What seemed a perfectly sedate discussion about the Industrial Revolution in Britain suddenly blew up into an ideological skirmish on Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time radio broadcast this morning. Bragg (sounding a little lubricated, I have to say) took exception to Professor Pat Hudson’s unprovoked rant about the importance of individuals in history: ‘we must get away from the idea that this [ie the Industrial Revolution] was caused by a wave of gadgets or by the peculiar inventive ability of British scientists or inventors’, she said, before turning up the ideological volume by lambasting ‘nationalistic accounts’ which put ‘particular emphasis on British genius’ and ‘characterise some really almost racist accounts of the Industrial Revolution’.
Talk about straw men and Aunt Sallies. That type of Empire-lauding approach had gone out even before I was at school four decades ago. But it’s playing the racist card that blows open the political ideology underpinning Hudson’s overview – finding something or someone ‘racist’ is a shibboleth of today’s left. What I found startling was the speed and vehemence of Hudson’s vituperation – which came initially without prompting and was then exacerbated by Bragg’s disagreement.
Bragg wasn’t arguing against the fact that contextual factors are essential to historical events but he was just trying to make the point that the actions of individuals are also important. At no stage could Hudson bring herself to admit this. Maybe she thinks things work according to a variation of the Thousand Monkeys process whereby as long as all the right conditions come together at the right time inventions will invent themselves, battles will be won without generals, science and technology will develop spontaneously, etc.
Professor Black, who in general supported Bragg’s view, also pointed out that the success of the canal system in Britain over those in other European countries such as Germany was down to the fact that the individuals planning and constructing the canals did so with private capital. And therein lies the source of Hudson’s animus: the denial that capitalism can have any good or positive effects.
And the one word, the one concept, which surprisingly did not get mentioned during the whole discussion, but which was crucial to the Industrial Revolution, was individualism. Crucial, of course, not just to that but also to the Enlightenment and to the history of western civilisation.
Things kick off at about 14:38 in the podcast.