Facts about British exports (and imports)

Yes, I am continuing to read David Edgerton’s The Rise and Fall of the British Nation: A Twentieth Century History, and it is one of the must-read non-fiction books of this year.  Here are a few points I gleaned from my time spent with the book on the plane last evening:

1. During WWII, British imports kept to their pre-war levels, with imports of munitions picking up the slack.  The book stresses how much the British empire did in fact pay off, as Britain through a variety of mechanisms forced or induced its colonies to lend it resources during this critical time.  Along some  dimensions, the British economy became more global due to the conflict.

2. In 1942, exports from Malaya (mostly rubber) to the U.S. were higher than UK exports to the U.S. at that time.

3. Early in the 20th century, wheat in Great Britain was about ten times more expensive than coal.  Britain was the largest importer of food, and in essence sold coal for foodstuffs.

4. British coal was centered in rural areas, and this kept British country life economically vital.  Furthermore this mining was largely horse-powered.

5. From the end of WWII to the 1980s, more people left Britain than migrated to it.

6. Goods trade as a percentage of gdp was about 32% for Britain around 1920, and then lower at about 20% in 2000.

I hope to write about this book more, but I’ll tell you two of the overall messages right now.  One is that the history of British economic globalization is more lurching and back and forth than you might think.  Another is that British industry was more successful, innovative, and scientific during periods of supposed decline than you might think.

And by the way, while we are on the topic of must-read books, here is another rave review for Varlam Shalamov.


During the period of the deepest post WW2 malaise, the music biz and music equipment business in Britain was innovating and booming, emerging as a kind of mutually reinforcing ecosystem (Beatles, Stones, Marshall Amps, Neve mixing boards).

The UK will always be in my heart where is was first cucked. While I was enjoying a spot of earl grey, my wife was enjoying a wee dram of some blokes ardbeg.

Here's something that surprised me: the financial services sector in GB is about 6.5% of GB's total economic output (down from about 9% before the great recession), whereas in the U.S. it's about 20%.

I'm confused by the Malayan exports fact. In early 1942, Japan conquered the Malayan Peninsula--not to mention Borneo and Sumatra--putting not just production but also the major shipping channels into enemy hands.

Maybe it's an accounting edge case, where 1941 Malay rubber arrived in the United States in 1942? Or maybe the small amount British Malaysia was able to get out in early 1942 was greater than the total exports of Britain to the US that year?

Excellent spot. 1940s were war years and thus suspect as stats.

Bonus trivia: the UK now actually imports coal (a bit over 50% of total coal consumed), including to Newcastle, aka "carrying coals to Newcastle" has a new meaning. Further, live rubber is still a lively export, since certain products demand natural rubber as opposed to synthetic rubber.

The UK was exporting basically nothing by 1942 - imports were the complete focus, though the German U-boots did not care if the ships being torpedoed were loaded or emptied. And in 1942, the U-boots were sinking a good number of ships.

@c_p: you sound nostalgic? Happy times those?!

Bonus trivia: everybody in a WWII boat died. Even the US submariners died in the Pacific theatre. Check out the statistics on Wikipedia ("German shipyards built 1,156 U-boats, of which 784 were lost from enemy action or other causes" - 784/1156 = 68%!) Being in Das Boat was no fun (and remains the most expensive German film ever made).

I was going to make that same comment. Maybe a typo by Tyler or by the author, and they meant to say 1941? As written, statement 2 does not make sense.

Which makes me leery of statement 1 too, even though it's highly plausible. How does the author measure imports? In a wartime economy with rationing and price controls, to say nothing of U-boats intercepting a decent chunk of the imports for a few years, both tonnage and monetary value are suspect measures.

Maybe imports of sugar were way down but imports of vacuum tubes for radar and computers were way up. Neither tonnage nor dollar value would likely measure how crucial those were to Britain's war effort. They might've been willing to let a million dollar, multi-ton shipment of sugar go unescorted (and get sunk by a U-boat) while making sure that a few tens of thousands of dollars of crucial electronic equipment made it through as imports.

My wife alone accounts for a huge fraction of the rubber used in the US.

You gotta give credit where it's due.

