Growth

Arthur Marwick

  • The Wasting of the British Economy by Sidney Pollard
    Croom Helm, 197 pp, £11.95, March 1982, ISBN 0 7099 2019 9
  • The Global 2000 Report to the President: Entering the 21st Century
    Penguin, 766 pp, £7.95, January 1982, ISBN 0 14 022441 6
  • United Kingdom Facts by Richard Rose and Ian McAllister
    Macmillan, 168 pp, £30.00, February 1982, ISBN 0 333 25341 8

For almost the whole of the period since 1945 annual rates of economic growth in Britain ran at 2 to 3 per cent: ‘growth was still faster than at any time in history,’ as Professor Pollard reminds us, and ‘led to a widespread rise in prosperity’. Cheers! However, averaged over the same period, the EEC countries managed 4 to 5 per cent per annum, the Americans, starting higher, 3 to 4 per cent, and the Japanese, starting much lower, 9 to 10 per cent. Thus, ‘measured against what turned out to be possible for others in a competitive, intercommunicating world’, Britain’s record was ‘disappointing to the point of being calamitous’. Groans! Nobody, it seems, writes any more about Britain’s ‘progressive social revolution...peaceful and silent’ – as the great architect of French social security, Pierre La Rocque, described it in 1955. True, the Washington Post’s Bernard Nossiter, writing as recently as 1978, spoke of Britain: A Future that Works, advancing the argument that having wisely preferred a leisurely pace and a high quality of life to the hectic stresses of working hard, Britain was the foremost nation in adapting herself contentedly to the realities of post-industrial civilisation. Good try, one might say, but not really fetching enough to stand against the assertion of his fellow-countryman, Martin J. Wiener, that the central issue for historians of contemporary Britain is that of poor economic performance.

Some have seen the origins in the complacencies engendered, and the conservatism confirmed, in the Second World War: the war’s effect, in Angus Calder’s ringing words, ‘was not to sweep society on to a new course, but to hasten its progress along the old grooves’. Some have placed them as late as the conservative reaction against austerity in the 1950s. Others lay the responsibility at the doors of the second or third-generation industrial leaders of the inter-war years, or take it right back to the 1880s when Britain failed to invest in technical education and technological innovation in the way Germany, allegedly, did. Wiener himself went back further still, arguing that the fatal anti-industrial ethos of the British upper class was actually nurtured in the mid-Victorian period.

In discussing, then, the inadequacy of Britain’s rates of economic growth, there is a question to be answered not only of ‘why?’, but also of ‘when?’. Pollard is unambiguous in his answer: his subtitle is ‘British Economic Policy 1945 to the Present’ and it is quite precisely in economic policy after 1945 (not before) that he finds the errors which have done the damage. Explanations harking back to the 1860s or even earlier he finds ‘bizarre’: they leave ‘one to wonder at the respective quality of the Japanese, the French or even the German entrepreneurs of the mid-19th century that made their successors so efficient 120 years later’. Throughout the late 19th century and the inter-war years ‘British entrepreneurs did what was objectively right for them.’ The long-term historical arguments fall, since ‘the post-war rate was completely out of line with any past rates of growth among all countries in the West. They all describe a sharp “kink”, and it is not easy to see why it should be possible to jump from, say, 1 per cent to 5 per cent, but not from ½ per cent to 4 ½ per cent. In any case, in the lead-in period of the 1930s, not to mention the war years, Britain’s output did better than that of most of the others, and this should surely have had more weight at the post-war take-off point than a growth rate lying further back.’ The argument about the negative effect of the war is disposed of (to Professor Pollard’s satisfaction, at least) by reference to the ‘great strength’ acquired in ‘some of the most promising sectors’ such as vehicles, aircraft and electronics: it was not at all evident in 1945 that the British were bound to fail: on the contrary, ‘they looked hot favourites.’

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