Tuesday, 28 December 2010

In our time - Melvyn Bragg vs Pat Hudson - trends in Historical thinking

I urge anybody who is interested in the Industrial Revolution (I.R.), or even just currents of thought in History, to listen to "In our time from last week. I've only just got round to doing so, and it was a great treat.


Now I think we can safely say I'm not about to become any sort of historian at all  - but particularly not a Marxist historian. Perhaps Professor Pat Hudson wouldn't want to be categorised like that. I don't know. But here's the fierce debate that arose:

When Bragg and his guests were discussing the causes of the I.R., Hudson said something along the lines of "we must get away from this idea of a peculiar British genius for invention", at which Melvyn Bragg exploded into life - defending the inventiveness of some of those behind the technology that set Britain ahead at the time. Enormous fun to listen to, and very instructive. You can always learn a lot when people get very heated in an argument.

I'll discuss the arguments in more depth elsewhere - or this post will bore anyone who tries to read it to death - but I want to talk about the historical biases I think are at work here.

Hudson doesn't like the version of the I.R given in old history books, and taught in the classes I attended at school. She doesn't like the emphasis on great men, or any patriotic statements that might imply that any national superiority set Britain ahead in Industrial development. As I understand it, this was a basic trend in historiography, where 'Marxist' historians reject an old "Whig" version of history. Great men and national superiority are out, social & economic forces and accidents of history (such as where resources happen to be readily available) are in, as explanations of history.

Much of what Professor Hudson said made very good sense indeed: there is never any one cause for anyone event, let alone a huge economic trend. And too much patriotism will probably muddy our thinking - as will any bias or prejudice in our thinking.

But I think her own bias was fairly clear. She (and others) seem to equate patriotism with National Front nationalism, and therefore racism. That is a big step  And it's not just historians jumping to that conclusion. She's too anxious to discount the inventiveness of the British (as a cause for the IR) - which while it may not be the only, or most important cause, may still have it's place in the story.

If she'd said "the evidence suggests to me that Britain's industrial power had a lot to do with Empire and protectionism in trade (which all European countries were competing at) which made possible the development of the Textile industry - and that the inventions in that industry became more powerful later", then I'd have felt she was making her theories fit the facts, rather than the other way around.

But she didn't say that - I sensed a narrow "Powerful outside forces caused inventions to happen" point of view and tried too hard to emphasise other inventions made round the world.

It seems to me this kind of thinking has many disciples in this country. I meet it all the time and it's important to  realise that it is a bias - just like Patriotic history.


  1. I still think the best account of the Industrial revolution was that given by James Burke in his TV series "The Day the Universe Changed". He mentioned the surplus capital from the sugar trade, the effect of non-conformists being excluded from Universities (and setting their own educational establishments, more science based), the results of improvements in transport - canals and railways - and the process of automation. Professor Hudson, especially in decrying "gadgets" ignored the difference between gadgets like the spinning jenny, which saved manpower, and others like steam engines, which replaced manpower with coal power.

  2. Thanks for the comment. I do think I see a trend in historical thought that is influenced by very basic ideas and prejudice sand not by the thirst for knowledge :)

    It always seems to be the case. From the point of view of someone who has done science and mathematics and seen a lot of decent scholarship, much written history just seems like a school debating society at times