Shopping for Britain

Maxine Berg looks at the commercial battle to dominate Europe that ran alongside the wars with France, and the product revolution that gave Britain the edge in this field.

The collapse of MG Rover in April brought us face to face once again with job losses in our manufacturing regions, with widespread regret over the loss of another British product. Chinese buyers made sure to buy the company’s intellectual property rights while they spurned the prospect of taking over the firm. Other classic British brand products have also taken Chinese routes to manufacture: Wedgwood, once proud of its ascendancy in the later eighteenth century over imported Chinese porcelain, in 2003 announced the transfer of production for its ware from Staffordshire to China.

MG sports cars, like Wedgwood china used to mean quality, class and Britishness. Their loss prompts us to ask how key products claimed brand recognition connected with national identities, and thereby acquired ascendancy in global markets. Today the great clash over production and consumer markets is between China and the West. At the inception of the Industrial Revolution it was between Britain and France.

The great superpowers of the eighteenth century, Britain and France, fought the long series of Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars not just by means of military strategy and Great Power politics, but also on the level of industry, products and markets. The development of branded British products challenged French luxury goods and spread consumer culture as they captivated, then seized, global markets.

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