Let the record show that for all the blogs run by third-tier economists pretending to be libertarians so they can avoid Krugman's shadow, and also allow rampant comment fraud for the sole purpose of driving up their pageload counts to appear more relevant than they are.... this is one of the funniest comments in that esteemed sub-sub-category.

This blog is very relevant as a platform for your brilliance, TPM. You are a national treasure.

She like the smell of brunt rubber in the morning? You should use the "Burnt Rubber Cologne" as explained by the TylerPaper.com https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ucDBgb3sgfo

arriba arriba, andale andale

It must be a typo, Japan shut this all down quite quick in '42.

Of all raw materials, access to rubber was the only one that really caused the allies any problems (unlike the Axis, who seemed to be short of everything but rubble). There were some very successful allied programmes to re-use, re-cycle, and re-source rubber production. By 1944 the crisis had passed.

I can't imagine anything, much less a vital war material, was exported from Malaya in '42.

" Another is that British industry was more successful, innovative, and scientific during periods of supposed decline than you might think."

What were the periods of decline? US and UK GDP per capita, which somewhat indicates technological level were the same in 1913 and 1940. The UK/US level dropped to 80% by 1950 and 73% by 1970 yet has stayed about at 73% for almost the past 50 years. The only decline was from WWII to 1970 and my guess is that most still saw Britain as innovative despite being eclipsed by the US.

As you say, even mostly from WWII to 1950 really... The war seems almost wholly really responsible for the relative economic position of Western Europe and the US. No war, and it looks like Britain would converge with the US in 1950 and stay converged.

Though the perception of decline is really as "The Sick Man of Europe", which is mostly due to lower growth rates relative to recovering postwar European economies, which converged towards British GDP, something they had not done before WWII. But then once the convergence is mostly done, growth slow downs and Britain is no longer "The Sick Man of Europe".

I mostly agree and was going to add the part about convering with the rest of Europe, but it seems odd that the war would have permanently (50 years) knocked Britain to 73% of the GDP per capita level. One or two other factors must have contributed to the relative decline.

That seems correct, the lack of reconvergence is a puzzle...

Post-war socialism and trade union power look likely bets.

The U.S. is more unequal with a post tax/transfer Gini coefficient of .47 versus .32 for Britain so the gap in the standard of living is much smaller than the GDP per capita gap would suggest.

It's true that British decline was relative rather than absolute. Life in Britain in the post war years was not a bad life; Macmillan's phrase "you've never had it so good" was true and received without mockery.

But 1945 to 1980 were generally years of wasted opportunity and modest growth. Resources which could have re-built the industrial base were squandered on Socialist boondoggles, and large sectors of the economy were unreformed, over-regulated, or nationalised.

It wasn't all bad. The dissolution of the British Empire went quite smoothly compared to the fiasco other European nations suffered. At least for the Brits. Not so much for the natives left to govern themselves.

Not available on Kindle and the book is $32. Bummer.

The difference in texts available in Kindle format between Amazon UK and Amazon US is a pet peeve of mine. For this book, the one on Amazon US is the British publisher's edition. If you check on Amazon.co.uk, the same edition has a kindle edition. I would suspect that this book will have a US release later this year, from a different publisher, accompanied with a kindle version.

English-language books and translations, even those not concerned with British history, are often released in the UK first, for some reason; i.e, Harari's Homo Deus was published to kindle in the UK in September, 2016, while in the US it was March, 2017; Knausagaard's 'Summer' was published in June in the UK, in the US it will be the last week of August. Same translator and all...

The anti-centralization effects of both low-tech farming and coal mining are underrated across the board: Spain's Franco had to be nice to coal miners, which were leftist and therefore not great friends of his regime, because they were too valuable strategically. As coal lost value, so did coal-producing regions, which depopulated just as fast as the agricultural areas.

'Britain through a variety of mechanisms forced or induced its colonies to lend it resources during this critical time'

The Indians definitely remember this example of how that worked - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bengal_famine_of_1943

'Furthermore this mining was largely horse-powered.'

So, the Industrial Revolution was just an illusion? And no, the mining was not mainly 'horse powered' - it was simply that the horses were used to pull the coal in carts out of the mines that were not economic to mechanize - meaning that the quantity mined was not large, in general. The horses were not operating the pumps, for example, because in reality, the Industrial Revolution actually did occur.

