How the British Empire Blighted Britain

Empire Blight

Gwydion M. Williams explains why there’s nothing natural about the way we live now

In the past, I’ve said that ordinary Britons are no better off than they’d have been if Britain had followed the Swedish pattern, dropping the nation’s imperial ambitions in the early 18th century rather than the mid-20th century. I don’t withdraw it. But I do accept the point that Britain, England especially, is a very different place from what it would have been if it had chosen early on to live its own life and not bother its neighbours. Definitely happier, quite possibly richer, but also with a smaller population in England, speaking a tongue of no global importance. (Someone else, probably the French, would have multiplied their culture in North America.)

Considered as a homogeneous unit, the United Kingdom does not seem very far out of line. Not much more densely populated than Germany. But split the components, and you find that England is one of the most densely population countries in the world. You find that Britain’s ‘Celtic Fringes’ are depopulated – parts of Wales and Scotland have less people now than they had in the 18th or 19th centuries. Ireland is an even more drastic case, hugely reduced from the official high-point of 8 million just before the potato famine. Even supposing that this 8 million was the maximum – I’m aware of arguments that there were even more Irish outside of the official figures – there has been an astonishing decline, surpassed only by placed like the 19th century Belgium Congo and by Native American populations (all of them vastly reduced from their pre-Columbus totals).

I tried roughly calculated what the populations would be like, if the various European nations had followed a single pattern of growth:

Population If the population density was like
Total in   Millions per square mile England Germany France
England 50 984 30.9 14.6
Wales 3 367 8.0 5.0 2.3
Scotland 5 166 29.6 18.3 8.6
Northern Ireland 1.7 309 5.4 3.4 1.6
Republic of Ireland 4 149 26.4 16.3 7.7
United Kingdom 60 648 91 56 27
Germany 82 609 132 39
France 60 287 206 127
Italy 58 512 111 69 33
Spain 40 209 188 117 55
Poland 39 328 117 72 34
Ukraine 48 205 230 143 67
Sweden 9 56 158 98 46

Geography explains some of it. Sweden has one of the lowest population densities in Europe, but that’s down to being cold and mountainous. France seems to have limited its own population quite remarkably, with widespread birth control and a general inclination to enjoy life rather than striving for pointless accumulation. But 8 million Irish or even 16 million would be within European norms. You see a land hugely damaged by its proximity to a World Empire.

The distribution of population in the United Kingdom is utterly bizarre, and would look even odder if you analysed England by region. Vast numbers of people are crowded into the less beautiful and interesting parts of the country. They leave behind the good scenery and pour into massively bloated London, and also Birmingham, which you can easily forget about even though it is the UK’s second largest city. Where is the much-vaunted freedom of choice?

I also looked outside of Europe. The USA has been Europe’s ‘Overspill’ for centuries, but is still quite thinly populated. China turns out to have a modest average population density, but this averages the densely populated East with the almost-empty West and interior. Whereas India really is as crowded as people think it is, and likewise Japan.

Population per square mile Population in Millions
United States 74 274
China 359 1294
India 928 1065
New Zealand 39 4
Australia 7 19
Japan 836 127
Sudan 37 36
Nigeria 390 137
South Africa 91 43

To get back to Britain, why is the population so concentrated around the capital? Wouldn’t people’s wishes, expressed through market forces, take them to where they wished to live? That’s what would happen, if there were any truth in the New Right view, in which ‘the best thing in life is money’. But this view is total rubbish Money does not exist without political power. Throughout human history, a state-run or state-authorities body has been needed to define and preserve the value of money. Without that, you’d need barter, which can make use of precious metal, but does not allow sophisticated commerce. Without a state, economics work by a mix of barter and gift-exchange. It can be mistaken for commerce, but the spirit of it is very different.

Actual historic rules are:

  1. Capitalism has only flourished where a strong state exists and is encouraging it.
  2. ‘Free Markets’ lead to a clustering round a single centre.
  3. No society has ever gained material riches without also expanding its state sector.

