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May 16, 2006

British Exceptionalism: Exceptionalism and Industrialisation: Britain and its European Rivals, 1688-1815 - (Ed.) Leandro Prados de la Escosura

Posted by Jeremy Black

Exceptionalism and Industrialisation: Britain and its European Rivals, 1688-1815
edited by Leandro Prados de la Escosura
Pp. xv+335. Cambridge University Press, 2004
Hardback, 55

Exceptionalism is key not only to national myth, but also to the question of why Britain emerged as the great commercial and maritime power. Exceptionalism is also a topic that can rarely be approached simply from one perspective, which poses problems for scholarship. If collections of essays rarely work, that is even more true of festschrifts. It is therefore a pleasure to note that this volume, based on a conference in honour of Patrick O'Brien, is consistently interesting and focused.

The emphasis is on economic history, although the collection includes Daniel Baugh's consideration of what gave Britain naval superiority. He argues that the material and institutional advantages of the British navy stemmed from steadiness of financial support, commitment to maintaining a large reserve of seamen through peacetime enforcement of the Navigation Acts, and an assumption that there would be extensive and sustained active service at sea. In turn the navy safeguarded the dynamic competitiveness of the multilateral British Atlantic commercial system, helping give Britain a key advantage over its rivals.

Javier Cuenca Esteban offers a more complex account, suggesting that in Britain, unlike France, change and industry reinforced one another in a long-term process where small initial differences were most likely to turn into cumulative advantage and that this positive feedback process was self-financing as long as a perception of military superiority enhanced the likely winner's credibility to repay war debts.

Larry Neal suggests that the British financial system was more resistant to shock than its Dutch and French counterparts in large part because of its rich mixture of varied financial institutions and its pattern of interrelated financial markets.

Richard Bonney argues that the French Revolution and the subsequent warfare until 1815 led to the loss of France's relative position as a powerful threat to British economic superiority.

Technological change is addressed by Christine MacLeod, James Thomson and Rainer Fremdling.

MacLeod assesses the "European origins" of British technological predominance, arguing that to meet technical challenges, British investors drew on a European reservoir of technical knowledge and skills. Despite her title, she ends up noting British exceptionalism (p.126):

It was fortuitous that Britain had excellent coal reserves and a peculiar set of protective legislation which had stimulated the growth of Europe's largest cotton industry during the eighteenth century, but, given these circumstances, it was less fortuitous that important inventions in these fields were made in Britain rather than elsewhere.
Conversely, it can be suggested that it was far from fortuitous that Britain made better use than other states of its raw materials and external trade. An important collection, although one that would have benefited from far more attention to the contours and nuances of governmental practice, political culture, social dynamics, and religious attitudes.

Jeremy Black is Professor of History, University of Exeter. Amongst much else, he is the author of The British Seaborne Empire (Yale University Press, 2004) and The European Question and the National Interest (Social Affairs Unit, 2006).

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