Empire in Asia

A New Global History

The Pelican Economic History of Britain, Vol. 3

Book Cover

Book Title

The Pelican Economic History of Britain, Volume 3: From 1750 to the Present Day, Industry and Empire. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1968


Hobsbawm, E.J.


This book is an attempt at accounting for Britain’s rise as the first industrial power, and subsequent to this, the many effects of this development over time. Placing Britain at the centrality of the world’s economic development, in relation to the era of industrialization, Hobsbawm attempts to write an account which is accessible to the general public. The work assesses and presents the prior scholarship on the subject, and it is written with the concerns of the particular time (1950s-1960s) in mind; such as the disparities between developed and developing nations, and the advent of postwar decolonization.

By placing emphasis on the uniqueness of Britain’s development in terms of “economic and social pioneering”, it studies the impact and character of these developments and their relationship to institutions within Britain. However, some focus is given to the role of Britain globally, in tandem with the expansion of trade and the advent of empire.

Combining the seemingly opposite phenomena of political practices continuing from the pre-industrial era, and the elimination of the peasantry signifying change and the emergence of the ‘middle’ and ‘working’ classes; the book gives the reader an account of the enduring British system. This then leads to an examination of practices and tradition-expanded upon in the chapters which survey different topics.

The book synthesizes established perspectives and thus is both a good introduction for readers to the literature on the development of modern Britain and its foundations in the process of industrialization.

Hobsbawm instructively tells the reader that the calculations that marked the transformation of society (human activity came to be expressed, if to look at Jeremy Bentham’s ideas of “deduct the pain from the pleasure and the net result was his happiness”), is inferior to the transformations themselves.

Scope (Topics Covered, Time Period)

This book covers the period from 1750 to the 1960s. Dealing with the institutions within Britain, it is no surprise that a large emphasis is placed on understanding society and social transformations in the period. Even in the case of the industrial revolution, Hobsbawm devotes a chapter to understanding the “human results” that followed; and the development of cities is seen through the lens of labour and the accumulation of capital. The book, therefore, explains the impact of trends over time-exploring points of significance that may not be as conspicuous as a history of, for instance, political developments in Britain.

From the beginnings of industrial expansion to the conquering of the British detective story by the thrillers of the USA, the book explicates the rise and decline of Britain as an industrial power and as a major player in global affairs. The emphasis of the author, however, lies in the developments within Britain themselves.

Both boom and decline feature in this work, but the critical use of topics such as standards of living, agriculture, land and their transformations allow the history to encompass many facets. It gives the author a wide scope to work with.

Argument (Methodology, Significance)

Hobsbawm cautions the reader in his preface against the over-reliance of statistics, and the work grounds itself in the information gotten from Abstract of British Historical Statistics. Whilst Britain cannot be seen as the only industrial power in history and may be only part of a global phase, it does require a detailed study to unravel and explain the economic and social change in Britain, which allows us an insight to both an important player in our contemporary past and as an imperial power.

Britain found itself profoundly affected by the collapse of the single liberal world economy, and being no longer important in the inter-war period. With the shift of the economy from being uncontrolled to monopolist, and subsequently to new industrial technologies constantly replacing old ones, this coincided with the creation new traditions whilst retaining some older traditions from the past.

In comparison to the Western European nations compared with at the time of the book’s publication, the author asserts that Britain did not adapt itself with similar success- being marked by nostalgia for economic supremacy and imperial dominance.

By 1960, Britain had become the third largest industrial economy, but was far behind those that were ahead of it. However, if we were to detach ourselves from a global lens, we could see that domestically, the people of Britain had a high standard of living. Developing a simple two class system and the ability of the Labour party to potentially form a government in politics, whilst being traditionally socialist, this reflects a unique and distinct trajectory for Britain in the view of the author.

If we are to study the development of society under the system we know as capitalism, the author argues, we must be able to understand the British experience after 1750. This is aptly contained in the title “Industry and Empire”.

Annotated by Sandeep Singh