How Midlands gun makers drove the Industrial Revolution

Posted on 16 Apr 2018 by Jonny Williamson

It was President Dwight Eisenhower who coined the phrase "the military-industrial complex" to warn against the nexus of military and industrial power that could sway public policy towards its own ends. A new book suggests that far from being a post-WW2 phenomenon, as history has suggested, it has been around for two centuries.

A new book suggests that far from being a post-WW2 phenomenon, as history has suggested, the nexus of military and industrial power has been around for two centuries.

Conspiracy theorists have long held that the world is run by arms companies, military generals, and political puppets whose existence depends on backhanders and patronage from business. For the most part, these people are ignored as cranks or radicals.

But what if, to an extent, there is some truth in there? After all, look at the biggest companies in most Western economies: they tend to be in the arms business. It’s true in the UK, US, France and Germany.

Clearly the Cold War was a massive driver: companies that had geared up to serve the gargantuan appetite for weapons during WW2 saw the post-war years as a golden opportunity to keep working for the best customer any company ever had, the government.

That certainly is true of the USA. The UK economic landscape post-war was littered with the wreckage of arms and aviation companies who were forced to merge or go out of business, until only BAE Systems was left, together with Rolls-Royce plc. But is it a coincidence that they also happen to be our biggest manufacturers?

A new book suggests that it was government’s drive for more and better weapons that drove the Industrial Revolution, and that history has, to some extent, glossed over this grim fact in preference to stories about modernising those dark satanic mills, Stephenson’s Rocket and so on.

There’s a full review of the book, and an interview with the author, on the Smithsonian Magazine website  It is a story that includes the Quakers and what was Midland Bank, and is today HSBC.

It is well worth a read, not only for the history, but also to see how much that we regard today as new is in fact the refinement of very old thinking.

The challenge for any society that says, “This is awful, how can we allow this to continue?” is to question whether the impact of the arms business on our GDP and our exports (think Saudi Arabia, for starters) can be replaced by spending the money elsewhere – or saving it.

What do you think?

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