For more than two hundred years, beginning in the late 16th century, British explorers and traders traveled the world, discovering new lands bordering the Pacific and Indian Oceans. They developed trade links with the indigenous populations of these lands and profited enormously from that trade. They were not alone. Dutch, French, Spanish and Portugese merchants and adventurers were doing the same. Conflicts often ensued, engendering frequent wars. Britain usually came out on top and, by the beginning of the nineteenth century, large parts of Africa as well as the Indian sub-continent, all of Australia, New Zealand, Many Pacific Islands, Southern China and most of North America were governed by the British monarchy or its authorised agents.
The oldest of these colonies, those on the Eastern seaboard of North America, formed themselves into the United States of America, fought for and won independence. But there were many other lands that offered opportunities for those seeking adventure.
At the same time it could be said that Britain was leading the way in scientific advancement. Some of those early explorers, such as James Cook, pioneered techniques of surveying and map making. Others brought back numerous geological and botanical specimens to add to the world’s fund of knowledge. Others developed, and conducted experiments to prove, scientific theories that formed the basis of our modern understanding of chemistry, physics, astronomy and medicine.
Little wonder, then, that they regarded themselves, their beliefs and their systems of government to be superior to any others.
But is any of that relevant as we approach the end of the second decade of the twenty first century? Are those who claim Britain can survive in a modern, globalised world without a close association with its neighbours right? Is Britain any longer able to claim superiority over the rest of the world’s growing population?
I pointed out in a previous article that much of Britain’s greatness was built on slavery and child labour. Many, including those who voted to leave the EU, would argue that too much of our economy still relies either on cheap labour recruited from the poorer regions of the world, or work exported to those regions.
How is Britain to compete if access is denied to these alternatives to slavery and child labour? Perhaps one benefit of Brexit will be an early introduction to the reality that is inevitable in the longer term as those poorer regions escape from poverty and no longer have to rely on the sale of their labour at knock down prices.
In the past, educated Britons did not stop at developing and testing scientific theories. They concerned themselves with philosophical and social problems, especially those associated with the increasing population and the poverty that seemed inevitably to accompany it. How was it possible to ensure that the production of food kept pace with the growing number of mouths to feed? As the industrial revolution progressed and more people left the countryside for over-crowded cities, the old pattern of living, in which food was transported over relatively short distances to markets close to where people lived, was superceded by new modes of transport. Canals, railways and metalled roads made it possible to transport food from the fields to markets in the burgeoning centres of manufacturing.
A new field of study opened up as scholars attempted to understand the increasingly complex relationship between production and consumption and the problem of ensuring that workers, who no longer had access to the possibility of growing even some of their own food, were able to earn enough from their new activities, operating machinery, to provide the basic necessities of life.
The burning question was how to share the wealth produced by the activities of merchant explorers and, later, by machines, among the whole population, instead of enriching a few whilst the majority struggled in conditions of abject poverty. Men like Adam Smith pointed out that rent placed an added, unfair, burden on wealth creators. Others speculated about the relationship between increases in food production and the growth in population. On the one hand the more people were employed in all kinds of production, the more that could be produced. On the other, the more food that was available, the longer people tended to live.
Whereas it was, in the past, not uncommon for children to die from any of a variety of diseases before reaching puberty, the more well fed they were, the more likely they were to survive into adulthood and become parents themselves. Was there a limit on the ability of the available land to produce sufficient food?
One of the thinkers of the period, Thomas Malthus, examined the evidence and concluded that there was, indeed, a limit to the food production capacity of the land. The population had consistently grown at a faster rate than had the volume of food production. It was, he insisted, necessary to take steps to limit the growth of population, especially among the very poor. If they produced fewer children it would be easier to ensure that those children were well fed and housed to an acceptable standard. It might even be possible to end the practice of sending children out to work at a very young age. They could be sent, instead, to school where education would fit them for a better life.
If the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries saw the working out of these solutions in what we now call the developed world, the last fifty years has seen them working out in the rest of the world. In a way, Brexit is a reaction to this, as Briton’s discover, and fail to accept, that Great Britain is no longer “Top Dog”, that Britain can no longer “rule the waves”. I fear that the next decade or two are going to provide a painful revelation for the nation that believes it can, in A.C.Benson’s populist words, be made “mightier yet.”