By Luise Elsaesser (European University Institute)
This research was presented in the fifth New Researcher Online Session: ‘Government & Colonization’.
The enormous horse drawn society of 1900 was new. An unprecedented amount of goods and people could only be moved by trains and ships between terminal points and therefore, horses were required by anybody and for everything to reach its final destination. But, the moment the need for horsepower peaked, new technologies had already started to make the working horse redundant for everyday economic life. The disappearance of the horse was a rapid process in the urban areas, whereas the horse remained an economic necessity much longer in other areas of use such as agriculture. The horses decline left behind deep traces causing fundamental changes in soundscapes, landscapes, and smells of human environment and economic life.
Against prevailing narratives of a laissez-faire approach, the British government monitored and shaped this major shift in the use of energy source actively. The exploration of the political economy of a disappearing commercial good examines the regulatory practices and ways the British government interacted with producers and consumers of markets. This demonstrates that governmental regulations are inseparable from modern British economy and that government intervention follows the careful assessment of costs and benefits as well as self-interest over the long time period.
Public pressure groups such as the RSPCA as well as social and business elites were often strongly connected to government circles embracing the opportunity to influence policy outcomes. For instance, the Royal Commission on Horse Breeding was formed in December 1887 is telling because it shows where policy making power that passed through Westminster originated. The commissionaires were without exception holders of heredity titles, members of the gentry, politicians, or businessmen, and all were avid horsemen and breeders. To name but two, Henry Chaplin, the President of the Board of Agriculture, had a family background of Tory country gentlemen and was a dedicated rider, and Mr. John Gilmour, whose merchant father grew rich in the Empire, owned a Clydesdale stud of national reputation. Their self-interest and devotion to horse breeding seems obvious, especially in the context of the agricultural depression when livestock proved more profitable than the cultivation of grain.
Although economic agents of the horse markets were often moving within government circles, they had to face regulations. For example, a legal framework was developed which fashioned the scope of manoeuvre for import and export markets for horses. The most prominent case during the transition from horse to motor-power was the emergence of an export market of horses for slaughter. British charitable organisations such as the RSPCA, the Women’s Guild for Empire, and the National Federation of Women’s Institute pressured the government to prevent the export of horses for slaughter on grounds of “national honour” since the 1930s. However, though the government never publicly admitted it, the meat market was endorsed to manage the declining utility of horsepower. With technologies becoming cheaper, horsemeat markets were greeted by large businesses such as railway companies as way to dispose of their working horses without making a financial loss. Hence, the markets for working horses were not merely associated with the economic use and demand for their muscle power but were linked to government regulation.
Ultimately, an analysis of governmental coordination can be linked to wider socio-cultural and economic systems of consumption because policy outcome indeed influenced the use of the horse but likewise coordination was monitored by the agents of the working horse markets.