These two volumes of The Cambridge Economic History of Modern Britain follow their predecessors, published in 1981, 1994 and 2003, in bringing together experts in economic history from across the world to reflect on our current understanding of British economic history since 1700 and to describe and explain the most recent views of important historical controversies. As in those earlier volumes, the intention is to provide a text which is comprehensible to an intelligent lay audience, both at universities and more widely, but which does not avoid the sometimes difficult task of explaining economic theory and statistical methodologies as they have been used to assist in historical interpretation.
In the preface to the edition of 2003, these words appeared: ‘change is always with us, a lesson which needs to be learned by each generation. It should be learned particularly by those eminent economic commentators who, at each stage of the business cycle, confidently predict that that stage, whether of boom or bust, will go on forever.’ As this new edition is written, in the midst of the worst ‘bust’ since the 1930s, those words possibly give grounds for some optimism. Historians usually reject any notion that one can ‘learn from history’, but it is a matter of observation – as described in these volumes – that economies, including the British economy, are resilient, that invention and innovation continue and that economic growth resumes after periods of decline.
We also trust that recent economic events will raise the profile of historical analysis. The Queen is reputed to have asked a group of economists at the London School of Economics: ‘Why did no one see this coming?’ As she implied, economic theorists failed to predict, forestall or even – after the event – very clearly explain the factors that contributed to the global economic meltdown and subsequent recession. Indeed, many economists believed between 2000 and 2008 that we had entered a new economic age incorporating, as the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, unwisely suggested, ‘the end of boom and bust’.