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Triumph of the South: A Regional Economic History of Early Twentieth Century Britain

Author(s):Scott, Peter
Reviewer(s):Wardley, Peter

Published by EH.NET (October 2009)

Peter Scott, Triumph of the South: A Regional Economic History of Early Twentieth Century Britain. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2007. xiv + 324 pp. ?65 (cloth), ISBN: 978-1-84014-613-4.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Peter Wardley, Department of History, University of the West of England, Bristol.

In the Triumph of the South, Peter Scott, Director of the Centre for International Business History and Professor at the University of Reading, has drawn upon his research into specific aspects of interwar British economic and social history to provide an overview of regional development between 1870 and 1939. Scott?s investigations, that have utilized neglected or under-utilized sources, encompass the origins of British regional policy, private sector industrial estates, the nature of the English property market and its agencies, working class house-ownership, hire purchase, and the institutional barriers that impeded transport rationalization in both the coal mining industry and the coal carrying trade undertaken by British railway companies. At the heart of this study are chapters informed by this research that describe and analyze dynamic components of the interwar British economy: the new manufacturing industries of Greater London, the labor market that characterized the interwar industrial estates, and the long distance migration of workers recruited to the new factories. By contrast to vibrant industrial development in the ?South,? the manufacturing sector of depressed ?outer-Britain? experienced only limited innovation; relatively few new plants were established, the expansion of employment in the factories associated with the ?New Industries? was relatively small and their labor productivity was relatively low. Oddly, given the clearly demonstrated relative advantage of the ?South? in the provision of services, and the relative importance of these activities in both the region?s prosperity and economic expansion, apart from tourism the services sectors receive relatively little attention. For example, to select one specific dimension of change, whereas much is made of the failure to embrace technical innovation exhibited by the ?old staples,? and especially the coal industry, no mention is made of the comprehensive implementation of mechanization undertaken by British financial companies at the end of the 1920s. Furthermore, not only is the measurement of productivity growth in services presented here as a more problematic exercise than recent research has demonstrated but the early twentieth century domestic service sector is described as ?a very large employer, with very limited potential for productivity gains? (p. 24). In the context of this study, this is somewhat odd: if this were so in the interwar years, what then was the motive of those who purchased the millions of household appliances produced on the industrial estates so carefully enumerated here?

Scott?s authoritative treatment of the aspects of the interwar years he has so closely researched also stands in contrast with his less convincing consideration of the longer run historical context. The introductory chapters demonstrate a range of basic problems that are conceptual and definitional in kind, reflecting geo-political and economic ambiguities that could lead astray a more naive reader. It would have been useful to indicate very clearly that ?Britain? in this period is a political fiction as the functioning state was the ?United Kingdom,? a union of Britain and Ireland before 1921 and Britain and Northern Ireland after. In this book England gets the lion?s share of attention, Scotland some consideration, Wales little and Ireland none. This constrained perspective has broader analytical and interpretative consequences. A somewhat pessimistic stance towards British economic performance before the First World War depends to a large extent on a comparison of British income per capita data (Table 3.2, p. 33) relative to that of the world?s more developed economies. However, George Boyer?s chapter on ?Living Standards, 1860-1939? (Boyer, pp. 282-83; 294-95), the source upon which Scott relies, is not unmisleading in this context. Boyer, citing data estimated by Angus Maddison, and without mention of this distinction, reports the national income per capita of a ?Britain? which is really an ahistorical United Kingdom, a hypothetical economy defined by political boundaries that would be drawn only in 1921. Nevertheless, Maddison does provides disaggregated estimates for Irish and British income per capita, and it is the latter that Scott should be interested in, given that his story relates specifically to Britain. When Britain, strictly defined, is compared to the United States of America, the relative gap in national income per capita in 1913 is shrunk from that reported of just over five percent to less than three; by analogy to conventional measures of statistical significance, while the former might just about warrant mention, the latter difference would be usually be regarded as insignificant. Moreover, the same comparative perspective indicates that in 1913 British income per capita was in excess of thirty percent higher than that of Germany or France; how many Britons would not now be delighted by the restoration of a similar lead relative to the current level of output per person achieved in Germany and France? Clearly, and contrary to Scott?s gloomy prognosis, on the eve of the Great War the British economy was not failing.

This somewhat negative view also colors analysis of British economic agencies, especially the firms that populated the Victorian economy, and questionable assumptions bolster a rather thin international perspective. Although Britain was the location of most of the world?s largest industrial enterprises at the time of the Great Exhibition of 1851, and probably a third of the world?s largest companies in 1912, with Germany assumed wrongly here to outstrip Britain on this count, much is made of the detrimental consequences of the relatively small size of British firms. However, the significance of firms at the lower end of the corporate spectrum is also interpreted somewhat narrowly. It is difficult to see the existence of well-developed networks of small and medium enterprises (SMEs) that had been established in Britain in the nineteenth century as, per se, a peculiarly national impediment to economic growth. After all, the significant contribution to German economic development of the Mittelstand is well-established in the literature. Moreover, Philip Scranton has told a similar story concerning the contribution of the SMEs, which also saw the development of clusters, networks, external economies and regional specialisms, to American economic development before 1939. Given these international comparisons, that suggest otherwise, and taking the long run view, I remain puzzled also by the statement that, ?Sectoral specialisation appears to have been originally developed as a means of coping with Britain?s poor inland transport links? (p. 15). It is less surprising to read, however, that ?Poverty in rural Britain was even more widespread than in towns and cities? (p. 1).

