The Industrial Revolution and the Failure of Great Britain
George P. Landow, Shaw Professor of English and Digital Culture, National University of Singapore
Great Britain, the inventor and exporter of the Industrial Revolutions that have created the modern world, too soon fell behind competing nations. First, it lost its lead in cotton, then in steel, and finally in electrical and chemical technologies. Acccording to Eric Hobsbawm,
The saddest case was perhaps that of the iron and steel industry, for we see it losing pre-eminence at the very moment when its role in the British economy was greatest, and its dominance in the world most unquestioned. Every major innovation in the manufacture of steel came from Great Britain or was developed in Britain: Bessener's converter (1856), which first made the mass-production of steel possible, the Siemens-Martin open-hearth firnace (1867), which greatly increased producitivity, and the Gilchrist-Thomas basic process (1877-8), which made it possible to use and enire new range of ores for steel manufacture. Yet, with the exception of the converter, British industry was slow to apply the new methods -- Gilchrist-Thomas benefited the Germans and the French far more than his countrymen -- and they utterly failed to keep up with subsequent developments. Not only did British production fall behind that of Germany and the USA in the early 1890s, but also British productivity. By 1910 the USA produced almost twice as much steel alone as the total steel production of Great Britain. 
The same sad decline in leadership observed in textiles and steel repeated itself later in chemical and electrical industries.
Historians have long debated the puzzling question why Victorian Britain, the inventor and pioneer of the Industrial Revolution, so quickly fell behind other nations. As the British economic historian Hobsbawn states the problem:
It was no doubt inevitable that British pioneer industries should lose ground relatively as the rest of the world industrialized, and that their rate of expansion should decline; but this purely statistical phenomenon need not have been accompanied by a genuine loss of impetus and efficiency. Still less was it predetermined that Britain should fail in industries in which she started with the arguable disadvantages neither of the older pioneer, or of the late-comer, but substantially at the same time and point as the rest. 
Hobsbawm and others have offered several interlocking explanations, one of which involves the fundamentally anti-technological bias of British education, a bias that derives from the influence of the most socially prestigious Public Schools in England. According to this convincing explanation, the education provided by the institutions that produced the majority of Great Britain's political and governmental leaders was both anti-technological and anti-scientific. Since it set standards for state-sponsored secondary education, it did terrible damage to both the country's education and its economy.
A second related explanation for economic decline appears in the fact that, proportionate to its population, England produced so many fewer educated people than either Europe or North America. A third explanation: the pioneers who had done so well with first-generation approaches, technology, and general attitudes saw little need to change to improve until too late. Fourth, Hobsbawn claims that since the British middle class made money so easily in the first years of the Industrial Revolution, they simply did not work as hard as their rivals in other countries.
Hobsbawn's most contentious (if appealing) explanation involves England's depedence upon her colonies. According to him, British industry survived economic downturns, including several depressions, and well as economic competition by selling to the captive markets provided by its colonies. The very factor, in other words, that allowed England initially to take the lead and then prosper in hard times eventually produced noncompetitve attitudes and practices that ended up creating stagnation and unemployment.
Hobsbawm, Eric. Industry and Empire: The Birth of the Industrial Revolution. rev. ed. New York: New Press, 1999.
Last modified: 27 March 2001