British exceptionalism: how the UK is different from Europe

In Britain, the Industrial Revolution came early, lasted long, and transformed the whole society and much of the landscape. On the Continent, its effects were more limited, and that difference still matters.

In 1950, half the working population in Spain, Greece, Poland, and many other Continental countries was still employed on farms. Even in France, thirty percent worked in agriculture, and almost one quarter of West Germans worked on farms. Agriculture was not heavily mechanized. In the early fifties, there was just one car for every 314,000 Spaniards, and only one of every twelve French households had a car.* I don’t know the number of tractors, but one can tell from the rate of car ownership that many roads were unpaved, fuel was scarce, and in general the internal combustion engine was hard to find.

In Britain at that time, only one in 20 workers was employed in agriculture. Despite the Depression, the Second World War, post-War austerity and rationing, and the loss of empire, there were more than 2.2 million cars in Britain in 1950. Two centuries of industrialization had caused the population to migrate and had transformed the very land. Marx and Engels were wrong about much, but they accurately depicted the pace of change in their adopted land. They had the British bourgeoisie in view then they wrote:

    It has accomplished wonders far surpassing Egyptian pyramids, Roman aqueducts, and Gothic cathedrals. … Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned. … All old-established national industries have been destroyed or are daily being destroyed. They are dislodged by new industries, whose introduction becomes a life and death question for all civilised nations, by industries that no longer work up indigenous raw material, but raw material drawn from the remotest zones; industries whose products are consumed, not only at home, but in every quarter of the globe.

Put more soberly, the British by 1950 lived and worked in structures designed for Victorian industry in a landscape reconfigured for the rapid movement of goods and people, and they held jobs in commerce, manufacturing, or service industries. Meanwhile, across the Channel, most Europeans lived in villages devoted to subsistence agriculture, whose most important buildings dated to the Middle Ages or the baroque.

Over the next quarter century, the vast majority of those Continental agricultural workers migrated to cities. For example, one million Andalucians moved to the cities of Catalonia, and nine million Italians exchanged regions, mostly migrating northward. Many moved from old farming villages to high-rise apartment blocks: slum-like ones in the suburbs if they were poor, and comfortable ones nearer the central city or the sea if they were more fortunate. They also moved from fields to automated office jobs in one or two generations. All that movement changed the Continent, but less profoundly than the much more protracted Industrial Revolution had affected Britain. For example, outside the banlieus of big French cities, the countryside and the centers of towns are often very well preserved today, notwithstanding two world wars.

Britain’s much longer and deeper experience with industrialization by 1950 explains its slower post-war growth rate. The UK had less to gain from industrializing and had to deal with an obsolete stock of factories, machines, and organizations. These differences also explain persistent gaps in culture, expectations, and priorities on either side of the Channel.

*I derive all the statistics in this post from Tony Judt’s book Postwar, chapter 10.