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Regulating the British Economy, 1660–1850 ed. by Perry Gauci (review)
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In Regulating the British Economy, Perry Gauci has brought together an impressive body of historians to explore the creation and practices of economic regulation from the Restoration to the mid-19th century. Although Gauci introduces the volume with the suggestion that there was no linear narrative over this period, a clear case emerges that this can be seen as a distinctive period in the history of the state’s role and effect on the economy, defined by the new breadth of debate about state interventions and the marked effects of the state’s activities on some sectors of the economy, particularly trade, even while most regulatory activities remained limited.

At the start of this period parliament displaced the crown as the key forum for economic policy. Parliament provided an expanded space for lobbying, as William Pettigrew elegantly shows, and allowed a more open dynamic to emerge between the government and different interest groups seeking or opposing action. Most regulation remained limited in scope, with enforcement left to magistrates or local action. Yet the collection makes a strong case for the significance of regulation in shaping the economy and affecting its performance. Julian Hoppit’s compelling survey of bounties reveals that economic interests consumed a larger share of state revenues than was thought. The fierce lobbying around aspects of overseas trade regulation, explored in several essays, further demonstrates the importance of the state, and the potential impact of de-regulation and legislative vacuums, notably in the African trade. However, economic interests were always set against the government’s concern for revenues. Fiscal needs provided a persistent frame within which proposed regulation had to fit. Economic ideologies thus always had to attune with interest-driven politics (although Pincus and Wolfram do argue that Whigs and Tories possessed their own, distinctive, economic positions).

Most of the essays focus on the ways regulation was created, offering important analyses of lobbying and debate in and around Parliament in relation to chartered trading companies, river improvement, product quality regulation, anti-slavery campaigns, and other issues. Readers of this journal will be particularly interested in the cluster of important essays that close the collection, which turn to labour and with it increasingly to the application of regulation. These chapters themselves reflect the shift in parliamentary focus from trade to labour as an object of regulation after the mid-18th century.

Joanna Innes offers a compelling study of the decline of official wage regulation in the 18th and early 19th century. She shows that the late 18th century saw a turning point in parliamentary views on regulation. Previously sympathetic to wage regulation, which had often been promoted by employers as well as workers, parliament now rejected proposals for wage setting, and from 1813 onwards began to dismantle the legislation underpinning it. Innes’ central explanation is that ideological opposition to state interference in markets was becoming increasingly generalized by the early decades of the 19th century, as was anxiety about utopian schemes and worker unrest. However, Innes also demonstrates that wage regulation retained significant supporters, including the Lord Chief Justice, and continued to operate in practice in some areas.

Paul Minolleti offers a stimulating examination of workers’ demands for and responses to labour regulation. He suggests that workers’ self-interest, which depended on industrial structure, particularly the organization and ownership of production, determined their responses to new technology and factory legislation. His study focuses on the woollen and worsted industries of the west riding and west of England, which famously responded differently to the spinning jenny, flying shuttle and other innovations. Their divergent reactions can, he argues, be explained simply: where production was organized domestically and masters worked with their families, technology that raised productivity was welcomed; it was resisted where innovations threatened to supplant specialized workers who depended on putting out. With the emergence of the factory, labour politics changed. Where male workers had once defended women’s productivity against challenges, they now developed different attitudes to women’s work – which increasingly threatened rather than complemented their own – and this led to favourable responses to the Factory Acts of the 1830s and 1840s and the cuts they introduced in women and children’s hours of work...


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