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Response to Review no. 675

Warm thanks are due to Jim Tomlinson for writing such a generous and illuminating review of our book. Historians who are familiar with Tomlinson’s extensive contribution to modern economic history will not be surprised by the quality and depth of this appraisal. Our own research and that of our postgraduate students has been profoundly influenced by his arguments on the politics of Britain’s economic performance and the creation in the 1950s and 1960s of an ideology of ‘declinism’ and British failure. (1) Our text endorses many criticisms he has made of earlier narratives of systemic failure in the British economy, and more particularly, the repeated attempts by economic and political historians to approportion blame for this supposed decline to different socio-economic groups and the institutions which they built. Tomlinson has also reiterated the problem of treating British production as case studies in the failure of ‘Fordism’, and this is again a feature of declinist literature. The fresh challenge offered by the present review is the need for historians to consider the fundamental problems of explanation and methodology presented by the entrenched historiography of British ‘decline’.

There seem to be three main tasks facing historians of British economic performance: to establish a secure measure of comparative economic performance which permits a genuine comparison of achievements rather than a false indictment of Britain’s record by reference to idealised models of production; to assess the impact of institutional behaviour by reference to such tangible measures of output and opportunities for improving output; and to reconstruct the world in which historical actors made their calculations and responded to such opportunities. Tomlinson and others have demonstrated how superficial and uncritical reading of data produced by the national income accountants has produced an unusually bleak account of Britain’s macroeconomic performance. It is arguable that the timing and trajectory of British ‘modernisation’ (by which we understand the increasing capital intensity of production and the shift of resources from agriculture to industry and services) made Britain exceptional, if not unique, in certain respects and that we should recall these longer-term patterns of growth in considering British comparative growth rates, not least in the period of rapid contraction of European agriculture during the 1950s and 1960s. (2) Research by Broadberry, van Ark and the National Institute of Economic and Social Research has provided a robust analysis of Britain’s sectoral performance in the post-war years though again the data has to be used with caution, especially in discussing services. (3)

These improved quantitative building blocs for assessing comparative economic growth since 1850 sit alongside much less refined materials for understanding the behaviour of historical actors. It remains all too common for critics to compare actual British industrial performance against an ideal type and find British performance wanting in key areas. False dichotomies between (American) Fordist ‘mass production’ and European ‘flexible specialisation’ has led many commentators to suggest that Britain persistently fell between the two possible stools on which recent economic achievement has rested. (4) Scranton has persuasively argued that the share of US manufacturing output from mass producers was much lower for much longer than conventionally believed, though relatively few business historians have adapted this analysis to comparative British development. (5) It is true that detailed comparative research is very demanding, both conceptually and logistically, but it is essential if the pathology and mythology of endemic failure are to be corrected.

The essays in Managing the Modern Workplace attempted to demonstrate the limitations of recent accounts which seek to present, for example, the global automobile industry during the later 20th century in terms of production styles (American ‘Fordism’ contrasted with British ‘hybrid Fordism’ and Japanese ‘lean production’) and which leads to an impoverished understanding of national performance and the mentalities of the actors involved. We strongly endorse Tomlinson’s call for further detailed case studies rather than relying on explanations of bargaining behaviour which are based on a warped characterisation of the ‘inflexible nineteenth century institutional legacy’ of workplace management and craft divisions of labour. (6) Such research will, we suggest, lead to the final destruction of the mythologies of failed Fordism, dysfunctional voluntarism and the belated (and bemoaned) uneven emergence of the Chandlerian corporation in the UK. (7)

The main contribution which our volume sought to make was in addressing the orthodoxies which have consolidated around the impact of British trade unionism and restrictive workplace practices on the capacity of industrial enterprises to meet the challenges of market competition during the 20th century. The declinists have, as Tomlinson notes, long asserted that craft sectionalism has had a lethally harmful effect on British industrial production. The impression of their negative contribution to the performance of public as well as private industry and services was undoubtedly sharpened by the difficulties which Labour politicians faced during the period immediately preceding the triumph of Thatcherism in British political life. The public sector has long been seen by ‘declinists’ as a sump for indifferent managerial performance and the capture of the labour process by unions. Our research does not exclude the possibility that some labour institutions may inhibit management and lead to weaker output performance. Indeed, Anson’s meticulous study of Britain’s railway workshops identified the complex and resilient strands of sectional identity which persisted not only in skilled occupations but also between different regional centres of production, enabling one area (Crewe) to respond more dynamically to the changing demands of transportation than the steam-locomotive hub of Swindon.

