The years preceding 1870 saw the volume of British goods manufactured and exported increase, however their share in world exports declined; from 18. 9% in 1870 to 13. 9% in 1913. Although exported goods as a percentage of world trade showed a decline, Britain was still ahead of its nearest European rival Germany who had a world share of 13. 1% in 1913. Moreover in absolute per capita terms Britain was still the most successful country in Europe, “taking British national product per capita as = 100, continental Europe had been 44 in 1890 and risen only to 50 in 1910”.
Individually Britain had a per capita product of 1302 US$ whereas the nearest rival Belgium had a reading of 1110 US$ and Germany only a value of 958 US$. The index of Manufacturing per head of population, shows that (USA = 100) in 1913 Britain was 90, Belgium Britain’s nearest rival was 73 and Germany was 64. Britain was still manufacturing more goods per head than any other country in Europe. 6 Although the turn of the century saw the rate of British growth in exports and manufactured goods decline, individual British companies remained at the height of their industries.
“The manufacture of textile machinery and the manufacture of steam engines remained a British forte”7. By the end of 1914, a leading British firm supplied almost half of the cotton spindles in Britain, and at least one third of those installed around the world. British companies pioneered technologies in industries such as medicines, artificial fibres and consumer goods, like soap and cosmetics. Although Britain during this period was the richest country in absolute monetary terms, the economic prominence had begun to disappear.
The growth in economic production, which had been 3-4 % throughout the Nineteenth Century, had slowed to 1. 5% during 1875 and 1894. The amount of world exports, as discussed remained higher than any other European country, yet it was on a slippery slope downwards. Disraeli wrote in 1838 ‘The continent will not suffer England to be the workshop of the world’8; he believed as many did, that the greater resources of central European powers would eventually dethrone the tiny island.
Although this was true in some respects, it was due not only the rising industrial power of European powers, especially Germany, but also the signs of ‘decline’ in Britain herself. By the turn of the century, Britain was a satiated power, it had all the territory it sought and wanted to be left alone “in unmolested enjoyment of vast and splendid possessions”9. This speech was echoed by Salisbury famously stating Britain was “Floating lazily downstream”, talking about Britain’s foreign policy.
Britain wanted peace because not only did she already know she was the world’s richest country and had so much, but because influential commercial companies demanded it. This new loss of entrepreneurial spirit had turned the vitality and vigour of British society into malaise and lethargy. This was very contrary to other European powers, markedly Britain’s chief rival Germany. The start of the twentieth Century brought concern to the British foreign office, it saw the appearance and growth of the unified Germany, “Bismarck sticks in my throat”10, wrote the Dean of St Paul’s cathedral.
Germany since the re-unification in 1871 had the resource base and wherewithal to challenge Britain’s world supremacy. Although by 1914 this had not occurred, Germany had made marked gains, during the ‘scramble for Africa’ their empire had increased, the 1905 Anglo – German naval act allowed Germany a greater naval fleet and German industry was now industrialising and challenging the safe export position of British firms. For example, the German chemical industry rose from “obscurity in 1870 to undisputed world leadership in dyestuffs, synthetic drugs and photographic chemicals”11 by the end of 1914.
Britain fault was that it concentrated on the wrong industries, those that enabled her to achieve an early economic lead, but had no future left. The British public felt more at home in the rural surroundings of the country rather than workshops, “the greatest social prestige belonged not to the engineer but the lawyer”12. Germany on the contrary had universities specifically for science and engineering where students with innovative and creative attitudes flourished; a thought in new industries such as chemical and electrical dominated.
Germany was only now undergoing industrialisation and thus where benefiting from new machinery; Britain who had been first to industrialise did not change their old machinery, firstly because of the additional costs and secondly they felt the old machines still operated at a profit. Germany was not only the only European county catching up with Britain’s lead, the French whose growth rate was comparable until 1890 became faster then the British rate in 1914. These countries were rapidly eating into the lead, which Britain had accumulated in the previous century.
However, in absolute and per capita terms Britain was still ahead of leading European economies, undoubtedly they were catching up with Britain but they had not overtaken her and by 1914 Britain was still the richest country in the whole of Europe. 1914 saw all European powers on the verge of a catastrophic war, Britain which in 1870 had was the unanimously unchallenged country in Europe was now confronted by its nearest economic rival Germany. Hitler commented “We can safely make one prophecy: whatever the outcome of this war the British Empire is at an end it has been mortally wounded.
“13 At the beginning of the 1870 -1914 period Britain was at the technical frontier of all industries, it ruled one fifth of the whole world, had an unequalled naval force and was the richest country in Europe. In 1914, Britain retained much of this, the basis of which came from political and economic policy followed for the previous century. Britain still enjoyed the fruits of being the first country to industrialise, the abandonment of protectionist tariffs for the adoption of total laissez faire economic policy and the vast resource of its empire.
Although economic growth in Britain had slowed, it was still growth; Britain’s share of world trade had also fallen; yet, it was still the largest single share. “The roots of world power were withering even if the visible foliage seemed more impressive than ever”. 14
Andrew Gamble Britain in Decline, Economic policy, Political Strategy and the British state Eric Hobsbawm The Age of Empire 1875 – 1914, (1987) Norman Lowe Mastering Modern British History, (1998) Malcolm Pearce & British Political History 1867 – 1905, (1992) Geoffrey Stewart