In the economic history of the modern world, Britain occupies a place comparable to the role of Palestine in the history of religion. In many ways, it was the first economy to modernise, to industrialise, and to ride a wave of gadgets and innovation that swept away the shackles of poverty that had chained much of the population of all pre-industrial economies. By 1700 it was no longer as poor as it had been at the time of William the Conqueror, but progress had been slow and growth had taken place by fits and starts, punctuated by reversals and famines. Economic growth as a more or less steady trend, driven increasingly by innovation, raising living standards to levels not imagined in anyone's wildest dreams, has become (almost) a worldwide phenomenon. It all started in eighteenth-century Britain, the economic trail blazer of the industrialised world.
The economic history of Britain after 1700, as Deirdre McCloskey (1981: 118) has memorably written, was not the age of cotton, nor the age or steam, nor the age of iron, but the age of improvement. It was a period which unashamedly thought of itself as such, as Briggs' eponymous book noted. Briggs (1959: 2–3) notes that the ‘word “improvement” itself, which now sounds sober, respectable and emotionally threadbare, was capable then of stimulating daring flights of imagination’. Briggs' book referred, of course, to the age of the industrial revolution and the first decades of the railroads, but the belief in the possibility and desirability of ‘progress’ and ‘improvement’ predated the industrial revolution by many decades. The industrial revolution, from one point of view, was the implementation of a set of beliefs that had slowly been ripening among the British intellectual elite in the century and a half before the onset. Progress and Improvement were ‘in the air’ – what has been called the Industrial Enlightenment (Mokyr 2002) was just one manifestation of it. It went in parallel with a ‘medical enlightenment’ (Porter 1982) and an ‘agricultural enlightenment’ (Dickson 2005: 288; Mokyr 2009a: 186–8).