The empirical database underpinning the introductory chapters that consider regional development in a quantitative framework are provided by statistics extracted from the United Kingdom Census of Population by Clive Lee and published in his British Regional Employment Statistics 1841-1971 and the recently published associated estimates of income per capita for British regions derived by Nick Crafts. Inspection of these data prompt the undisputable conclusion that London was not only the most prosperous region within the British economy in 1871 but that it subsequently and consistently enjoyed the more dynamic economic path to the twentieth century and beyond. Taking a long-run perspective this was only the restoration of a preeminence that had its origins in Norman, Saxon or even Roman times. However, the popular and enduring appeal of the Industrial Revolution does tend to color and even distort our views of British economic development such that the much remarked upon growth of manufacturing in the peripheries, especially cotton textiles in south Lancashire, woolen textiles in west Yorkshire and ferrous metal production and processing in south Wales, central Scotland and the north east of England, crowd out the relatively undramatic and less exotic incremental developments in Bristol, Birmingham and, especially, London. And London, often regarded as synonymous with the ?South,? provided England?s most populated urban center, its cultural center, the social focus of its elite, and the political capital that served first, England, then England and Wales, then the United Kingdom and, ultimately, at least until its more recent imperial retreat, the British Empire and its world. In this sense the ?Triumph of the South? has been persistent and enduring, a process of consolidation and confirmation rather than the outcome of a late nineteenth and early twentieth century contest that saw London emerge as the dominant victor over the industrial ?North? (which often stands as shorthand for all the British periphery). Put quite simply, and galling though this is to many a subject of British crown, the South rules.

This narrative was clearly established by Lee?s The British Economy since 1700, a pioneering text sensitive to regional differentiation that might have had more credit than allowed here as it also highlights the historic significance of the London?s national and international financial predominance, the consequences of London?s role as the global market place for international services, the impact of government policy, and the nature of labor processes found in Britain?s industrial heartlands. Moreover, not only have variants upon these themes long populated the continuing debate among economists and economic historians concerning British ?Declinism? but they also informed two highly visible critiques of more recent economic policy: first, the politically significant but economically ambiguous thesis propounded in the Sunday Times in 1974 by Robert Bacon and Walter Eltis that identified Britain?s problem in their diagnosis of ?Too Few Producers? and, a decade later, the proposition that services, and especially financial services, were privileged by policies introduced by Margaret Thatcher?s governments and then continued by New Labour, with damaging consequences for industry and the ?North.? These same issues now arise with the current reconfiguration of British politics produced by our contemporary recession.

Here I would suggest that Scott?s unique selling point is, his specialist research topics indicated above apart, the strong argument he proposes concerning the detrimental consequences of London?s successes and the resultant bifurcation of the interwar British economy that operated to the detriment of the ?North.? He opines that ?the ?Dutch disease? effect of London?s growing invisibles surplus progressively crowded out the commodity exports of Britain?s provincial regions? and that this was accentuated by re-investment overseas of surpluses on invisible trade which further enhanced its ?growing comparative advantage as a rentier and services-exporting, rather than industrial, nation? such that the growth of non-wage income ?began to crowd out its provincial export industries? (p. 281). However, although this thesis of relative regional deprivation is propounded with keen enthusiasm, if not zealous certainty, it remains largely untested and leaves at least two major questions abegging. The first asks if the adoption of economic policies less permissive to economic development in the ?South? would have resulted a better outcome for those who lived and worked in the ?North,? let alone higher incomes per capita across the whole economy? The second inquires as to the nature of an alternative economic policy regime that would have produced the beneficent counterfactual implicit in Scott?s story? Both questions loomed large for contemporaries and neither prompted an easily defined or uncontested policy response. Just as today.


Boyer, George. ?Living Standards, 1860-1939,? in Roderick Floud and Paul Johnson (eds.), 2004. The Cambridge Economic History of Modern Britain, Vol. II: Economic Maturity, 1860-1939, pp. 280-313. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Crafts, Nicholas. 2005. ?Regional GDP in Britain, 1871-1911: Some estimates,? Scottish Journal of Political Economy, 52, pp. 1-24.

Lee, C.H. 1979. British Regional Employment Statistics 1841-1971. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lee, C.H. 1986. The British Economy since 1700: A Macroeconomic Perspective. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Maddison, Angus, 1995. Monitoring the World Economy. Paris: OECD.

Maddison, Angus (Home Page) ?Statistics on World Population, GDP and Per Capita GDP, 1-2006 AD.? Scranton, Philip. 2000. Endless Novelty: Specialty Production and American Industrialization, 1865-1925. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Peter Wardley has written on “The Commercial Banking Industry and Its Part in the Emergence and Consolidation of the Corporate Economy in Britain before 1940,” Journal of Industrial History (October 2000) and [with Norman Gemmell] ?The Contribution of Services to British Economic Growth, 1856-1914,? Explorations in Economic History (1990). His more recent research appears in ?A Global Assessment of the Large Enterprise on the Eve of the First World War: Corporate Size and Performance in 1912,? a chapter published in Youssef Cassis and Andrea Colli (eds.) Business Performance in Theory and History (forthcoming, Cambridge University Press).

Subject(s):Urban and Regional History
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII