Although the British nation is a political entity that is bound by the rule of a particular law or set of laws, is governed by a national parliament, is subject to a single foreign policy, and is organised within the parameters of centrally directed economic and social policies and regulations, it remains a place of great variety and complexity; arguably that variety and complexity was more marked in previous centuries than it is today. To begin to comprehend that complexity, the historian is obliged to focus upon the composite parts of the nation, and not simply upon the aggregate that makes up the whole.
This truth is reflected in changing approaches to an understanding of the ‘industrial revolution’ in recent years. The national accounts approach, championed in particular by Crafts, emphasised the slow rate of economic growth apparent through the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries when measured at national (or macro) level. The Lancashire cotton industry, which was indeed revolutionised, was thus atypical, operating within a wider context of traditionalism and backwardness (Crafts 1985).
In a crucial intervention, Berg and Hudson argued not only that the manner in which national accounts data were calculated left much room for uncertainty and possessed inbuilt bias, but also that dividing the traditional sector from the modern obscures as much as it reveals in attempting to understand the industrial revolution, for they often operated in tandem. What is more, a key element excluded from such calculations was the contribution of women and children, which was of crucial – and in some sectors increasing – importance during the early industrial years. Above all, the national accounting approach obscures the diversity of experience across the nation, for expanding and industrialising regions existed alongside regions of industrial stagnation and decline. As such, the industrial revolution ‘was an economic and social process which added up to much more than the sum of its measurable parts’, requiring us to ‘rebuild the national picture of economic and social change from new research at regional and local level’ (Berg and Hudson 1992: 44).