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How Birmingham’s past can inspire Brexit Britain’s future

How Birmingham’s past can inspire Brexit Britain’s future

🕔24.Jan 2018

As Britain heads out the door of the European Union, where’s the game plan for how we thrive in the brave new world that’s coming, asks Labour’s Liam Byrne? 

It’s an extraordinary feature of today’s debates in parliament that there’s so little thinking about how we’re going to make the most of the great future that’s allegedly coming.

On one thing we generally agree: if we’re to pay our way in this brave new world, Brexit Britain must become a mighty trading nation again. Just like we were before. And that’s why I think it’s high time we retold the story of the extraordinary entrepreneurs who built the land we love today.

Our great trading traditions are as old as the legend of Dick Whittington. But open a history book and you’ll get a thousand year saga of kings and queens, soldiers and scientists, and rather too many politicians.

But what about the risk-takers, wealth-creators and entrepreneurs – the visionaries who made history by inventing the future?

I think it’s time to re-tell Britain’s national story. And that’s why I’ve written Dragons: Ten Entrepreneurs Who Built Britain, to put our entrepreneurs centre-stage.

And, for my money, Birmingham boasts two of the all-time greats: steam engine tycoon Matthew Boulton and ethical capitalist extraordinaire George Cadbury. They’re on my list of titans who helped build modern Britain.

My book starts in the days of Queen Elizabeth I when our countrymen were taking to the high seas with a vengeance. Come Charles I, buccaneers such as Lord Robert Rich were building colonies and companies along America’s Atlantic sea-board.

Rich and his generation were extraordinary company builders, trading to Morocco, Russia, the Levant, Turkey, Spain, Virginia and founding the mighty East India Company, opening up Indian trade for men such as Thomas “Diamond” Pitt.

A vicar’s son, Pitt made a fortune illegally shipping Indian goods back to England, soon becoming rich enough to buy the “Regent” – one of the biggest diamonds in the world. His grandson became prime minister Pitt the Elder.

That trading tradition inspired men including William Jardine, who helped organise the free trade campaigns of the 1830s. Christened the “iron-head old rat” by the Chinese, he founded the great trading house of Jardine Matheson and orchestrated the Opium War that led to the British seizure of Hong Kong.

By the 20th century Britain’s merchants had become truly multinational. Few were greater than Liverpool’s William Lever. Tough as “human granite” he slept on the roof of his mansion and rose before dawn for an ice-cold bath. He built Britain’s first great multinational selling Sunlight soap to every corner of the globe and laid the foundations for Unilever.

But for me, Boulton and Cadbury have a special place.

Born in 1728, Matthew Boulton inherited his father’s toy-making business crafting buckles in the days when Birmingham was the toy-making capital of Europe.

Marrying into a fortune, Boulton ploughed the cash into building the SoHo Manufactories, one of the most famous factories in England.

A member of the scientific Lunar Society, Boulton was devoted to fusing art and science, and went into business with the famous potter, Josiah Wedgwood, making a fortune during the ‘vase mania’ of the 1760s and helping fund Wedgwood’s canal to Birmingham.

But it was Boulton’s partnership with Glaswegian James Watt, inventor of the steam engine, that was destined to change the world.

Boulton helped perfect – and sell – the engine nationwide to coal mine-owners and mill-owners, powering the factories that span the cotton and wool that helped make Britain’s fortune. “I sell here, Sir,” Boulton liked to boast, “what all the world desires to have – POWER!”

Deep in the Boulton & Watt archives on the the top floor of Birmingham’s fabulous library are the gorgeous plans and extraordinary letters, like Georgian email, from 1789, setting out the moment Boulton & Watt sold the first steam engine to a Manchester cotton tycoon, sparking Britain’s textile revolution.

Soon Boulton was in the factory business himself, opening the first steam-powered factory in London, the great Albion flour mill. When the Southwark millers burned it down, the vast blackened hulk inspired William Blake’s vision of a ‘dark satanic mill’ which he put into his hymn, Jerusalem.

Born three decades after Matthew Boulton died, to an old Birmingham Quaker family, George Cadbury and his brother Richard ploughed their last pennies inherited from their mum into saving their father’s failing chocolate business.

When they took a gamble on a new, Dutch cocoa press, they struck it big, creating a pure new ‘cocoa essence’ which they sold, beautifully packaged, with a new ‘chocolate box art’.

A lifelong pacifist who opposed the South African War, George and his brother helped change history when they created Bournville, a factory town built in the glory of the English countryside which became the model for ‘garden cities’.

Back in Victorian days, Britain’s cities were infamous for their squalor and their filth. George Cadbury set out to change all that. He was inspired by his lifelong experience teaching adults at Birmingham’s Severn Street School.

“I have not been a teacher of a men’s class for 50 years,” George once said, “without learning that the best way to improve a man’s circumstance is to raise his ideals. [But] how can he cultivate ideals when his home is a slum?”

George went on to buy the Daily News and backed the early Labour Party to campaign for social progress. His ideas helped inspire today’s welfare state.

For a peace-loving man, George proved a canny warrior in the ‘chocolate wars’ of the 19th century, battling it out for sales with his Quaker rivals, Rowntree’s and Fry’s. In 1904-5, he launched Cadbury’s game-changer: Cadbury’s Dairy Milk, advertised nationwide as made with a ‘glass and a half of milk in every half-pound bar’.

He died as the nation’s leading ethical capitalist – and the Empire’s greatest chocolate maker.

It’s these traditions that mean invention, enterprise, technology and trade are in our lifeblood – but today we’ve lost our edge. For years we’ve imported more than we sell abroad. Last year we recorded the biggest trade deficit in our history.

We can’t go on like this. It’s time for our country to rethink how the superpower of the steam age becomes a great power of the cyber age. That’s amongst the greatest questions of our time.

And the lesson of history is that the mighty city of Birmingham will have many of the answers.

Liam Byrne’s book Dragons: Ten Entrepreneurs Who Built Britain is available on Amazon.

Liam Byrne is MP for Birmingham Hodge Hill, Labour’s Shadow Minister for the Digital Economy and a former Chief Secretary to the Treasury and Minister for the West Midlands. 

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