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The British Economy since 1945: Engaging with the Debate

Author(s):Middleton, Roger
Reviewer(s):Booth, Alan

Published by EH.NET (July 1, 2000)

Roger Middleton, The British Economy since 1945: Engaging with the

Debate. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000. xix + 198 pp. $49.95

(hardcover), ISBN 0-312-22862-7.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Alan Booth, Department of History, University of Exeter.

This is another textbook treatment of British economic performance since 1945

in a market that, if not nearing saturation point, is certainly crowded. This

book is designed for the real beginner, and assumes comparatively little

previous knowledge of either recent British economic history or the methods of

the economic historian. It is part of a series, British History in Perspective,

which provides for first year undergraduates an overview of a problem area in

historical interpretation, giving a guide to the literature, principal themes

and competing interpretations. This is the first volume of the series to deal

with an economic topic. Accordingly, the book begins with compelling arguments

for studying economic history and tries to establish a basic toolkit with which

students can interrogate British economic performance. The author (Reader in

the History of Political Economy at the University of Bristol, UK) knows his

intended readership and undertakes these tasks with skill. He presents the

introductory economics in the text, but the core arithmetical and statistical

techniques are relegated to an appendix–one must not frighten the horses!

Thereafter, the material is organized in a rather unconventional way, being

extremely state-centered and policy-oriented. There are separate chapters on

economic performance, economic policies (more accurately, the goals of

policy-makers) and the effectiveness of policy. In truth, the book’s design and

content would be more accurately described as British Economic Policy and

Performance since 1945 and, for those who know Middleton’s work, it is

essentially the postwar sections of his Government versus the Market

(Edward Elgar, 1996), up-dated and in a form accessible to first year

undergraduates. In one very important respect, however, it goes beyond the

previous book and is more interesting as a result.

Middleton has become much more sensitized to the problems of presenting British

economic history since 1945 within the grand narrative of decline and missed

opportunities for faster growth and improved competitiveness. He establishes

solid performance criteria and emphasizes that Britain’s economic record was

“poor” only during the 1970s and at other times should be more accurately

described as “adequate.” This enables him to contrast a “popular” discourse of

abject failure and a “British disease” with a more considered, “academic”

picture in which the critiques of Britain’s managers, workers, institutions and

policy regime are less persuasive and easily substantiated than commonly

believed. Indeed, this is an encouragingly post-modern textbook, arguing that a

single grand narrative is most unlikely, given the complex web of economic and

political interactions that determine national economic performance.

But Middleton has thrown off only some of the shackles of past interpretations.

He concludes that Britain’s economic performance can be understood in terms of

a complex interaction of market and non-market failures. He faithfully reports

and endorses the existing literature with its emphases on weaknesses on the

supply side of manufacturing and limited convergence towards US levels of

(manufacturing) productivity. At the same time, he makes some use of

Broadberry’s findings that the US and the major European countries “overtook”

the British economy by transferring resources from low productivity agriculture

into higher productivity manufacturing and service occupations and by relative

productivity advance in services, but that there is no obvious trend in

Britain’s relative performance in manufacturing. If Broadberry is correct, and

the outlines of his argument are very compelling, even the core “academic”

literature on British economic performance since 1945 can be questioned more

heartily and persuasively than Middleton ventures. Its preoccupation with

manufacturing appears excessive and the comparative lack of attention to

agriculture and services is quite shameful. The comparative weakness of

Britain’s service sector does not lend itself easily to Middleton’s

state-centered, policy-oriented approach, but a more penetrating analysis of

agricultural policy could have been expected. Thus, given his attempt to

encourage students to engage with the debate, it is a pity that Middleton did

not press his post-modern agenda much farther even to the extent of questioning

whether the period since 1945 is really an appropriate one for assessing the

national economy.

Alan Booth, Department of History, University of Exeter, has recently

completed for Macmillan a study of the British economy in the twentieth

century.

Subject(s):Economywide Country Studies and Comparative History
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII