The Growth of English Society. By E. Lipson. (Black. 21s.)
IN this book—whose sub-title, " A Short Economic History," is somewhat belied by its 448 pages—Professor Lipson offers to the serious but non-expert reader the fruits of forty years' study of Britain's economic development. His aim is to show " how in our island home map has fulfilled the scriptural injunction to earn his bread in the sweat of his brow," from Anglo-Saxon times down to the Second World War—an aim including, beside the study of tech- niques, trade routes and fiscal and regulatory policies, the examina- tion of the basic social ideas which partly determined, and were partly determined by, men's economic relations.
A first glance at The Growth of English Society might lead the reader to suppose that this was no more than a competent, well- constructed, scholarly but essentially conventional version of a story which has, after all, been told a good many times already Professor Lipson has not the vividness and encyclopaedic range, nor for that matter the style, of a Trevelyan, nor does he, like some other his- torians among whom one might single out Professor Ashton, give his readers the fascinating sense of penetrating into the back rooms of historical research and watching the evidence take shape. His narrative lacks that impetus and vigour bestowed by uninhibited indignations or burning enthusiasms—a suspect quality in any case, but one certainly making for easy reading. In a word, such a superficial glimpse might convey the impression that this is rather a dull book. That impression would be a mistake.
Actually, The Growth of English Society offers an impressive example of the skilful blending of generalisation and evidence, of straight narrative and interpretation, even, with its well-chosen and neatly placed quotations from contemporary observers, of what in the novelist's phraseology could be called " scene and summary." Professor Lipson excels in the art of tracing from their inconspicu- ous beginnings economic and social trends of which one is accus- tomed to think only in, connection with the periods during which they were either unmistakably in the ascendant or at least obviously gathering momentum. One of his theses, for instance, is the essen- tially capitalistic relationships existing even in mediaeval times and in trades where the forms of guild life were apparently intact. Ownership of the means of production might be so widely diffused, and the means of production themselves so rudimentary, as to give a most un-capitalistic appearance to a particular trade, but ownership of the raw material might at the same time be increasingly concen- trated and increasingly a source of economic dominance.
The ideas summed up under the general heading of laisser-faire are also traced back not merely to those middle years of the eighteenth century in which Adam Smith grew up but a full century earlier ; they were implicit in the conflict of Crown and Parliament. " The issues at stake . . . were not only those of the Crown versus Parliament and of the Established Church versus Nonconformity,
but of a community conducting its economic functions on a dis- ciplined if confined basis versus the entrepreneur following a lonely furrow," says Professor Lipson, and backs his assertion by a refer- ence to Richard Baxter's account of " the quality of the persons which adhered to the King and to the Parliament."
Professor Lipson does not attempt to bring his history down to the present day ; but from his comments on the commercial policies of the nineteen-thirties it is evident that he feels Great Britain to be at present on the wrong track, false to the traditions which made her great. He is not an advocate of laisser-faire or a slavish admirer of the hidden hand. " The driving force of the individual," he says in his epilogue, " needs to be supplemented by the collective fore- thought of the community and the dictates of social justice." But the " collective forethought of the community " can itself be grievously at fault. Characteristically, he harks back to the era of mercantilism for the words which will best convey the lessons of English history. " England never throve by trade but while she was a universal merchant. No people ever yet grew rich by policies; but it is peace, industry and freedom that brings trade and wealth, and nothing more."
The spirit of Schacht is alien to the genius of British prosperity ; and one need not summon up Adam Smith to refute him. Sir Dudley North, seventeenth-century spokesman of what Professor Lipson calls the first planned economy, will do as well. HONOR CROOME.