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‘Here’s the history that really matters’ Financial Times

The UK is, at the same time, both one of the world’s most successful economies and one of Europe’s laggards. The country contains some of Western Europe’s richest areas such as the south east of England, but also some of its poorest such as the north east or Wales. It’s really not much of an exaggeration to describe the UK, in economic terms, as ‘Portugal but with Singapore in the bottom corner’. Looking into the past helps understand why.

Two Hundred Years of Muddling Through tells the story of how Britain’s economy and politics have interacted with each other from the time of the Industrial Revolution right up to the pandemic of 2020. A few politicians, such as Peel, Gladstone, Attlee and Thatcher have managed to shape the economy but far more have been shaped by it. Depressing little in British economic debate is really new. This time is rarely, if ever, really different. The debates about the balance between economic openness and sovereignty that re-emerged after Brexit would have been familiar to Peel and Cobden in the 1840s. The size of the government’s deficit has dominated politics since 2010 but fretting about the scale of the national debt was almost a national pastime during Victoria’s reign. Worries about the failure of vocational training and a paranoia that German manufacturing was powering ahead were common in the days of Lloyd George and Asquith. Supposedly modern concerns about the impacts of new technology on jobs and inequality date back to at least Captain Swing and Ned Ludd. As the economy emerges from the Covid-19 recession and sets out on a new post-Brexit future an understanding of the past is vital to seeing how the future might play out.

Reviews

Duncan Weldon's Two Hundred Years of Muddling Through argues that more muscular intervention in the economy will only be accomplished through a wider overhaul of the British way of thinking
Prospect
Pitch perfect, fast-moving, brilliantly well-judged. Immensely relevant. This is a history Britain needs.
Adam Tooze
In just 300 pages his narrative races from the early 1700s to the Covid pandemic, taking in everything from the South Sea Bubble to the impact of the financial crisis.
Dominic Sandbrook, Sunday Times
Could hardly be more timely ...Impressively researched, succinctly written and highly readable
The Times
A terrific achievement, covering clearly but with subtlety everything from the spinning jenny to Covid-19. Along the way, Weldon makes some intriguing arguments, such as how successive generations of politicians swear they're fixing problems, only for a new variant to pop up a little later. And he takes on Keynes's assertions that ideas are ultimately what shape history. They don't: what matters most is political power.
Aditya Chakrabortty, Senior Economics Commentator, Guardian
Outstanding! Written in a chatty way but contains a remarkable depth and intelligence. Every economics student should read it
Matthew Syed
For all the popular history published about, say, Anne Boleyn's third cousin thrice-removed, books that outline the fundamental forces of British history - the tectonic economic changes beyond any individual's or even government's control - are surprisingly rare. Thankfully, Duncan Weldon has written just such a book. He pans out from the trees we've become so accustomed to squinting at to show us a vast, wild and unpredictable wood. Here is the history that really matters.
Financial Times
A former British-economy correspondent reflects on 200 years of the country's economic history, showing how politics and the economy have interacted since the Industrial Revolution
The Economist Books of 2021