We were delighted to welcome Imagining Markets network participants to Exeter for our first event last week. This is the first of a series of three academic workshops, with subsequent events to be held in London and Cambridge over the next year, exploring various facets of Britain’s economic culture and its relationship with key markets.
Paul Young opened proceedings with a paper exploring how the growth of the refrigerated meat and beef stock industries led to new understandings of the South American environment in Victorian literature such as the eco-romance The Purple Land and in advertising, where the Uruguay-based Leibig’s company had to compete with the imperial populism of Bovril.
Alan Booth introduced a new project exploring the development of the Rowntree business lectures, which emerged after World War I in a context of growing global economic competition to British business, and interest in new American methods of industrial psychology and management consultancy.
Lawrence Black explored the changing practices of shopping in mid-twentieth century America and Britain, such as the growth of self-service, and attempts to reshape market relations through consumer activism. Groups such as the National Consumers League expressed anxiety about the conservatism of shoppers and their concern with the ‘cheapness’ of goods.
Glen O’ Hara discussed how European competitors were imagined during the 1950s and how this influenced Britain’s subsequent applications to join the EEC and perceptions of the country’s relative economic ‘decline’. Glen paid particular attention to how changing practices in compiling economic statistics and graphically representing the economy reshaped ideas of markets.
Robert Saunders gave a taste of his project on the 1975 EEC referendum, exploring business organisations’ efforts in support of the campaign to keep Britain in the EEC. As Robert showed, in 1975 there was widespread business enthusiasm for expanding trade via the EEC, which appeared to offer opportunities to develop high-tech industries, and rationalise practices.
Piers Ludlow concluded the workshop with a plenary paper on the theme of ‘Economics and Britain’s European Choices’ which explored how government views of the UK’s most desirable economic future changed over the course of the 1950s with the rapid growth of EEC economies.
The day gave us an opportunity to discuss how various actors have politically constructed ideas about Britain’s economic future from the late nineteenth century onwards, from government, business, and civil society groups. Key themes to emerge include the importance of public debate about economic culture: the Rowntree business lectures emerged in a context of anxiety about mass suffrage and the growth of labour, consumer activism reflected anxiety about shoppers not behaving in an economically ‘rational’ fashion, and the 1975 referendum hinged on the idea of educating the public to support particular visions of Britain’s economic future. Coupled with these debates were anxieties about Britain’s world economic standing and its relative economic ‘decline’. We look forward to continuing the debates in London and Cambridge in the following months.