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Published by EH.NET (January 2003)

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Michael J. Oliver, editor, Studies in Economic and Social History. Essays in Honour of Derek H. Aldcroft. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2002. xxvi + 275 pp. $84.95/?47.50 (hardcover), ISBN: 0-7546-0371-7.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Ruggero Ranieri, Department of History, University of Manchester.

As many other practitioners, I have made — and still make — excellent use of Derek Aldcroft’s textbooks in my economic history teaching. What is it that makes them so attractive? They have clarity, pace and breadth, while occasionally providing the reader with unexpected angles. They are written with enough intellectual tension and curiosity to produce two complementary results: for the teacher they offer a rewarding mine for lecture notes, and for the student they generate real interest for the subject.

This festschrift produced to commemorate professor Aldcroft’s retirement discusses his work and personality, and honors his highly prolific and respected academic career with chapters by some of his former students, associates and estimators, covering topics close to his interest. The book begins with a very frank and entertaining biographical sketch of Aldcroft’s life and career by Michael Oliver, the editor of the volume, currently professor of Economics at Bates College, Maine. Aldcroft’s academic life has been a pendulum between four universities: Manchester, where he graduated, wrote his doctoral thesis and then ended up as a Research Professor at the end of his career, Glasgow, Leicester and Sidney. In all these places he left a mark, his longest spell being in Leicester. Again as a more recent practitioner I was intrigued to look back at the youthful, hopeful days of Economic History of the 1950s and 1960s. Oliver’s piece is refreshingly frank in assessing professor Aldcroft’s contribution, addressing head on the question of the depth and originality of his work against the charge that it has been largely derivative, and it is also presents a humane and well-rounded portrait of Aldcroft, the man. On the whole he comes out as a hard-working professional with a broad, clever and inquisitive mind, a restless and at the same time withdrawn personality.

The chapters in this book are on very diverse topics, reflecting the range of Aldcroft’s interests. They are also different in their scope and range. Simon Ville offers a review of research in transport history and so does Peter Payne on the question of entrepreneurship in Britain during 1870-1914. Steve Morewood, on the other hand, writes a synthesis, in the Aldcroft mode, of twentieth century developments in the economies of Eastern Europe. James Foreman-Peck and Michael Oliver advance new views on British economic policy and performance respectively in the 1920s and in the 1980s and 1990s, while Derek Leslie attempts an econometric test of the feasibility of policies to discourage immigration — illegal and otherwise — in advanced western economies. Forrest Capie and Geoffrey Wood offer a critical reassessment of the post-1945 international monetary system, with a sharp indictment of the past and current role of the IMF. Finally Anthony Sutcliffe offers a piece of comparative cultural history, focusing on the social contents of movies in Britain and the United States between 1930 and 1950. Some authors engage in meticulous literature surveys (Ville and Payne) and attempt to draw firm conclusions (Payne); others open up new fields of enquiry (Oliver) or new interpretations (Foreman-Peck, Leslie, Capie and Wood).

I think it would be fair to characterize Aldcroft’s views as conservative over a wide range of economic and social issues. In some cases his conservatism reflected dissatisfaction with current orthodoxy and embodied a radical streak. Already in the 1960s he anticipated a strong interest on the economy’s supply side and a critique of current macro-economic neo-Keynesian orthodoxy. He challenged the negative perceptions of the 1920s as a period of stagnation and failure. He was also, however, critical of the performance of British entrepreneurs. Payne takes a new look at the debate on their alleged failure up to 1914, surveying a large body of recent literature. He resolutely concludes that no evidence of failure can be reasonably claimed: British entrepreneurs were knowledgeable, flexible and innovative and earned good profits. He dismisses claims by Chandler and others that they lagged behind in technological innovation or in vertical integration, and they would have been misguided to make the Chandlerian transition to managerial capitalism. Is this spirited defense the last word in this longstanding debate? The present reviewer remains a moderate ‘declinist.’ Comparative research in the steel industry, for example, such as the excellent one by Wengenroth, has revealed that while British steel firms retained technological excellence up to 1914 and beyond, they did not pursue the improvements in productivity that were common with German or US producers, and ultimately gave them an edge in cheaper, mass-produced goods. Explanations for German and US catch-up over a number of industrial sectors are therefore complex and multi-faceted, embracing diverse factors as choice of technology and industrial practice, attention to marketing, industrial relations. It was not simply that they profited from monopoly and protection.

Foreman-Peck places his skillful, econometrically based reassessment of UK economic policy in the 1920s in the same skeptical tradition with which Aldcroft approached the Keynesian interpretation of the shortcomings of the Gold Standard and its negative impact on economic growth and employment. Foreman-Peck looks at the causes of high unemployment and concludes that the problem was a supply-side failure to adjust to shifting patterns of demand on world markets. The overriding cause of this was not, however, the commitment to currency stability at the overvalued pre-war par level with gold. It was the need to maintain high interest rates to maintain a credible premium with US rates and fund the huge stock of national debt. The contraction would have happened therefore, irrespective of the adherence to the Gold Standard. It was essentially brought about by the huge financial effort sustained during World War I. Public debt and high interest rates had crowding out effects and discouraged investment. Foreman-Peck’s piece is ingenious and written with a touch of the magician’s zest — he now works for the Treasury. If followed through it would invite a radical reassessment of our understanding of the interwar years. However, it begs more questions than it answers and it would seem to require a large supplement of empirical work, both on the narrower issues (on UK debt and reserve management) and on the broader issues of comparative debt management under different monetary regimes. Would a closer look at debt/GDP ratios and macro-economic policies in post-1970 Italy help?

It would take a considerable amount of expertise, much beyond the present reviewer’s ability, to comment meaningfully on all the pieces in this volume. The unifying theme being their connection to Derek Aldcroft’s work, it is perhaps worth restating that his breadth of interests and methodological location at the borders between macroeconomics and economic history are well represented here, so is his intellectual restlessness. I am sure he will have also liked Anthony Sutcliffe’s richly detailed and entertaining revisitation of so many films and film stars of his youth, not devoid of a note of serious social endeavor. The working class and the masses made a brief appearance in popular movies, especially during the war and in Britain more than the United States (although don’t forget the Chicago gangsters!). They have since struggled to make a reappearance, as movies have become more and more enmeshed in the Hollywood discourse. For moviegoers and academics the latter part of the twentieth century has been about the rising middle class.

Professor Ranieri is co-editing The Development of the Wide Strip Mill in Europe to be published by Merton Priory Press.