provoking pieces. If readers have any suggestions on how to better study the relationship between political institutions and economic development, I would be interested in hearing them.


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Ice Storms, Supply Chains and Fuel

Josh MacFadyen recently wrote an interesting piece on urban firewood and the Toronto ice storm of December 2013. The discussion of the Montreal wood famine of 1872 was informative and I look forward to reading the larger work that it comes out of. However, as a fuel historian there are a few things I would like to expand upon in terms of supply chains and large populations.
As fuelwood is the annual growth of plants, its production is limited by photosynthesis. As a result, there is only so much of it that can be produced and very large cities have never been primarily wood-burning. In fact, the first city to have a population significantly over 1 million inhabitants was coal-burning London in the early nineteenth century. I do not know of any city over a million residents at any point that was wood-burning. If anyone does, please let me know. The City of Toronto currently has 2.6 million residents and the Golden Horseshoe over 6 million. Given its propensity for somewhat cold winters, to supply such a population with consistent fuelwood would require around 10,000 square miles of land efficiently dedicated to producing only firewood. Fossil fuels and electricity can be generated on larger scales and are easier to ship to major cities. Without them, it would be difficult to have places as large as Toronto and it is difficult to revert.
One thing that strikes me as a fuel historian of the 18th century is that 21st century Canadians heat their houses to much higher temperatures than past people. My research focuses on England, where winter temperatures are generally warmer. The normal interior temperature was such that in 1790 medical writer James Adair warned about the dangers of overheated rooms. Those overheated rooms in winter were ones that reached 60 degrees Fahrenheit (15.5oC). Meanwhile, in Denmark it was normal to have frost inside homes in the eighteenth-century and in homes were not heated in relatively cold Iceland. It is easy to say that 21st century Torontonians are soft, but the ability to heat spacious rooms to any desired temperature represents a major improvement to the quality of life. To have this many people living to these standards is a major achievement of electricity generation, oil pipelines and modern technology. The massive energy infrastructure is fragile, as evidenced by last month’s storm and it could probably be better maintained but it cannot be replaced for a city that large.


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Commemoration and the First World War

We begin 2014 in the midst of renewed discussions about the appropriate ways to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of the First World War’s outbreak. In England this is evident with the recent column by Education Secretary Michael Gove and the numerous responses to it. Commenters on various sides of the political spectrum are using the anniversary for political advantage and most public discussion is for 21st century purposes. In this context, there are a few things that have come to my mind about the anniversary and its commemoration.

The first of these is that many people have difficulty separating the actions of ordinary soldiers from the overall war aims or military strategy. Whatever one thinks of the war’s justness or the effectiveness of its conduct, 15 million men died. On both sides, these were mostly hard-working men about whom we would think positively on a personal level. Similar things can be said about the survivors. Many people’s likeable grandfathers risked lives and endured misery in Belgian trenches. However, the same can be said for those who fought in the German, Austrian, Ottoman and Russian armies. To honour the soldiers and remember the war’s massive impact, need not justify it.

Another important thing to remember is that many soldiers enlisted for reasons that had nothing to do with the war aims. One of these was unemployment. The outbreak of war collapsed global trade and triggered a deep recession in August and September 1914. In the midst of unemployment and few prospects for better circumstances, it is easy to understand why many enlisted during those months. Another factor that affected military enlistment, particularly in Britain, was the relatively high pay and good food of soldiers. Robert Roberts recalled his childhood in the poor Manchester suburb of Salford in The Classic Slum. He describes that when war broke out those who enlisted were properly nourished for the first time in their lives and came back for leave after the first month’s training an inch taller and a stone heavier. With higher wages and more opportunities than back home, it is easy to understand why some men enlisted in the war whether or not they had any opinion on Prussian militarism. Separating the actions and motivations of ordinary soldiers from war aims and strategy would allow us to critically evaluate the latter without it being superseded by individual heroism in the Somme.

There is also a tendency in the English-speaking world to discuss the war’s effects without considering the Russian Revolution and Civil War. It is very difficult to imagine that these would have occurred without the preceding two and a half years of war on the Eastern Front. They also led to more deaths than the formal fighting between states generally associated with the First World War. In terms of longer-term impact, the Soviet Union was also the most significant consequence of the war. It is possible to argue that despite the deaths in the Russian Civil War, it made the world a better place. I don’t subscribe to that view and I highly doubt that Michael Gove or Stephen Harper do either. To argue that the war improved the world without considering the Russian Civil War, failed communist revolutions in Europe or the loss of global trade that John Maynard Keynes lamented in The Economic Consequences of the Peace is to look for heroes on the battlefield rather than understanding its actual effects. Given that the Russo-Japanese War had ended in a revolution in Russia in 1905, the 1917 Revolution was also foreseeable consequence of the First World War. In fact, as the war began Albertan newspapers predicted both the war’s scale and the likelihood that it would end in revolution.

