Published by EH.NET (June 2004)

Astrid Ringe, Neil Rollings and Roger Middleton, Economic Policy under the Conservatives, 1951-64: A Guide to Documents in the National Archives of the UK. London: Institute of Historical Research and the National Archives, 2004. xxii + 325 pp. ?25 (paper), ISBN: 1-871348-93-5.

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

Over the past decade the University of Bristol has developed great expertise in producing handbooks to twentieth century records in economic and social policy at what used to be called the British Public Records Office [hereafter PRO]. Astrid Ringe was Research Fellow and Roger Middleton is Reader in History at the University. Neil Rollings, who was Research Fellow for a previous handbook, is now at the University of Glasgow. The whole project is led by Rodney Lowe, Professor of Contemporary History at Bristol and Cabinet Office historian and the series now numbers four volumes covering economic and social policy from 1939 to 1964. The handbooks aim to make researchers better informed of the range of materials held at the PRO and better equipped to tackle the records on their research visits.

Previous handbooks have adopted the same organization as the PRO’s own Guide on a department by department basis. That job is now done by the PRO on-line catalogue, or at least could be done by researchers with experience of using the on-line catalogue and a thesaurus. The growing use of the on-line catalogue implied a rather different way of organizing handbooks for researchers. This volume and its companion on social welfare policy in the period 1951-64 are accordingly organized initially by policy rather than by department.

It is divided into four parts. The first provides an introduction to the economic trends of the period and the basic principles of researching government policy using the PRO records. The second deals with external economic policy, divided into separate discussions of trade and external finance. The third section, the first dealing with domestic policy, is concerned with macroeconomic management, again divided into two, with separate chapters on monetary and budgetary policies. The final part deals with “supply-side policy,” with a chapter each on labor market policies and capital and product market policies. Thus there are seven chapters in all, six of them dealing with the records.

Within each of these chapters, there is an introduction to the main policy issues followed by a survey of the administration of the policy during the period. The core of each chapter is a series of thumbnail sketches of each aspect of policy and a brief description of the relevant records. Thus the chapter dealing with foreign trade considers first British policy towards GATT, proceeds via trade policy with the dollar area to the policy discussions over trade with Europe, trade policy with the Commonwealth countries (which takes in more general questions of development aid) and finishes with a survey of bilateral trade deals. The chapter on finance and external monetary policy is organized in a very similar way, with introductory discussions of Britain’s place in the Bretton Woods system and an extremely useful survey of the administration of external financial policy followed by thumbnail sketches of sterling area policy, relations with the IMF, financial relations with the dollar area, policy towards the European Payments Union and the European Monetary Agreement and the financing of overseas development. Similarly, Chapter 4 on monetary policy covers the evolution of policy before the establishment of the Radcliffe Committee (the Committee on the Working of the Monetary System, perhaps the single most important assessment of policy during the Conservative years), the impact of Radcliffe, and finally debt management policy. Chapter 5 on demand management moves from the policy process to short- and long-term management of public spending and thence to taxation. The only noteworthy point in the other chapters is the inclusion of regional policy under the labor market rather than on product and capital markets, which reflect the way the policy operated in the period.

Much depends on the quality of the thumbnail sketches, which vary significantly in sophistication and length. In the space available, the complexity of the policy process is impossible to convey, but some sections work much more easily than others. Those on external policy are extremely informative and suggestive, those on labor and product/capital market policies much more limited. The pr?cis of macro-management work better as brief, limited essays on policy rather than as a signpost to issues and records. The sections guiding researchers to records are restricted to PRO papers. This is a trite comment about a PRO handbook, but the authors suggest that the formal organization of government, with decisions made in Cabinet and implemented in departments, and overall financial control vested in the Treasury, is problematic for the 1950s and 1960s. Policy formulation and implementation depended also on more diffuse policy networks embracing individuals and groups from a wide range of public and private organizations as well as politicians and civil servants. The authors claim that the hollowing out of the British state, hitherto associated with Thatcherism in the 1980s, was indeed evident under this earlier generation of Conservative leaders. Any reader expecting references not only to PRO documents but to archives of other organizations and individuals — the volume claims to be a guide to records in the National Archives, comprising those under the control of the Historical Manuscripts Commission as well as at the PRO — will be frustrated. The authors give only the broadest possible indications of other archival deposits. The thumbnail sketches of policy are organized as if conforming to the traditional view of policy-making, with both policy and record descriptions beginning with Cabinet, followed by the Treasury and ending with departments. Two of the four appendices reflect this formal approach. Appendix 2 lists senior civil servants engaged in economic policy, but makes no mention of significant others in policy networks, apart from a couple of “outside” economists. Appendix 4 lists the personnel and terms of reference of all the important Cabinet committees on economic policy. There could be no deeper genuflection to the formal approach to economic policy making than a long list of Cabinet committees. My own preference would have been to cut at least Appendix 4 and use the space for a much more thorough and useful index. The volume is very helpfully organized for those wishing to research a conventional policy, identifiably under the control of a single department. But those interested in more diverse projects (government policies on productivity or prices, for example) would be forced to rely either on the wholly inadequate index or be forced back to the PRO on-line index with all its quirks. This is less the fault of the authors, who have clearly labored massively on this volume, but a lack of imagination by the publisher. It cries out for an electronic format to enable fast and effective searches.

In short, this is an extremely useful guide for new postgraduates about to embark upon work on conventional policy areas at the PRO. Those who expect a guide to the economic policy papers in the British National Archives, as currently defined, might claim that the volume has been improperly titled. Those who know the recent work of some of the research team and are keen to investigate policy networks will hope that the authors might find a less restrictive format than a PRO handbook to develop this methodology and the archival strategies that will give it effect.

Alan Booth, Reader in Economic History, University of Exeter is currently working on British government and automation in the 1950s and 1960s.