Workshop of the World, 1870-1914

Theo Barker looks at how Britain innovated and kept ahead of her international competitors before the Great War.

In recent years Britain has been importing more manufactures than she exported, something unheard of in the past. How have we reached the point at which our manufacturing base, on which so many jobs depend, can no longer hold its own in the world? Financial, insurance and other services have long been important in bridging the gap between total imports – including food and raw materials – and manufactured exports; but when we cannot even pay for the manufactures we import with the manufactures we send abroad, alarm bells should certainly ring. Many historians believe that our manufacturing weaknesses were already revealing themselves before the First World War. Is this true?

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