The Invention of Enterprise: Entrepreneurship from Ancient Mesopotamia to Modern Times

By David S. Landes; Joel Mokyr et al. | Go to book overview

Chapter 9
History of Entrepreneurship: Britain, 1900–2000

Features of British Economic Development in the Twentieth Century

ANDREW GODLEY AND MARK CASSON

In 1900 Britain was at the apogee of confidence in the justness and might of its role as world leader. Its rise to mastery through the Victorian Age had been squarely based on economic success. And this had emerged through its early dominance of world textiles markets—cotton and woolens—and then the iron and steel industry, coal, shipbuilding, and other pre-mass-production forms of mechanical engineering—the so-called staple industries. In 1900 British firms enjoyed a 35 percent share of the global trade in manufactured products, when Britain had less than 2 percent of the world's population (Matthews et al. 1982, 435). Economic success was the foundation of global political power, and the British Empire was, it is easy to forget, “the nearest thing there has ever been to a world government” (Ferguson 2003, xxvi). And that success had been created by British entrepreneurs.

Power, of course, brought rewards for Britons in the early twentieth century; most obviously among the entrepreneurial and capitalist classes. In 1913 the richest 0.1 percent of Britons received over 12 percent of the nation's income (Atkinson 2002). It permitted a lavish lifestyle, as the economist John Maynard Keynes wistfully recollected in 1919.

For… the middle and upper classes… life offered, at a low cost and with the least
trouble, conveniences, comforts and amenities beyond the compass of the richest and
most powerful monarchs of other ages. The inhabitant of London could order by tele-
phone, sipping his morning tea in bed, the various products of the whole earth in such
quantity as he might see fit, and reasonably expect their early delivery upon his door-
step; he could at the same moment and by the same means adventure his wealth in the
natural resources and new enterprises of any quarter of the world, and share, without
exertion or even trouble, in their prospective fruits and advantages. (Cited in Ferguson
2003, 324)

But the benefits also trickled down to the ordinary British working-class families too, albeit at a much reduced level. Only in the resource-abundant and labor-scarce United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand were wages for unskilled workers higher (Williamson 1995).

There was also an important second string to Britain's economic bow of around 1900 according to Keynes's aphorism. British overseas investment had attained

-243-

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