The Bengal famine being largely the work of 1. the Japanese invasion of Burma, and 2. the selfishness of Congress politicians who refused to allow food to be moved from their states to affected regions.

Nothing to do with the British war effort.

Sure, easy to blame the colonised for their misery.

There is plenty of blame to go around. The politically correct Wikipedia admits as much:

Following the Japanese occupation of Burma (modern Myanmar) rice imports were lost, then much of Bengal's market supplies and transport systems were disrupted by British "denial policies" for rice and boats (a "scorched earth" response to the occupation). The British government also pursued prioritised distribution of vital supplies to the military, civil servants and other "priority classes". These factors were compounded by restricted access to grain: domestic sources were constrained by emergency inter-provincial trade barriers, while access to international sources was largely denied by Churchill's War Cabinet, arguably due to a wartime shortage of shipping.

The British were gradually handing over power to the Indians. As part of that they had created provincial governments. Those governments decided not to allow food to be moved to Bengal. India not really being a country.


The evidence is what it is. Hard to see how Britain could have predicted this or what they could have done about it.

An account I read put part of the blame on the incompetence of the Provincial Government, a moslem-controlled entity at the time. Maybe its being moslem-controlled partly explains the reluctance of Congress politicians elsewhere in India to send food.

The primary "cause" of the famine was of course the Japanese invasion. If the Japanese had had the decency not to wage an aggressive war of conquest, millions of Indians would not have died.

There's nothing in the historical record to suggest malice on the part of the British authorities. At worst the charge is indifference which elevates to concern as the scale of the problem emerges. As others point out, Britain was engaged in an existential struggle against a xenophobic racial militarism at the time.....

It's interesting to consider how Indians would have fared if the Japanese had prevailed. Given the fraternal treatment by the Empire of Japan of it's Asian neighbours, I'm guessing "Gandhi" would not be household name.

'There's nothing in the historical record to suggest malice on the part of the British authorities. '

A statement that can also be accurately applied to the Irish famine. Where again, who could possibly blame the UK for the deaths of millions? It was the blight that was responsible in that case, right? Just a coincidence that the people actually in charge in both cases happened to be running essentially colonial enterprises. (Not to go too far into whether Ireland was a colony or not - that issue will be discussed for another few centuries, undoubtedly.)

The problem with your ethics, Prior, is that you have no distinction between causative and culpable.

There's no tragedy or bad luck in your universe; it's all conspiracy and malice.

Oddly, causative and culpable are a legal distinction, not an ethical one.

Of course there is tragedy and bad luck in my universe, and exceedingly little malice in actuality. As for conspiracy - well, conspiracy has become one of those terms bandied about to hide the truth as much as to expose it.

I could post the link (again - generally only read by a select few) to the properly filed IRS forms detailing the relationship / money flows between the Mercatus Center and the GMU Foundation, but for those who are already disinclined to accept what has going over the last a couple of decades, facts are worthless anyways.

"A statement that can also be accurately applied to the Irish famine"

No, they were actively shipping food out of Ireland during the famine.

Those were the owners of the estates, not the British government per se.

The idea of Britain in decline was almost consensus prior to the election of Margaret Thatcher - "I can’t bear Britain in decline. I just can’t" is consistent with the feeling at that time. Reasons for this included failing nationalized industries (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/British_Leyland) and power struggles between government and trade unions (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Three-Day_Week). I remember the help system on the university computer in 1980 being programmed to respond to "help England" with "England is beyond all help" - this came over as amusing and cynical but not necessarily overly pessimistic.

It wasn't only trade unions and nationalisation. There was a pervasive 'we won the war' air of superiority, an insular unawareness of how things were developing on the continent. I remember that when we made our first application to join the Common Market, there was a general sense that living standards on the continent were much worse than our own (they weren't), and that we had nothing to learn or gain from cooperation with continental Europe (we had a lot to learn). Meanwhile continental manufacturers were running rings round poor old BMC (later British Leyland), for example - and it was in design, quality and customer service as much as labour relations. And there was still the impression that Australians and Canadians and even Americans were honorary Brits - already by then, most younger Australians and Canadians couldn't give a toss about Britain except in a vaguely sentimental way; and the US, then as now, was a country full of foreigners who happened to speak English. Sadly, UKIP, indeed much of British public opinion, is still stuck in the 1950s and 1960s, living in a world of delusion.

