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Living with the Century

Author(s):Cairncross, Alec
Reviewer(s):Rollings, Neil

Published by EH.NET (August 2000)

Alec Cairncross, Living with the Century. Fife: iynx, 1998. xvi + 320

pp. $50 (cloth), ISBN: 0-9535413-0-4.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Neil Rollings, Institute of Economic Research,

Hitotsubashi University, and Department of Economic and Social History,

University of Glasgow.

Before I start this review I should make it clear that Sir Alec Cairncross,

who died just after this book, his memoirs, had gone to press, has played an

important role in my academic career. Not only was he the Chancellor of the

University of Glasgow when I was appointed, but he was one of my referees and I

had also worked for him in preparing The Robert Hall Diaries 1947-53.

After my appointment he always found time when he visited Glasgow to see me and

to see how my work was progressing. I am sure that I am not the only young

academic who benefited from his generous support and encouragement.

There is a regular stream of memoirs and autobiographies from retired

politicians looking to set the record straight and, for the more famous, to

earn some easy money at the same time. By contrast, few economists have written

their memoirs. So one could well ask why Sir Alec Cairncross decided to write

his. The reason, I think, is that Cairncross was not a typical economist. His

main impact was not on the intellectual development of economics but through

its application, in particular through his influence on policy-making in

Britain. For many years he was at the center of government economic policy

formulation. In January 1940 and only twenty-eight years old, he entered

government service, first in the Economic Section, a small group of

professional economists at the center of government, (for eighteen months),

then briefly the Board of Trade, before spending the rest of the war working on

planning in the Ministry of Aircraft Production. From 1946 to 1949 he was

Economic Adviser to the Board of Trade and he finally returned to government

service from 1961 to 1969 as Chief Economic Adviser to the Government and then

as the first Head of the Government Economic Service. It is significant,

therefore, that the foreword to this book is written by Roy Jenkins, a

politician, and not by a fellow economist.

The chapters that cover this lengthy government service are perhaps the least

interesting to those that know Cairncross’s previous publications because he

has written widely on many of these experiences, for example in A. Cairncross

and N. Watts, The Economic Section 1939-61 (1989), Planning in

Wartime (1991), Years of Recovery: British Economic Policy 1945-51

(1985), and Managing the British Economy in the 1960s (1996). Indeed,

for the period when he was Chief Economic Adviser and the Head of the

Government Economic Service his diary has also been published.

It is elsewhere in the book that one finds more interesting material. The sheer

variety of his life and his activities is perhaps the most striking feature of

the memoirs. As a postgraduate he was in Cambridge in the 1930s and was one of

the founders of the Review of Economic Studies (later he was to help

establish the Scottish Journal of Political Economy). In 1944 he

published Introduction to Economics, which was one of the first

textbooks of modern economics and was to go through six editions, the last

being in 1982. And in the 1950s, his newly formed department at Glasgow was one

of the earliest in Britain to offer courses to business managers. In addition,

he was a member of a number of important committees in Britain, most notably

the Radcliffe Committee on the Working of the Monetary System; wrote a highly

influential report on regional growth point policy; and in 1969 became a master

of an Oxford college. Nor were his activities restricted to Britain.

Immediately after the war he was in Germany dealing with reparations, in 1950

he spent a year as Director of the Economics Division of the OEEC and for

eighteen months from 1955 was the founding Director of the Economic Development

Institute of the World Bank. Amongst his many activities in retirement were a

number of trips to China.

What is significant about this is that he was a generalist, dealing with micro

and macro issues, domestic and international affairs. He was a firm believer in

the power of human reason: economics was a way of thinking, whereby clear,

rational thought could provide the solution to a problem. Inevitably, this

meant he often had no knowledge of a particular subject prior to being asked to

consider it. It is hard to imagine that anyone now appointed to a position

equivalent to the Director of the World Bank’s Economic Development Institute

would know little about developing countries and the development literature, as

was the case with Cairncross. In the book he emphasizes how the twentieth

century has been the century of the economist and of economics, but also how

much, as a result, economics has developed over that time, not just

intellectually but also in terms of the number of practitioners and the extent

of specialization. It is highly unlikely that any young economist today would

be able in the next century to lead such a varied life and work in so many

different areas of economics. Nevertheless, we can all learn from Cairncross’s

belief that ‘to rest content with the familiar is a way of remaining

underdeveloped’ (p. 292).

Neil Rollings has just published, with Astrid Ringe, “Responding to Relative

Decline: The Creation of the National Economic Development Council,”

Economic History Review (May 2000). “Reluctant Europeans?: The

Federation of British Industries and European Integration, 1945-63,” written

with Alan McKinlay and Helen Mercer, will appear in Business History in

October 2000.

Subject(s):History of Economic Thought; Methodology
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII