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Martin Daunton: the master and the pupils

14 April 2016

A conference took place in the Jock Colville auditorium of Churchill College, Cambridge, on Tuesday, 29 March 2016, State, economy and society: a conference to celebrate the career of Martin Daunton. Martin was our Master at Trinity Hall from 2004 to 2014, but, as is almost always the case, the Fellows rarely know what colleagues actually do, and I certainly had no idea of his academic achievements. Four panels covered an extraordinary range of fields: urban history, governance and society, taxation and public finance, and political economy. It began at 9am and finished at 6pm, a conference full of variety and marked by an astonishing number of fascinating papers. Every participant had been a student of Martin’s, a colleague (in one case a candidate for a lectureship that Martin got) and one, Professor Helen Meller, had taught him in a seminar when he was an undergraduate at Nottingham University. The organizer, Dr Duncan Needham (2009), Fellow of Darwin and Director of the Centre for Financial History, told me that he had no trouble filling the panels – almost all those asked said yes at once, itself a tribute to Martin Daunton’s influence and the affection which his students and colleagues feel.

There were four panels, each of which had four members and without exception the papers and discussion were extraordinarily stimulating. The panels show the range of Martin’s work and interest. The work presented covered economic and social history from 1660 to the present in England, Scotland and in two papers, France.

Sir Rick Trainor (University of Oxford) opened the conference with an overview of the field called urban history and the validity of certain traditional categories such as ‘class’ and ‘elites’ as analytic tools. Hellen Meller (University of Nottingham) sketched the life and work Patrick Geddes (1854-1932) a pioneering, architect, town planner, artist and social reformer whose goal was to combat the atomized social order by a new version of ‘social citizenship’, which included some pretty bizarre historical pageants. Professor Bob Morris showed how the reconstruction of historic Edinburgh land reflects ‘invented traditions’ (a term coined by Terrence Ranger and Eric Hobsbawm) in the late nineteenth century. Professor Richard Rodger offered a fascinating piece of institutional economics: the way 19th century charitable institutions divided their lands by legal devices which led to an unfolding pattern of land use entirely dependent on legal structures and which reached down into the smallest subdivisions of land tenure.

In the second panel Professor Julian Hoppit showed on the basis of new research how successful Britain was at collecting taxes. The tax system was not only exceptionally centralized but remarkably uniform. London collected one third of the taxes with one tenth of the population, and excise taxes made up 44% of total revenue. Professor Matthew Hilton (University of Birmingham) looked at the world of charity and the economic characteristics of Oxfam, Christian Aid, and aid organizations, and their aims and achievements. Professor Martin Chick (University of Edinburgh) offered a sophisticated account of the gradual use of time series, social discount rates, and other devices to measure the impact of time in the allocation of resources. This paper went right over my head, and reminded me of the wonderful remark of Leslie Stephen, who said ‘this is a question which a man can only answer when he has been specially crammed for examination and his knowledge has not begun to ooze out.’ Alexis Litvine (University of Cambridge) compared the aims and activities 19th century commercial travelers in England and France as sources of information and new practice in businesses.

The taxation and public finance panel began with Adrian Leonard (2010) (University of Cambridge) who traced the role of loan contractors like John Julius Angerstein, William Baring and other members of Lloyds, almost all engaged in marine insurance. On the basis of primary sources he showed how the individuals and syndicates financed the war effort during the French Revolution and Napoleonic wars. ‘Insurance is the mortar which holds together the bricks of capitalism’. Charles Read (University of Cambridge) showed how important Sir Robert Peel’s reforms were in creating the 19th century British consensus on balanced budgets and imperial self-sufficiency. Hiroki Shin (Birkbeck College University of London) looked at the history of the premium bond and showed how the UK government, hesitant about the project, borrowed the models already used in colonial settings in the late nineteenth century. Adrian Williamson (1978) traced the controversial changes in taxation policy between 1964 and 1988 and the gradual rejection by the Conservative Party of egalitarianism. The climate of opinion helped the Conservatives to abandon progressive taxation and by 1988 all rates of income tax above 40 percent were abolished.

Political economy was a lively panel but had nothing to do with what Adam Smith or Ricardo would have understood by that term. Four stimulating but very different papers followed. Professor Youssef Cassis (European University Institute, Florence) examined the curious lack of work on the memory of economic crises and why this gap in understanding arose and persists. Professor Jim Tomlinson argued that neoliberalism had less to do with the changes in the labour market than deindustrialization. Professor Bernhard Rieger (University College London) traced the attempt to introduce ‘workfare’, an American attack on the recipients of welfare by forcing poor people to ‘earn’ their welfare, British conservatives saw ‘welfare dependency’ as a social evil which might be reduced by coercion. David Todd (Fellow 2005-10) compared the French and British paths to economic growth in the 19th century and showed how France between 1830 and 1880 became the world’s leading supplier of luxury and semi-luxury goods. Its growth model, less well-known and studied than the British case, was just as effective.

After a drinks served at 6pm, Martin Daunton replied to the conference participants by a description of his experiences of the crisis of South Wales heavy industry which he saw as a boy and young man, of his remarkable school experience at Barry Grammar School and subsequent choice of career. Fate, background and exceptional teaching lay behind his decision to become an academic to answer the great question of his life. The tribute paid him by the 16 panelists, the four chairs of the panels and the audience testified that he had made the right decision.

Jonathan Steinberg,

Emeritus Fellow

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