Bobvis asks a good question: what are the worst mistakes in British history? Here’s a theory: there haven’t been any really bad ones.
No, this isn’t English arrogance. I mean three different things.
1. Despite our different histories, all western European countries are roughly as rich, peaceful, happy and free as each other. The big differences between countries are in geography, not history: compare western Europe with Africa. Subject to obvious caveats - not having recent wars, communist government or colonization - perhaps national history isn’t so important a determinant of our fate. This paper, for example, shows that national economic policies, within reason, cannot affect long-run growth.
2. The best thing that could have happened would have been to have had the industrial revolution earlier than we did. This would make us richer now - because we’d have had a longer period of growth - and rich societies, as Ben Friedman has shown, are morally superior to poor ones. However, despite huge variation in institutions, policies and cultures, no society actually had an industrial revolution before the UK. That no society took this route suggests that it just wasn’t available. Our options were limited.
3. Maybe Pangloss was right: what look like horrible mistakes were actually helpful in the long-run. Consider some candidates for bad mistakes:
King Aethelbert’s marriage to Bertha. This led to Britain’s conversion to Christianity, which in turn had devastating effects upon the country, not only by (at least) aggravating the civil war and causing decades of oppression, but also by diverting tens of thousands of intelligent men into the clergy and away from occupations where they could have been more productive.
But was this really so bad? Maybe the Church ’s positive role in providing education more than offset its role in diverting educated men away from productive occupations; being a religious nutter did not stop Isaac Newton founding modern physics. And perhaps our tradition of freedom and toleration emerged as a reaction to the evils of state-imposed religion.
Having a lousy navy in 1066. Had we had better sea defences, we might have at least weakened Harald Hardrada’s army before it landed. That might have tipped the balance at the Battle of Fulford in favour of the English. And that in turn would have prevented Harold’s army being weakened by its long march to and from Stamford Bridge with the result that they could have won the Battle of Hastings and stopped William the Bastard’s invasion. And this would have meant that English government would have retained its more decentralized and democratic Anglo-Saxon traditions.
But mightn’t this instead merely have resulted in even more civil wars than we actually had, with wars between regions and disputes over the monarchy?
The arrival of a fishing boat in Weymouth in 1348. This introduced the Black Death to England which killed a third of the population.
However, this too had a silver lining. In cutting the labour force, it raised peasants’ bargaining power relative to lords and accelerated the decline of feudalism and rise of a market-based economy.
The defeat of the Levellers, which killed off the possibility of an egalitarian society.
But had wealth been spread more equally, it might have been harder to raise money for capital-intensive opportunities, so the industrial revolution would have been delayed.
It’s unclear to me, then, whether English history has had many disastrous errors. Or at least the errors haven’t been too bad for those us alive today - which is a grotesque example of the survivorship bias.
But am I right? Is the road not taken really the road not known, or not available? What say better historians than I?