Tim completely, utterly, fails to understand his opponents; to him they're all xenophobic little Englanders stuck in 1945. The idea that Brexiteers might have a positive vision of Britain as an innovative and global trading nation completely escapes him.

Nope, for declinists like Tim it's all about learning from "Europe" (by which, let's be honest, they really means "Germany", not France, or Italy, or Portugal or Greece) and retreating behind high tariff walls and harmonised taxes. That Tim can write this whilst living in freaking Singapore - the template for a low-tax and regulation global success story - just adds to the irony.

'Tim completely, utterly, fails to understand his opponents; to him they're all xenophobic little Englanders stuck in 1945': Well, Alistair babe, a remarkable number of them are, lets face it.
'The idea that Brexiteers might have a positive vision of Britain as an innovative and global trading nation completely escapes him.': Some do, certainly, but most demonstrate very little knowledge of the realities of international commerce.
Actually I very much included France and Italy in my thoughts.
As to Singapore, it is often referred to by Brexiteers as a laissez-faire capitalist paradise: they tend to ignore, or be ignorant of, the massive involvement of the government as a shareholder in the 'private' sector, and as a regulator maintaining a tight grip on major strategic commercial decisions. For what it's worth, most informed Singaporeans who have expressed any view on Brexit regard it as completely nuts, utterly incomprehensible. I have heard that view expressed at VERY senior level. Britain is an interesting place for rich Asians to educate their children, but commercially (other than a few big names in the oil industry, say, and aerospace), it doesn't count for much: still less so outside the EU.

Since Brexit is mostly about preserving democracy in British legislative and regulatory institutions (against growing restriction from EU acquis and legislative infrastructure) and the continuity of thousand year old British nations (against dissolution in the new Völkerwanderung), it's actually not too surprising that it would be totally incomprehensible to an island city-state republic with not too much democracy and about a hundred years as a "nation", of sorts.

There are many things to learn from Singapore in the domain of policy, though many don't scale to a state of Britain's size (that level of state intrusion on business? probably not so viable at a scale above a city state).

But it's not too surprising that they don't really grok the forces that hold together a pluralistic nation sized state (like democracy combined with weak ethnic divisions).

"There are many things to learn from Singapore in the domain of policy, though many don't scale to a state of Britain's size (that level of state intrusion on business? probably not so viable at a scale above a city state).

But it's not too surprising that they don't really grok the forces that hold together a pluralistic nation sized state (like democracy combined with weak ethnic divisions)."

I absolutely agree. Singapore is NOT a role model for post-Brexit UK. BUT it is often quoted as such by ill-informed Brexiteers, such as Owen Paterson. That's my point.

Singapore works because it's small. Britain's population is about nine times larger. There's no way that level of dirigisme could work in such a larger setting, moreover one that has not been subjected over the past half-century to intensive doses of 'nation-building' propaganda.

I can confirm the lack of customer service, or at least of responsiveness - I remember my Father sending a series of letters to British Leyland pleading for them to supply an Austin Maxi for him to buy from them. I don't remember an air of superiority, and I don't see how that would fit in with the feeling of decline. There has been a constant story that British engineers are great at making anything except money - perhaps Concorde was one example of this.

I'm skeptical of the claim about decline. Indeed doesn't data showing the UK losing residents until the 1980s conflict with this claim about relative decline?

I have not read the book, so the next comment may be off the mark. But I'd warn people that data on productivity growth and RGDP growth from 1945 to 1980, compared to the period after, is not relevant to any claims about the relative decline of the UK.

Scott, if the UK shows net emigration during the 1800s, and that is not a signal of decline, then how is it one if the trend continues post 1945?

I worked for the US subsidiary of a British firm in the 1970s and was exposed to many insights about them. At that time every young person in the UK almost had to make a conscious decision whether of not to stay in the stagnant UK or go to the more dynamic US, Canadian or Australian economies. My impression is that this significant dampened the quality of British labor.

