The rise of bureaucracy
The history of the British state often begins with the story of an identity, the British identity, and how it was forged. But there’s another story, at first sight less glamorous, but no less formidable. It’s the story of how such a huge part of our daily lives came to be regulated by the state, which also collects vast amounts of information about us in order to help government work out what it wants to do, and where. This bureaucratic, often statistical effort was impossible for centuries. But slowly, and especially with the impetus of war and the need for taxes or conscription, the state built the great machinery of modern government, counting people, standardising weights and measures, creating legal title, regulating, even causing us to have fixed surnames. Beginning with medieval custom, tradition and variety, the state had to make life legible for it’s own purposes, simplifying old ways of life according to its own rules. This short extract is about the rise of bureaucracy, and describes the beginning of that long journey, by imagining, not entirely seriously, how the fledgeling state began to get to grips with people in all their native bustle and diversity.
First broadcast on A History of Britain in Numbers, 16 February 2015.