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Peter Clarke's substantial contributions to British history have been concerned with many themes. But they have been productively unified by a consistent, often innovative, and always refreshing, attention to the relationship between ideas, events and policy-making – and, more finely, by an exploration of the influences that run between politics and economic ideas, usually from the latter to the former, but occasionally, and tellingly, from the former to the latter. The result has been a deeply perceptive understanding of political economy, which explores its dynamics and evolution in the setting of the twin worlds of pragmatic, often pressing, problems, and intellectual architecture. The capacity for this to include ample scope for moral assumptions, sometimes structuring economic arguments, sometimes hiding within them, has been amply demonstrated in other essays within this collection.
This chapter considers merely one aspect of these issues by discussing some of the moral implications and consequences of a limited number of important themes in the economic history of modern Britain: the long-run performance of the economy; the structural changes associated with that performance; and the attitudes and actions which were shaped by the experience and even more by the perceptions, first of macro-economic and structural change, and second, of the ways in which the fruits of growth might be distributed.
So much work has already gone into this theme, and so many accomplished experts have contributed papers on the general and theoretical, as well as on the detailed and empirical question of multinational enterprises, that there hardly appears much scope for a further contribution. And yet the sheer volume and variety of submissions – evidence of the pervasive significance of the topic as well as of the persistence of the organisers of this session – mean that some search for main issues might be useful. Looking through the contributions on multinational enterprises produced for this Congress, it is not difficult to detect a small number of themes which recur, and are worth emphasising.
The initial point is perhaps an obvious one. It concerns the role of historical research. The problem of multinational firms actually existed in the contemporaneous world of economic observation and political anxiety before it became a fully-fledged and explicit topic of historical inquiry. As with other questions in applied economics (inflation, for example, or economic development), it soon became clear that not only did multinationals have a history, they also only exist in history. The historian's task, then, became the essential one of empirical elucidation: to examine the origins of multinational enterprise and investment, to produce a typology of such activities, and to suggest (through case-studies and comparative work) answers to such questions as: Why do multinational enterprises evolve?
From some viewpoints, coalmining seems a quintessential nationalized industry – troubled by powerful economic and social forces, directly dependent on public support and subsidy for the maintenance of harmony and the enhancement of productivity, plagued by lagging efficiency. Yet the transfer of the country's collieries to public ownership on 1 January 1947 was envisaged as a solution to many of these problems, which had been troubling the industry since the First World War. Indeed, public ownership can be represented as an end as well as a beginning – as the culmination of a political and economic controversy that had dogged the mining industry for at least thirty years.
When it finally came, nationalization was a victory for a surprising variety of interest groups and opinions. It was also surprisingly uncontentious. Quite apart from the miners' and the Labour Party's commitment, the Liberal Party were wavering and the Conservatives favoured a substantial increase in public control. Indeed, according to The Economist in April 1945, ‘Support for the principle of public ownership of the mines is now very wide indeed, extending probably to two and a half of the three parties.’
More than this, there were businessmen and engineers in the industry – fervent advocates of structural change and technical modernization – who had abandoned any hope that the traditional patterns of ownership and control could be reformed on a voluntary basis. Most of these favoured some form of collective industrial self-management.
Few groups of businessmen have received such a bad press in the twentieth century as the British coalowners. Hysterically individualistic, obstinate to a socially destructive degree, inhumane in their dealings with wages and with working and living conditions, above all reactionary in their attitudes to economic systems and technical or organizational change–their stereotyped characteristics have lost them the historical argument as surely as they sapped their public authority in all the propaganda battles which culminated in their expropriation in 1946.
Even if it were possible to envisage an attempt to resuscitate the coalowners' moral, political or economic standing, this would not be the place for such a herculean task. Rather, the purpose of this essay is to examine the context and content of the views propounded by the coalowners' representatives in the years immediately following the First World War, and especially in 1919–20–a brief period of particularly illuminating revelation, when, according to the Secretary of the Mining Association of Great Britain (henceforth MAGB or Mining Association) ‘the whole country was in a state of nerves … [and] there were very many people who thought we were on the brink of social revolution’. For, even though historians are aware of the circumstances which shaped the coalowners' economic attitudes, there is still an understandable tendency to present them as a coherent, almost spontaneous, ideology-divorced from economic reality or culpably inconsistent with the goals of other groups in society. In fact, however, as is generally the case, policy and argument in the coal industry were shaped by ‘external’ economic and historical realities, by political pressures and concepts of self-respect and group antipathy, by the dynamics of organization and representation.
The characteristics of economic enterprise between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries bear only an oblique resemblance to those of enterprise in the more recent, industrialized environment. This chapter illustrates the diverse nature of enterprise in the early modern period. It first discusses economic aspects of the framework of enterprise, and then emphasizes that economic institutions and market forces naturally dominated the entrepreneurial scene. The role of enterprise was no less important in an economic environment in which rate of change was slow than it was to be in one where change was very rapid. The intimate connection between finance and trade in the early modern period meant that the financial was frequently indistinguishable from the commercial entrepreneur. The chapter focuses on industrial enterprise, corporate enterprise, European aristocracy and European nations. It concludes that entrepreneurial problems and the techniques designed to solve those problems were largely derived from the risks of an underdeveloped economy.