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The Decline of Jute: Managing Industrial Decline

Author(s):Tomlinson, Jim
Morelli, Carlo
Wright, Valerie
Reviewer(s):Stewart, Gordon

Published by EH.Net (January 2012)

Jim Tomlinson, Carlo Morelli and Valerie Wright, The Decline of Jute: Managing Industrial Decline.? London: Pickering and Chatto, 2011.? xiii + 219 pp. $99 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-1-84893-124-4.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Gordon Stewart, Department of History, Michigan State University.

This superb book deserves to be considered for a prize. It is a close-grained account of the jute industry in Dundee from the 1940s to the 1980s but it is much more than that. In the course of their study of the decline of one industry the authors lay bare some of the fundamental economic, social, and political forces that shaped post-war Britain, and illuminate the complex impact of globalization on the manufacturing sector of the British economy. Many books on such topics end up by focusing on one aspect of the story ? whether it be the role of capital, government policies, strategies of employers, or the responses and actions of workers. The three authors deftly bring together every dimension. The narrative and analysis move easily from women workers, who dominated the jute labor force until the late 1950s, to the policy deliberations of civil service mandarins at the Board of Trade, while fully acknowledging the ultimately inescapable pressures exerted by the international macroeconomic environment. Valerie Wright?s sure exposition of the complex gender issues at play among the workers sits informatively alongside the economic and policy analyses of Jim Tomlinson and Carlo Morelli. It is a remarkable achievement for three authors to produce such a coherent narrative, and a ringing tribute to the benefits of collaborative scholarship.

At first sight the jute industry seems an unpromising candidate for addressing significant issues in modern British history because it was entirely localized in Dundee and surrounding district. But the authors argue that ?jute?s extreme localization makes it ideal for a case study? (p. 2).? What happened in Dundee?s jute industry is a fascinating local story but it also speaks volumes about what happened to the manufacturing economy in much of Western Europe and North America in the decades after World War II. The relentless erosion of manufacturing has been particularly visible in the case of the United Kingdom as the great staple industries which had underpinned Britain?s economic prowess in the heyday of its empire struggled to survive in the post-war decades. In the capable hands of these authors the themes examined in this study resonate with changes taking place in the world economy today and help us better understand what happened in hundreds of urban settings in Western Europe and North America in the past fifty years.

The authors challenge the widely-held view that a distinctive cultural pathology explains Britain?s post-war industrial decline. This cultural approach, they insist, ?leads to moralistic and often unhistorical judgments? (p. 4). Instead of using the tempting magic key of an anti-industry ethos in English culture the authors embark on an ambitious analysis that ranges from assessments of Britain?s place in the international? economy, to the decision-making of individual firms, from workers? strategies for survival and improvement, and to the ideological and policy debates in the corridors of Whitehall. All these elements are satisfyingly brought together as the authors assess the story from the perspective workers, employers, and governments.

The surprising conclusion to their research is that decline was ?successfully? managed in the case of jute. The success depended on the interaction of three factors. First, the jute industry was sheltered from cheap imports by the state. This was not achieved through the imposition of new tariff barriers or by actual quotas, both of which would have been prohibited by the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade to which Britain was a party after 1947, but by the continuation of the Jute Control system that had been set up during the war. As Lord Swinton tried to explain to a befuddled Winston Churchill (a former M.P. for Dundee) in 1952, Jute Control operated a ?cumbrous control system under which the Ministry of Materials imports jute goods and sells them at an artificial price related to the cost of manufacture in Dundee? (pp. 122-23). This state protection, initiated by the 1945 Labour Government, was continued by its successors down to the 1970s.? Second, in return for this degree of state aid the jute firms agreed to company consolidation to make themselves more efficient, to increase labor productivity, and to cooperate in developing new fibers and goods. Third, unions and management put behind them the bitter relationship that had characterized the industry for much of its history and had come to a head in the dismal decade of unemployment in the 1930s.? In this new collaborative atmosphere ?employers, unions and the city spoke with one voice? (p. 160). As a result of these strategies, and the brief presence in the city of multinational corporations like NCR and Timex, decline was staved off. There was relative ?full employment? in the city down to the 1970s.

All this came to an end in the 1980s. The American multinationals began looking for cheaper and more subservient labor in Asia, and the Thatcher government launched its assault on the elaborate post-1945 apparatus of state support for British industry. In this new environment of ?free markets? and unfettered globalization Dundee finally lost out to the jute industries in Bangladesh, India, South America and other cheaper-labor regions of the world. By the 1990s jute had disappeared from Dundee. That disappearance raises the obvious question of why the authors can claim successful management of decline. The answer gets at the nature of history itself. If one looks at the final outcome by the 1990s then there was no success but being content to describe the past in that easy way gives an inaccurate picture of what Dundee was like from the 1940s to the 1970s. The authors believe that they have provided a truer picture of that era in Dundee?s jute industry. By extension they ask for a comprehensive re-thinking of how the industrial decline of Britain has been treated by historians.

The authors even go so far as to claim that Dundee enjoyed a ?Golden Age … in the 1950s and 1960s? (p. 162). That phrase evokes the work of another great historian of contemporary Europe. Shortly before his death Tony Judt wrote in evocative terms about the Britain he knew in his youth. It was a time and place where government policies to manage the economy helped achieve a fairer distribution of wealth than we now have, and where social and educational policies were deployed to enable those not lucky enough to be born into the ruling classes to make their way up the economic ladder. This is the world we have lost according to Judt. Since the 1980s ?free market? ideologies and individualist attitudes have worked their malign influence on the poor, uneducated and marginalized, as the top tranche of society has flourished. It is easy to fall in love with Judt?s idyllic picture of post-war Britain but this book reminds us of the labyrinthine policies that were needed to sustain the comforting sense of community.
That such big questions about modern British history, and, indeed, history in general, can be raised when reading this book testifies to the power of this first-rate study of the city of jute.

Gordon Stewart is the author of Jute and Empire: The Calcutta Jute Wallahs and the Landscapes of Empire (Manchester University Press, 1998).

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Subject(s):Economic Planning and Policy
Industry: Manufacturing and Construction
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII
20th Century: WWII and post-WWII