Jefferson's yeoman farmer comes up now and again, but the yeoman farmer has long ago been replaced by the yeoman contractor: to build, remodel, or repair a house, to install or repair an air conditioner, to repair or install plumbing or electrical wiring or fixtures, and so on. Yesterday's small business was in retail, today it's in building services. Jefferson appreciated the yeoman farmer for the same reason we appreciate the yeoman contractor: they are independent and self-sufficient. If the yeoman contractor goes the way of the yeoman retailer, we are in big trouble. What? Anybody in your family died lately? Funeral homes have gone national. One of the shortcomings of today's economists is that they are so focused on the nonsense in tech that they miss the reality of the way people actually live.

I see that this only discusses Britain and not England or the United Kingdom.

You know I know, but a lot of people don’t know that. But you have lots of different names. The fact is you make great product, you make great things. Even your farm product is so fantastic.

What is interesting about Britain's World War Two experience is the lessons not learned. Britain did not produce much steel, nor did it use it well. The Soviet Union produced a lot of steel and turned out a lot of tanks - but the Germans consistently destroyed more tanks than the Soviet Union could produce. All the way down to 1944. So steel is not everything.

Where did Britain do well? Obviously in electronics. WW2 was probably the first war where electronics produced a very big effect. As the Germans showed when they gave every tank a radio. Britain always talks about radar. But it came up with navigation systems, smart-ish weapons, computers.

And then after the war pretty much ignored them all to focus on the old dying industries like steel and coal. It was left to Japan and Silicon Valley to work with what the British came up with.

I guess that just as generals are always fighting the last war, 50-ish economists in charge of planning are always thinking of their father's economy.

I think this is a little unfair; there were many areas of solid British technical achievement:

Electronics and (early) computation
Explosives and pyrotechnics, including early HEAT and AP
Light metal working, but not high-grade alloys
Jet Engines, (not adopted - a missed opportunity but ahead of US)
Radar, especially centimetric
AAA and fire control.
Artillery and Fire Control (especially by late '44 ).
Single-use "technologies": from DD tanks to PLUTO / NEPTUNE
British aircraft design was also, generally, on par with the best US and German models, perhaps exceeding the latter in the later years.
Soft Skin Vehicles. (Whilst not as recognisable as the jeep, Britain mechanised its armed forces early and effectively with a range of reliable trucks; massively outproducing the Axis)

Other, non-technology / organisational disciplines:

Operations Research and early Systems Analysis (an enabling technology)
Intelligence work, generally
Fighter control and management systems
ASW systems
"Total War" economic organisation
Irregular warfare

Historically, Britain was a nation of emigrants not a nation of immigrants.

Curry as most popular dish - discuss.

Reminds me of the comment that England with it's lousy food conquered the world to get take-out: Chinese, Indian, Middle Eastern, Jamaican, all very yummy.

In UK: Chips probably single most popular dish.

Indian food probably peaked in popularity 1985-2000.

Current British culinary aspirations tend in order traditional British, then North American, Italian and East Asian (parenthetically; roast, pizza, barbecue, ramen/pho). That is, more typically either native or from places that Britain did not conquer, and mostly driven by commerce rather than migration.

If you pick up any food magazine with recipes for the home cook, any much like traditional Indian curry served with rice or bread is almost absent. The impact of migration waves is fairly weak in the present day, and probably less than in the past, mostly as British cooks have become more experienced and knowledgeable about world food and less dependent on Bengali cooks serving up somewhat odd versions of Indian classics.

+1. Accurate. Modern British cuisine is just modern international, like everywhere else. But of course London will have a perfectly complete range of ethnic options if that is your thing.

Even fish and chips -- now considered quintessentially British -- has its origins on the continent: with battered fish being of Sephardic Jewish origin while chips came originally from Belgium.

#3. Wheat was "more expensive" than coal? On what basis? Coal has no nutritional value, in fact is slightly toxic. So is this on a weight basis? Volume? I suppose wheat could be used as a fuel... So, combustion energy (btu)? Another possibility is the price of a lorry 'full' of either which might be volume limited for wheat but weight limited by coal...IDK.

In 2000 (and the period before), how much of British exports were North Sea oil?

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