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An Economic and Social History of Britain

The economic history of the United Kingdom deals with the economic history of England and Great Britain from 1500 to the early 20th century. (For earlier periods see Economy of England in the Middle Ages and Economic history of Scotland).[1]

After becoming one of the most prosperous economic regions in Europe between 1600 and 1700,[2] Britain led the industrial revolution and dominated the European and world economy during the 19th century. It was the major innovator in machinery such as steam engines (for pumps, factories, railway locomotives and steamships), textile equipment, and tool-making. It invented the railway system and built much of the equipment used by other nations. As well it was a leader in international and domestic banking, entrepreneurship, and trade. It built a global British Empire. After 1840, it abandoned mercantilism and practised “free trade,” with no tariffs or quotas or restrictions[citation needed]. The powerful Royal Navy protected its global holdings, while its legal system provided a system for resolving disputes inexpensively.

Between 1870 and 1900, economic output per head of population in Britain and Ireland rose by 500 percent, generating a significant rise in living standards. However, from the late 19th century onwards Britain experienced a relative economic decline as other nations such as the United States and Germany caught up. In 1870, Britain’s output per head was the second highest in the world after Australia. By 1914, it was fourth highest. In 1950, British output per head was still 30 percent ahead of the six founder members of the EEC, but within 50 years it had been overtaken by many European and several Asian countries.[