Public commemoration of the First World War would be more intelligent and less polarizing if we acknowledged that the valour of soldier’s need not justify the war, that they didn’t necessarily enlist in support of war aims and that its consequences were heavily tied up in the Russian Civil War.

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Do Historians Believe the Kingdom is United? History Curriculums and National History

By David Zylberberg

Benedict Anderson famously wrote that nations are Imagined Communities brought together by a vision of common identity. The ways in which history is taught and understood play an important role in fostering national commonality. Many current countries do not have that sense of common identity. Such countries are held together by chance, inertia, military force or the cost-benefit analysis of referendum voters. The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is one such country since most Scottish or English people do not see themselves as part of the same nation.

Scotland and England have shared a monarch since 1603 and have been formally united since the Act of Union in 1707. At that point, the Scottish Parliament ceased to exist and representatives were sent to Westminster. In 1999, the Scottish Parliament was resurrected with jurisdiction over some regional services. Currently, the Scottish National Party forms a majority government and it has promised a referendum on secession for 2014.

Scotland has been integral to the United Kingdom of Great Britain since its inception. Moreover, English was the most common language of Scotland prior to that and most Scots have always lived in the Lowlands. The northern portion of the island also underwent similar social and cultural developments to southern regions throughout the last half millennia. Due to their many similarities and shared political heritage, it would not be difficult to construct a coherent national history that incorporated the island’s shared social, cultural, political and economic developments. Yet this does not usually happen.

Education falls under Scottish jurisdiction so the school History curriculum differs from that used in England and Wales. In Scotland, the current curriculum includes separate units at each level for Scottish, British, European and World History. The English curriculum claims to be national and uses the term ‘Britain’ to refer to the nation. However, it places considerable emphasis on events that barely affected Scotland, such as the Roman Empire or the Norman Conquest. Many of the points at which Scotland appears involve conflicts between the two nations, such as the Battle of Bannockburn, the English Invasion of 1639 or the Jacobite Rebellion. Although most of the social and cultural changes of recent centuries affected both regions, the English are generally taught them using English examples and without reference to Scotland.

Academic historians also research the social, cultural and economic history of England and Scotland separately. This can be seen in how the Industrial Revolution was taught, since it was one of the key developments in both regions. It also emphasizes the ways in which Scottish History is treated separately. As a historical development, it involved a major expansion of manufacturing, new technology and the rise of large factories and was regionally concentrated in a few areas. At the beginning of the 19th century, the most industrialized regions in the world were northern England, central Scotland and Wallonia. Yet, most of the scholarship focusses on northern English industrialization without reference to Scotland. There are many more books and articles on Yorkshire and Lancashire industrialization than on Lanarkshire. Most courses are also taught with Scottish industrialization either as an aside or not mentioned, while syntheses deal exclusively with English industrialization. The Scottish Industrial Revolution has its own separate textbooks.

National identity is fostered through a sense of commonality. This occurs through a common language, cultural institutions, migration and social organizations. It also occurs through sport. In this regard it is telling that England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland compete separately in the two most popular team sports. History curriculums also play an important role in creating nations by emphasizing a common heritage and similarities. National history does not need to occur at the expense of analysis. Whatever subjects are selected, every book or course inherently ends up creating a narrative, which often emphasizes similarity. For the United Kingdom, a national history could be created that emphasized common developments. Industrial Glasgow had many common experiences with Manchester and both benefitted from the Clean Air Act. If such similarities received greater emphasis than 700 year old battles, British people would be more likely to see themselves as part of the same nation.

It is not my place to suggest whether the lives of most Scots would be better or worse if they voted for independence. However, it remains striking that the discussions are entirely centred on a cost-benefit analysis without much thought of the larger cultural connections. The British government is committed to austerity and is reducing military procurement which is causing layoffs at Scottish shipyards. Some analysts suggest that this could have a large impact on the 2014 referendum. A shipyard closure would not have such effects on the referendum if Scots believed themselves to be part of a British nation.

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