There was much grand drama, technical wizadry and fine moments in the Olympics opening ceremony. There was also a look at history, contrasting a rural Merry pre industrial Britain with the powerful dark satanic mills and forges of the industrial revolution.
The UK’s attitude towards the Industrial revolution has always been complex and bitter sweet. The Labour thesis has roundly condemned enterprise capitalism for industrialising on the grounds that factories exploited labour, paid poor wages, and ignored health and safety. At the same time the Labour tradition has praised the emergence of unions and collective action, made possible by large scale factory organisation, and wants the UK to be a strong industrial power with more factories than we currently sport. Wiser heads in the Labour movement accept that industrialisation raised overall living standards and permitted the creation of more better paid jobs. They acknowledge that there was a big problem of rural poverty and poor living standards before the first factories sprung from the rural landscape.
The Conservative side was more often than not defensive of the agrarian society and critical of the new men of industry who became the new rich. Conservatives had to make their peace with the industrial interests as they became successful. There was always a strong strand of Conservative social action wanting improvements in the regulation of working conditions and urging the abolition of child labour and other abuses, to match the work of the Trade Unionists.
The truth is, however, that many people volunteered to leave the land and travel to the cities to find work. By modern standards the wages were poor, the hours too long and the housing conditons unacceptable. They were, however, an improvement for some on the poverty and poor housing in rural areas. Britain became the workshop of the world, and with it one of the richest countries on the planet, with living standards on average much higher than in the many agricultural societies abroad.
Today, as we survey the progress of countries from poverty to better living standards, it is normal for the successful ones to have to undergo their own industrial revolution, producing a vast increase in homes in cities and usually starting with long hours and low paid jobs in factories. If you wish to have a balanced view of the process of idustrialisation it is important to remember that many came to the cities to better themselves and raise their incomes. Industry did produce many good cheap products, to allow the poor to enjoy some of the goods and services of life that were once the prerogative of the rich. It was not all dark satanic mills and exploiting mill owners getting rich whilst suppressing everyone else. In the UK there is a proud tradition too of the garden city, the enlightened employer, the cleaner and more humane factory, the movement from low wages for low output to high productivity and better pay.
To understand modern Britain we not only need to celebrate social progress through campaigns and Parliamentary action to raise standards and guide conduct. We also need to understand just how important industrialisation was to advancing living standards and giving the UK a leading place in world markets. It was not just dirty chimneys but also china plates, metal cutlery and colourful clothes for all.