Edited by Hans Landström and Franz T. Lohrke
Chapter 16: Culture, Opportunity and Entrepreneurship in Economic History: The Case of Britain in the Twentieth Century
Andrew Godley INTRODUCTION For much of the twentieth century, Britain was thought to be imbued with an antientrepreneurial culture (Aldcroft, 1964). From the aftermath of the First World War until the late 1990s, economic performance was viewed as disappointing and entrepreneurial inadequacies were first to be blamed. The concerns were exaggerated because of the legacy of being the first industrial nation. It is this remarkable juxtaposition of both exceptional entrepreneurial success and subsequent entrepreneurial failure that makes the case of British entrepreneurial culture in the twentieth century so important to any wider understanding of the relationship between culture and entrepreneurship today. In 1900 British firms enjoyed a 35 per cent share of the global trade in manufactured products, when Britain had less than 2 per cent of the world’s population. This economic success was the foundation of global political power. Power brought rewards for Britons in the early twentieth century, most obviously among the entrepreneurial and capitalist classes. In 1913 the richest 0.1 per cent of Britons received over 12 per cent of the nation’s income! Economic success had emerged through Britain’s early dominance of world textiles markets – cotton and woollen – and then the iron and steel industry, coal, shipbuilding and other pre-mass production forms of mechanical engineering, the so-called the ‘staple’ industries. But by the beginning of the twentieth century, British economic success was increasingly tied to investments in overseas markets (Matthews et al., 1982; Atkinson 2002). It is these two themes – of specialization in the staple industries and...
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