Three centuries of Rights-of-Money thinking has caused a clustering round the centre of political authority, the abnormal nexus of London and the ‘Home Counties’. Money depends on the state being there and able to enforce rules that are generally useful and specifically inconvenient. No one wants to have to pay their debts when they are short. But no one wants to be denied what they are owed. There has to be state authority able to give meaning to the decisions made by judges. Indifference is the official ideal, but not at all the reality. The Mogul State in India before the British conquest was willing to let traders be really free, sort out their own lives, and so nothing very new happened.

Having got the rules they wanted in the 18th century, rich people elevated these rules to be ‘The Law’, something God-given and beyond human reason. Everyone knows that English Law has no connection with human reason, but the habit is to treat it as a fortunate accident, something that works well for all of its faults. Traditional England went on believing this, until traditional England had pretty much vanished. Likewise Nonconformism, the hard-line Protestant creed that had a lot to do with British industrialisation. Nonconformists remained committed to a pro-money creed without noticing that money was much more subversive than any political radicalism.

For the New Right, money owed to the government is serfdom. They say it is ‘liberation day’ when you have worked a number of working days equal to the tax you pay. (Meaning that the higher your tax rate, the more the system is oppressing you.) But where is the logic to this? We are told that it is rational, for reasons that only well-paid right-wing economists are capable of understanding.

What they ignore is that you’ve never had a complex economy without a state. Tribalism, yes, maybe a very happy sort of tribal existence, but that’s not what they’re after and happy tribalism has been attacked and damaged wherever it is found. When Britain was industrialising – the key years were 1760 to 1830 – it was already a strong military-political empire, able to draw in wealth from overseas and to create markets for its industrial products. It now gets idealised by Tories as a low-tax small-state era. But from small beginnings, the state in the 18th century was growing faster than the fast-growing society. This trend continued through the Victorian era, though there was a great deal of meanness towards the poor, workhouses and the deliberate neglect of Ireland in the potato famine.

Up until the 1980s, the richer the society, the bigger the state machine sitting at the centre of it. From the 1980s, the New Right waged an ideological war to reduce the role of the state – and failed. What they have successfully done is transfer a greater slice of the social wealth to those who were already well off. They have not really reduced state power. They have not boosted economic growth: they have messed up France and Germany, but the biggest economic success 1975-2000 has been China. In China, the state is at the centre of everything and the currency remains protected from the whiles and whims of the money-markets. The European Union is still refusing to classify China as a market economy.

China’s success since 1975 gets identified as ‘capitalist’, even though it has less in common with Anglo capitalism that economies that are described as urgently in need of ‘reform’. But under the pro-Western Kuomintang, China’s net economic growth was zero. The economy even shrank a little, in the days when it was open to the West without any functional Chinese government in charge of the process. (The World Economy: Historical Statistics). Starting from a very low base, Mao more than tripled China’s economy during his period of rule. If Mao had had an effective successor who had continued the same policies, China today would still be comfortably richer than India, even if it wasn’t the budding superpower that it has become with Western help and investment.

You can also see it as the world getting back to normal, having absorbed the abnormalities of Britain’s Industrial Revolution. In the 18th century, China and India were on a level with Europe—and also totally uninterested in Europe, it was Europe that was forcing itself upon then. By the mid-21st century, a parity may have been re-established, with no reason to think that those societies will show the sort of aggressiveness that was typical for Europe from the Crusades onwards.

Since a rich society cannot exist without a state machine funded out of taxation, tax should be seen as a king of social rental, you have a cash obligation. You get the benefits of living in a rich society, and can largely do as you please so long as you pay. But the New Right is dominated by characters who are so cheap and greedy that they don’t notice how much they have, just that it’s not as much as they think they merit.

If we could get back to the successful tax-and-spend policies of 1950-1975, we could have a vastly better Britain, and one with much more chance of people actually living as they pleased.


First published in Labour & Trade Union Review, 2005

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