Published by EH.NET (October 2005)


Roderick Floud and Paul Johnson, editors, The Cambridge Economic History of Modern Britain, Volume III: Structural Change and Growth, 1939-2000. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. xix + 473 pp. $40 (paperback), ISBN: 0-521-52738-4.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Albert Carreras, Department of Economics and Business, Universitat Pompeu Fabra.

When it appeared in 1981, Floud and McCloskey’s Economic History of Britain was a major academic achievement. It set the standard for writing collective national new economic histories for years to come. Most of the issues have been challenged and retuned, but the first edition keeps, almost a quarter of a century later, all its spirit and intellectual strength — except for one major corner. The 1981 project stopped before the Second World War. There was an important chapter — but only one — on British economic policy and performance in the post-war years. The field was assigned to a major policy maker with a high academic profile — Sir Alec Cairncross. New economic historians did not dare to enter into the field. The second edition was a radical departure: a whole volume — a new third — was assigned to the post-1939 British economy. Sir Alec Cairncross’s seminal contribution remained, enlarged into two chapters. A whole array of new authors and themes was introduced. The third edition is no more a radical transformation, but a series of incremental changes. The title, to start with. The first two editions were an “economic history” — the first edition was even known as the “new economic history of Britain.” Now we have “the Cambridge economic history.” The former radical approach has fully seized academic power. It has become mainstream. The subtitle is more explicit about the content. A few more years than before — ending in 2000 rather than in 199 — and a message: “structural change and growth.” Some could argue that this is not a very clear message. There are, also, four more chapters and some seventy additional pages.

A few chapters and authors are quite the same — Howlett on the wartime economy, Hannah on the state ownership of industry, Howson on monetary issues, Tomlinson on economic policy and Johnson on the welfare state — but they are only a third of the volume. A bit more continuity is provided by the authors — although changing chapters. Millward and Broadberry remain, but the former switches from industry to services, while the latter from employment and unemployment to manufacturing. Some issues have been assigned to new authors. Cairncross’s two chapters and Feinstein and Supple’s reflections on growth and performance, success, failure and decline are now summarized by Kitson, in a more data oriented way. The dissolving of the ambitious all-catching grand interpretation chapters has allowed for the emergence of the truly new economic history of contemporary Britain. The new issues are about education and human capital (O’Mahony — also on employment), financial services (Watson), the service economy (Millward), the impact of Europe (Neal), technology (von Tunzelmann), regional development (Scott), fiscal policy (Clark and Dilnot) and industrial relations (Brown).

Each of the chapters provides a first class summary of the issues at stake. The whole is, no doubt, a well rounded textbook. The reader can take advantage of single chapters or of the whole of the book. The bibliography and the index are superb. The tables and figures are clear — although I prefer those of the first edition, which were much sharper and clearer. Among the new chapters my favorites are those that correct my ignorance the most. I enjoyed Larry Neal’s detailed and meaningful account of UK relations with Europe — more the impact of Europe on the UK than the reverse as the title underlines. I appreciate the short and clear summary of William Brown on industrial relations and the economy, and the masterful survey of Tom Clark and Andrew Dilnot on British fiscal policy since 1939. My choice is inevitably biased by those parts of British post 1939 economic history that most appeal to a non-specialist — industrial relations, fiscal policy and the relations with Europe. Isn’t this the bulk of what foreigners quote regarding British contemporary facts? No, it isn’t quite so. We still have missed one major, big, large, fact: the loss of the Empire.

Indeed, the editors have failed to address the essential phenomenon of postwar Britain: the switch from a world-wide Empire to a national economy. The felicitous title of Leandro Prados de la Escosura’s book on nineteenth century Spain — From Empire to Nation — would have been perfect for the third volume of the Cambridge Economic History of Modern Britain. Wasn’t the first volume about “Industrialization” and the second about “Economic Maturity”? Why should the third be about “Structural Change”? Isn’t “Industrialization” a “structural change”? Is this the real core of British change since 1939? There isn’t a single doubt about what did matter: the loss of Empire and the consequences of imploding into a smaller size economy. The failure to address this very issue is the real shortcoming of the volume and the major engine of its future obsolescence.

There are other small shortcomings. They come from the dubious structuring of the chapters and from the lack of a major underlying theme. The chapters come one after the other, without any strong relationship between each pair of them. All the obvious couples are separated, thus impairing a deeper understanding of the phenomena studied. Howlett focuses on the wartime economy, ending in 1945, but Kitson starts the next chapter in 1949, and we remain bereft of the immediate and crucial postwar years until Howson’s sixth chapter on money and monetary policy. More bits and pieces on those years are brought into the fore by Tomlinson on economic policy, by Neal on the impact of Europe and by the last two chapters on fiscal policy (Clark and Dilnot) and industrial relations (Brown). Other misorderings concern the sectoral-based chapters: manufacturing (Broadberry), financial services (Watson) and the service economy (Millward), that form a continuous treatment of the structural change within the UK economy, are third, seventh, and tenth, instead of constituting a cohesive part of the book. The chapters on human capital are as separate as fifth (employment, education and human capital by O’Mahony) and twelfth (technology by von Tunzelmann), although they are extremely close one to the other. The welfare state (Johnson), which lives from taxes, is ninth while fiscal policy (Clark and Dilnot) comes fourteenth. The policy chapters are scattered along the volume, instead of being close together. This reduces the explanatory potential of “monetary policy” (Howson — sixth), “economic policy” (Tomlinson — eighth), and “fiscal policy” (Clark and Dilnot — fourteenth). Indeed, the high value of the chapters is there, but order really matters as it suggests comparisons, explanations, causality and structure.

The lack of a theme is the problem. The volume meets a social demand, but the editors have failed to supply a story. There are a number of authors that provide one such story: the assessment of the Thatcher years. But, by 1981 there was no story to be explained by new economic historians. At most, Britain declined during the “golden age.” The literature on decline and failure was important in the 1994 second edition, but there the impact of Thatcher’s economic and social major reforms was too close to be properly assessed. To put Mrs. Thatcher in historical perspective seems the real goal of many authors. It would have been a legitimate leitmotif for a 1960-2000 volume on British economic history. But, starting in 1939 was not a decision without consequences.

All in all this is a very good volume, excellent for lecturing and extremely useful as a reader in British post-1939 economic history. But the foreigner interested in the British economy after 1939 will be completely puzzled by the lack of awareness of the major underlying historical trends, and the British national will be made believe that the United Kingdom was always as large an economy as it is now. Where has all the Empire gone?

Albert Carreras has co-authored, with Xavier Tafunell, a recent book on Spanish economic history (Historia econ?mica de la Espa?a contepor?nea, Cr?tica, Barcelona, 2004). They are also the editors of the forthcoming second edition of Spanish Historical Statistics (XIXth-XXth centuries).