Economic Performance

Sydney Checkland

  • The Victorian Economy by François Crouzet, translated by Anthony Forster
    Methuen, 430 pp, £18.00, June 1982, ISBN 0 416 31110 5
  • British Economic Growth 1856-1973 by R.C.O. Matthews, C.H. Feinstein and J.C. Odling-Smee
    Oxford, 712 pp, £37.50, October 1982, ISBN 0 19 828453 5
  • The Cambridge Economic History of Europe. Vol. VII: The Industrial Economies: Capital, Labour and Enterprise edited by Peter Mathias
    Cambridge, 832 pp, £13.50, June 1982, ISBN 0 521 28800 2

Thirty years ago or less, students of Britain’s economic performance were offered as their centrepiece question one that was highly flattering to their own country: how did Britain achieve the miracle of the Industrial Revolution and provide the world with leadership and a deeply-envied model. Even in the Fifties and Sixties there continued to be a veiled self-satisfaction in economic history courses. Today the self-congratulation has gone. The question that has dramatised and well-nigh traumatised our approach over the past decade is the negative one: how have we come undone?

Inevitably, the new way of thinking has affected our interpretation of the past. And this has political repercussions, as the parties look for a way out of present national difficulties, and seek intellectual and historical justification for their programmes. Was the British achievement so great after all? It shrinks if expressed in terms of the post-1945 growth rates of other countries, or indeed of Britain herself. If we tone down our estimation of past glories, the recent declension does not appear so humiliating; a wry balm may thus be found by deprecating our past. Moreover, if the 19th-century economic achievement is downgraded, so, too, must be the liberal economic philosophy to which so much credit for economic success used to be given. Such an argument suggests that in the 1880s, with industrialisation, urbanisation and dependence on foreign trade far advanced, Britain’s government should have seized hold of the economy as Joseph Chamberlain urged – controlling imports, using tariff proceeds to finance welfare and sustain home employment and incomes. In short, there is a case for economic management, as then espoused by an element of the Conservative Party and now by Labour.

There is also a long-term determinism in the air. The party in power exempts itself from responsibility for the immediate present by arguing that Britain’s relative decline is now at least a century old, the outcome of long-term forces that were inconsistent with her continued economic predominance, and against which governments were largely impotent. The weakness of this approach lies, of course, in the astonishing escalation of the rate at which relative decline has taken place over the past decade.

All of this adds to the responsibilities of economic historians concerned with growth, and, alas, to their confusions and sense of inadequacy. But that is not the end of the challenge. Parallel to what is, in effect, a debate on the long-term performance of the economy and the policy decisions which have affected it, there is a challenge to amplify the study of the economy far beyond present conventional frames.

The economists’ approach, in terms both of theory and measurement, is indeed much called in question. Economists (on whom non-Marxian economic historians rely for their conceptual framework, some more than others) have sought to be scientific. This has led to attempts at quantification, and at integrated thought systems which formalise the relationships between the phenomena measured. Such abstraction and quantification makes its own demands and imposes its own exclusions. These are carefully pointed out and demonstrated by Matthews, Feinstein and Odling-Smee, and by Solow and Temin in the Cambridge volume. Immeasurables tend to become residuals (and hence very difficult to relate to anything real). Solow and Temin are frank: ‘The usual routine, in the absence of anything better, is to treat technology as the ultimate residual ... This is particularly unsatisfying to the historian.’ So it is that many historians, while finding the national income aggregative approach useful, even inescapable, have regarded it with a measure of distrust: they are fearful of what it may mask. And yet there is a compelling need to try to encompass the system of relationships in its entirety.

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