Roads to Power

Roads to Power, Britain Invents the Infrastructure State, by Jo Guldi, Harvard University Press, £26.95.

A delightful surprise! Not only is the analysis followed with panache from start to finish, but the story is also kept lively with constant dexterity. This must be because Jo Guldi knows her subject backwards.

In early eighteenth-century Britain, nothing but dirt track ran between most towns, as each parish was entirely responsible for the shape, direction and quality of its own roads, and had little technology or incentive to improve them. The traveler in 1726, the year the British government began investing in roads, would have journeyed through a series of disconnected islands of private road governance. Turnpikes and parish roads ran over most of the English interior between 1740 and 1760, thanks to veterans coming back with their military craft for building roads to police the Highlands. Administered by local landlords forming private companies, turnpike roads were full of zigzags and potholes, and soon forced to conform to new regulations drawn up by experts commissioned by Parliament. To prove the advantage of collective building over local practice, committees appointed by Parliament set out to demonstrate the benefits of turning road construction over to a single engineer. They succeeded. Soon many people became increasingly mobile, and many others began to understand the opportunities of communication opening up to them.

Tradesmen, artisans and preachers were quick to join the flow, organizing their own journeys to accompany the travelers. By 1848, the primitive thoroughfares were transformed into a network of highways connecting every village and ‘island’ in the nation. This highway network led to contests for control over everything from road management to market access. Peripheries like the Highlands demanded that centralized government pay for roads they could not afford, while English counties wanted to be spared the cost of underwriting roads to Scotland. The roads were the product of a new form of government, the infrastructure state, marked by the unprecedented control bureaucrats wielded over decisions relating to everyday life. Soon, a widespread anxiety toward this centralized approach took over. But would the state have backed away, had they known what severe economic consequences this would have for the more remote regions, Ireland and Scotland? At the end of the journey, this fascinating book addresses some critical issues of our time: Does information really help to unite strangers? Do markets unite nations and peoples in common interests?