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21 September 2014
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Victorian Britain

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Laissez-faire and the Victorians

By Professor Eric Evans
Victorian advertisements
Victorian advertisements at Charing Cross Sation, 1874 ©

Could Victorian Britain be called in any way a 'nanny' state? The 19th century was certainly a period of increasing state intervention - but how far did things really go?

Britain's world dominance

Throughout the reign of Queen Victoria (1837-1901), the United Kingdom was the world's leading power. Its naval supremacy was unchallenged and its dominant influence in diplomacy and international power broking acknowledged on all sides. It was, however, the strength of Britain's economy that underpinned this pre-eminence.

Britain had progressed from being what Napoleon dismissed as a 'nation of shopkeepers' and had become instead 'the workshop of the world' - on the back of the world's first industrial revolution. Its control of international trade routes and its dominance of financial services also ensured that - for a while at least - the country could withstand the challenge of other newly industrial nations in the second half of the queen's reign.

But why was the UK, a small nation inconveniently situated at the north-west fringes of Europe, so dominant for so long? There are many answers to the question but, by the 1860s, it was almost an article of faith that the nation thrived because of 'laissez-faire'.

Published: 2004-11-04

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