Learning to abide the 'tax eater' state

The Political Economy of British Historical Experience, 1688-1914
April 4, 2003

The great and the good do not necessarily make the best contributors to edited volumes. Sometimes exceptionally busy and sometimes a touch too aware of their achievements, they may be tempted to recycle earlier research and to resist even the most stringent (or subtle) of editorial direction. Certainly, many of the contributors to this volume, published to celebrate the centenary of the British Academy, are as distinguished as one could wish. They include the holders of chairs at Cambridge, Oxford, the London School of Economics and University College London and the director of the Economic and Social Research Council's cultures of consumption programme.

Yet whatever their difficulties, the editors have put together a collection that is at once scholarly and accessible, cohesive and outward looking. It focuses on the contribution that economic thinking made to the public understanding of Britain's economic experience between the late 17th and the early 20th centuries. The book brings together what Donald Winch calls "that disputatious pair", economic history and the history of economics.

The volume is divided into five sections that treat, in turn, "The view from abroad" (with contributions by Emma Rothschild, Gareth Stedman Jones and James Thompson), "Land tenure" (F. M. L. Thompson and Peter Gray), "Empire, free trade and protection" (Kenneth Morgan, Anthony Howe and Frank Trentmann), "Fiscal and monetary regimes" (Patrick K. O'Brien, Julian Hoppitt, Forrest Capie, Martin Daunton and G. C. Peden), and "Poor law and welfare" (Joanna Innes and Jose Harris). Its appendix lists the 140 economists, economic historians and historians of economic thought who have been elected to the British Academy since its establishment in 1902.

The view one takes as to the originality and importance of the contributions depends inevitably upon one's background. Somewhat to my surprise, I found that the section on "Fiscal and monetary regimes" contains a great deal to attract somebody who would describe himself primarily as a social historian. In a lucid and assured piece, Daunton explores the ways in which the political elite managed to transform early 19th-century resentment at the "tax eater" state into mid-late century acceptance of the state as class neutral, legitimate and trustworthy. In 1848, it has often been pointed out, the outbreak of revolutions in Europe contrasted sharply with the collapse of Chartism at home. "The radicals of mid-Victorian Britain," Daunton suggests, "were willing to trust elite politicians such as Peel and Gladstone and to accept the legitimacy of the state, rather than to castigate them as selfish and corrupt - Leviathan was chained and, perhaps more importantly, trusted and so released for effective action."

The two contributions comprising the book's final section on poor law and welfare contain much to commend them. Both stress the conservatism of British welfare policy. In her study of poor law provision between the mid-18th and mid-19th centuries, Innes thoughtfully explores the reforms of the 1830s, and the attempts to extend the principle of tax-based relief to Ireland in 1838, and to Scotland seven years later. The Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834, Innes concedes, changed both the administration of the system and the terms on which relief was offered. However, it destroyed, she emphasises, neither the right to relief nor the fact that the poor law was underwritten by local rates. "England's reliance on a system of 'legal charity', on tax-based relief, was for long distinctive."

Harris takes up the themes of change and continuity, distinctiveness and diversity in the chapter "From poor law to welfare state? A European perspective". How was it, she wonders, that despite the poor law's abolition in 1948, so many of the system's structures survived - or re-emerged in new guises - in the second half of the century? Her answer challenges two major tenets of welfare historiography. The shift from poor law provision to universal insurance, she suggests, never really occurred:

"The vast majority of claimants for relief were nearly always women, children, the disabled and the aged, whereas those entitled to social insurance benefits were always predominantly adult males." Nor, she believes, was the poor law loathed as much as we are led to suppose. "Where workhouses evolved into quiet and comfortable old people's homes, cottage hospitals, and high-quality infirmaries, then in some areas at least people began to 'queue up' to get into them, long before the poor law was formally abolished."

"We wouldn't want to read such a book, so why should we write it," retorted one fellow of the British Academy when told of the proposal for this collection. Such sceptics have their answer. Specialists and non-specialists will benefit from the experience and expertise of the scholars contributing to this volume. The collection demonstrates, as the academy hoped, something of the vitality of British historical scholarship at the turn of the millennium.

John Benson is emeritus professor of history, University of Wolverhampton.

The Political Economy of British Historical Experience, 1688-1914

Editor - Donald Winch and Patrick K. O'Brien
ISBN - 0 19 7262 4
Publisher - Oxford University Press/British Academy
Price - £40.00
Pages - 453

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