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The Growth of Public Expenditure in the United Kingdom from 1870 to 2005

Author(s):Lee, Clive
Reviewer(s):Earley, Martin

Published by EH.Net (February 2013)

Clive Lee, The Growth of Public Expenditure in the United Kingdom from 1870 to 2005. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012. ix + 285 pp. ?67.50/$100 (hardcover). ISBN: 978-0-230-35414-2.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Martin Earley, Department of History, Bristol University.

Clive Lee (emeritus professor at the University of Aberdeen) is a noted authority on the Scottish economy and on Britain and its regional economy more generally. He wrote a short discussion paper, in 2000, on ?The Origins of Leviathan: The Growth of Public Expenditure and Taxation in the United Kingdom, 1880-1938.? This book is a considerable expansion of the discussion paper in 247 pages of text plus a statistical appendix of 28 pages. Lee selects from other works on the growth of public expenditure in order to describe and explain the extraordinary increase in public expenditure in the period covered. The primary thrust of his explanation for such growth appears early, ?it was driven largely by demand for public services on the part of those who saw themselves as its probable beneficiaries? (p. 2) and this pressure was largely channeled through the Labour movement.?

The first chapter is an overview of the growth, providing a balanced review of the very general explanations beginning with Greenleaf?s hypothesis and considering the libertarian versus collectivist perspectives, all very much within a British framework. He has a repeated emphasis on council house sales as the main platform of Thatcherism but otherwise this is a conventional analysis.? Marx is mentioned several times, Hobson favored against other political economists of his time and Hayek, despite the author?s stated bias, given a very fair hearing.? His second chapter considers public revenue in a first sub-period, 1870-1939. The sub-period dates are problematic for several reasons: at several points in his narrative 1890 would seem to be more of a turning point; it is not clear why data before 1870 were not included; 1939 is a natural division but in fact 1960 seems to be a better fulcrum to discuss the dramatic later shifts in spending. Although this is primarily a work on public expenditure, I found this emphasis on revenue issues most useful. To my taste, actual tables rather than extended summaries of the data would have been preferable but for his target audience he obviously feels the need to explain the data at length. The breakdown of revenues is extremely useful even if the figures are difficult to follow on occasion (and, for example, Figure 2.5 is incomplete).? Chapters three, four and five cover public expenditure for three broad categories of expenditure (central, central/local and local) for the 1870-1939 periods ? although he is clear that the central-local division is not adhered to consistently. I found his acceptance of the ?extended franchise to greater public spending? dynamic rather simplistic and the summary of Lindert, one of few intrusions of cross-national work, uncritical and selective.? Chapters 6-9 take the same headings as for chapters 2-5, but for the period 1938-2005. Bringing the history up to 2005 serves to support arguments from as yet weakly established historical facts for his general hypothesis given on page 2. In his very brief (only two full pages) summary and conclusion in chapter 10, Lee repeats his view of explanations for the general increase and feels it is necessary to abruptly bring in Scottish devolution at the very end.

This is an individualistically written book in many respects.? There are 25 figures but only two tables. There are fewer than 180 references in the bibliography, with many of the usual authorities such as Bernard Harris, Hobsbawn, Macnicol, Middleton and Pedersen missing, limited reference to Feinstein, only the 1984 edition of Fraser, no Ursula Hicks for 1920-36, and no reference to Lindert?s summative 2004 volumes. The great majority of the text is summaries of other works. Unusually for such a work there are considerable and extended descriptions of the Great Wars (pages 63-73 and 158-182) without specific links to spending patterns. Although this is an important corrective to histories which simply give the figures, the extent of text devoted to military history seems unbalanced. The paucity of tables, because such tabular information is given at great length verbally, is another quirk of the author. The figures have no source references provided for each individually, and the statistical appendices, which are given as the source in general for the figures, are tables copied uncritically from the usual sources (although Mitchell is not mentioned in the references). The sources of somewhat confusingly presented figures therefore cannot be readily checked. However the breakdown of expenditure and revenue categories is somewhat different from others and thereby more thought provoking.

An underlying problem is that the description and the explanations, from either the words or the data presentation, are not tightly linked. There is, moreover, very little original data or contribution to scholarship. Trends are hardly described. Some summaries are lacking in depth, for example, Clarke on Keynes (p. 240), on Lindert (pp. 31-32), and on the extension of the franchise (p. 300).? There is almost no extended reference to medium term explanations, except Lindert. There is hardly anything on Baumol?s theory and, after the opening chapter, little on the public choice school.? This is part of recoil from exploring economic and fiscal explanations, but he does not match Harris or Fraser on the social history and has little on political history. For in-depth analyses undergraduates would be better reading the original sources summarized here and, as I have indicated, those wishing to check the data would have their work cut out.? Much of the book is at the level of a sixth form textbook, summarizing positions and personalities. It is often idiosyncratic but this arresting aspect hardly justifies the price.

Martin Earley?s Ph.D. dissertation (completed at Bristol University) was titled ?Public and Social Expenditure in the UK, 1830-1950: Data, Trends and Explanation.?

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Subject(s):Government, Law and Regulation, Public Finance
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):19th Century
20th Century: Pre WWII
20th Century: WWII and post-WWII