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Cambridge author exhumes Irish Famine and details a financial crisis still relevant today

A new book by Charles Read, who teaches economics and history at the University of Cambridge, opens up – and then resolves – some of the catastrophic misunderstandings and assumptions regarding one of the most contentious periods of British and Irish history.

Dr Charles Read at Corpus Christi College. Picture: Keith Heppell
Dr Charles Read at Corpus Christi College. Picture: Keith Heppell

The Great Famine in Ireland and Britain’s Financial Crisis, which has just been published by Boydell Press, is Dr Read’s first book, and expands the prize-winning research for his PhD dissertation on British economic policy during the Irish famine of 1845-53.

Underpinned by astonishingly detailed research, the author takes what feels like a huge leap into a hitherto-unknown position of historical, economic, political and cultural clarity and, in doing so, he takes two massive risks, both of which pay off handsomely.

The first risk is to overturn the possibility that the tragedy of the horrific famine in Ireland was not a deliberate act of malevolence by the British government against the Irish people, but rather the result of complex financial and political circumstances triggered by a unique crisis which caused one million deaths and one (possibly two) million to flee overseas, mainly to America, leaving a domestic landscape which never recovered (8m people lived in Ireland in the early 1840s, against 5m citizens today).

The second risk is to leave open the question of whether such a tragedy could happen again – just as the signs are that it might be happening again. Could Britain’s financial system today retain a similar flaw to the one which nearly did for it in the 1840s, when intransigent decision-making at the heart of government buckled the country’s fiscal firepower, with the bill for the outcome passed down the chain until it ended up with the poorest bearing the cost?

The interlocking events which elevated the Irish famine from a crisis to the worst economic and humanitarian tragedy since the Black Death in the 14th century began with a huge shock to food security in Ireland: a potato blight, which had arrived from the Americas, destroyed the potato crop between 1845 and 1849.

Death in Florence during the Black Death in 1348
Death in Florence during the Black Death in 1348

By 1847 3m people in Ireland were dependent on soup kitchens – the food banks of their day (in 2021/22 2.17m people used a food bank in the UK) . It didn’t help that the British government failed to understand basic nutrition, which was why one of its solutions – to ship maize into Ireland to replace the potato – didn’t work.

From the moment the first harvest failed, Charles Read writes, events spiralled out of control.

“British relief policy was affected by an economic downturn in 1846 and financial crises in Britain in 1847,” he states. The relief effort was outsourced from London to Ireland’s absentee landlords (mostly resident in England), and their primary goal was to cut their losses any way they could.

The relief efforts ultimately failed because the solutions – food, money, work – had structural glitches and the funding model failed at the point of supply. Funding became an issue because Ireland’s predicament gradually became a sideshow to an ideological drama taking place in London – namely the vicious debate between the Currency School and the Banking School.

The Currency School held that the issuance of bank notes should be tethered to physical gold assets held in bank vaults. The Banking School was more lenient on the issue – more laissez-faire. (This debate is no longer extant: gold reserves are less important since the US broke the link between gold and notes – the gold standard – in 1971 and, if it wants to, the government today can print money through the mechanism known as quantitative easing.)

What Great Famine does is to separate out the impact of the cuts to welfare – and the inevitable woe inflicted on the people of Ireland – from the more obscure reasons for the breakdown of statecraft that rendered the British government near-impotent in the crucial years after the potato blight ended but before the recovery began.

Sir Robert Peel, British prime minister (1834–35, 1841–46) and founder of the Conservative Party
Sir Robert Peel, British prime minister (1834–35, 1841–46) and founder of the Conservative Party

“The political and economic background to the decisions made by politicians in Britain in relation to the famine has been neglected,” writes Dr Read, who then explains that this ‘neglect’ was the result of then-prime minister Robert Peel, who had created the Conservative Party brand in the 1830s, being inclined to cover up his policy failures to ensure that his political and ideological legacy was left untarnished. So: rewriting history was part of the Conservative Party’s toolkit going back almost 200 years.

The British government shut down its relief efforts in 1847, long before the famine ended, because it needed the money previously allocated to the Irish relief fund to service the national debt and prop up Britain’s currency. The currency crisis had its origins in Peel’s premiership: the specific trigger was the passing of the Bank Charter Act in 1844 on his watch. This Act of Parliament restricted the powers of British banks and gave exclusive note-issuing powers to the central Bank of England.

The 1844 Act confirmed that the Currency School had won the ideological battle against the Banking School but, Dr Read writes that “the restrictions of the particular application of Currency School ideas in the Bank Charter Act of 1844 meant that the United Kingdom was not able to borrow without panicking financial markets. Ireland became trapped inside Britain’s currency system.”

In 2022, millions of UK citizens depend on food banks – and in 1847 3m people in Ireland were dependent on the 19th century equivalent, soup kitchens
In 2022, millions of UK citizens depend on food banks – and in 1847 3m people in Ireland were dependent on the 19th century equivalent, soup kitchens

The similarities with today’s financial crisis are uncanny: a self-inflicted noose – even in the 1840s the notion of insisting that each pound sterling had a corresponding amount of gold in the bank was as silly as the notion in 2016 that the European Union was holding back the UK’s growth – was followed by a natural disaster that caused huge death tolls (the potato blight in the 1840s, the coronavirus in the 2020s) and resulted in a massive wobble in the markets – though, genius historian and economist though he may be, we can be fairly certain that Dr Read didn’t know that Kwasi Kwarteng’s mini-budget would inflict so much damage on the UK in September because the final text for Great Famine was signed off in June and published in October (I checked).

Nor is the war in Ukraine mentioned. But here we are. Ideologically-driven decisions, made in Westminster before a real crisis began, accelerated an incoming systemic shock into a humanitarian tragedy which played out in a horror show that traumatised a nation.

It should be made clear, however, that the similarities between then and now are only tangentially explored in Great Famine. Still, it is darkly amusing to read the author write about how Robert Peel crafted the very notion of ‘sound money’ – a term Peel attached to the Conservative Party with great success (until very recently) – and how he wished to be remembered as the chief architect of ‘the age of stability’.

Maybe Peel would say, were he here today, that he ‘got the big calls right’ – but Great Famine comprehensively disabuses us of that notion.

The Great Famine in Ireland and Britain’s Financial Crisis by Charles Read is published by Boydell Press, £25 in paperback
The Great Famine in Ireland and Britain’s Financial Crisis by Charles Read is published by Boydell Press, £25 in paperback

Despite being written for a scholarly audience, the book’s jolt to the senses resonates far beyond any solely academic setting. Great Famine injects a massive strand of fresh thinking into what had largely appeared to have been a dead end of history. It’s challenging to describe what an incredible achievement this is. Parts of Great Famine go right against the grain of Britain’s mythology about itself: it’s almost heretical. It’s hard not to be awestruck at the audacity of Dr Read’s thesis and the way he unveils it.

When asked whether his background was an advantage when it came to writing Great Famine, Dr Read responded: “The book brings together my interests in financial crises and famines, and how they can be prevented by policymakers in the future.

“I have been interested in financial crises since Lehman Brothers collapsed during my first weeks as an undergraduate in Cambridge during the global financial crisis. My interest in famine and genocide comes from my family history. My mother’s family, which is ethnically part Armenian and part Ethiopian, fled the Armenian genocide during the first world war and then Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia in the 1930s.

“It is a historian’s social responsibility to shatter dangerous myths about the past. Given my family’s history, I feel that responsibility very personally, to ensure that the mistakes of the past are not repeated by policymakers today or in the future.”

The Great Famine in Ireland and Britain’s Financial Crisis is published by Boydell Press, £25 in paperback.

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