In the face of such variations within even a dedicated sector of skill-intensive manufacturing, it is evident that sectionalism and ‘craft conservatism’ should be understood in terms of its historic origins and changing function in specific instances where the different purposes and meanings of sectional defensiveness can be adequately explained. The ownership and market structures which prevailed at any given period provide a context for such investigations rather than a template for attributing fixed mentalities to the actors concerned. This approach enables us to explain success as well as failure – such as the dynamic response of the nationalised gas industry, surveyed by Jenkins (innovating in technology and commercial organisation) to the competitive challenge of the publicly-owned electricity generators during the 1950s and 1960s. Such cases illustrate the point that behavioural accounts of British economic failure should investigate those behaviours directly, set them into context, and explore the meanings that actors invested in their patterns of behaviour and the alternatives that they elected not to pursue or were prevented from following.

Tomlinson’s review identifies two further areas for fruitful discussion in our collective studies: the role of the state and governments in framing the terms on which bargaining developed during the 50 years after the outbreak of the Second World War; and the content and context in which cultural values can be said to have influenced economic behaviour and market institutions. These questions are intimately related, though we briefly consider each in turn. Our reviewer notes how influential contemporary journalism has been in providing scholars with a ‘first draft’ of historical interpretation, perhaps most notably in identifying trade unionists and the employers and politicians who appeased them as the guilty men in the sorry narrative of British economic failure. He perceptively picks up the theme that contemporary political discourses about British decline not only reflected but also informed and reinforced policy preferences in the post-war years. The limits of public policy and electoral consensus during the 1940s and 1950s have been widely documented in recent historical research. Conservative government policies were designed to weaken the market position and bargaining strength of labour after 1951. At the same time both Conservative and Labour politicians came to share a perspective on the unreformed trade unions by the 1960s which identified them as barriers to productivity growth and as institutions which should be more tightly integrated in Britain’s legal and political system.

One explanation for Labour’s strange journey towards consensus on union reform can be traced, we have suggested, in the structure and content of politics during the early post-war period when (it is often assumed) the degree of consensus between the parties was rather greater than it was to be in the years after 1948. Our analysis of the political complexion of British trade unionism offers a sharp critique of the craft-conservative models of behavior and the ‘Labourist’ mentality of union leaders which continue to find support in accounts of Labour Party history. In terms similar to those employed in Tomlinson’s review, we would argue that even before the politics of the Cold War hardened divisions in the British labour movement, most Labour politicians and their civil servants were very reluctant to embrace workplace demands for participation in industrial reform and sanitised productivity debates by restricting the scope of regional as well as workshop agencies. Such limitations cannot be adequately explained by recourse to rather worn and unsatisfactory models of Labourist arrangements in political life. A wide variety of opinion persisted in the ranks as well as the leadership of the labour movement; rather, it was the stubborn refusal of a host of actors, most notably among the employers, to co-operate in schemes of collaborative planning which fatally weakened many post-war initiatives.

Tomlinson’s closing comment in his review is also his most critical, namely, that we do not satisfactorily define the role ‘culture’ in our analysis and leave the meaning of the term opaque, opening the possibility of a purely economic explanation of behaviour. There is some justice in this criticism since we would (and should) ideally have added another essay to the collection precisely on the subject of cultural explanations of industrial decline. The subject forms a vital element in continuing research on workplace attitudes to technology, technological change and bodily health at the University of Exeter. In response to Tomlinson’s justified criticism we would make three preliminary comments. First, the definitions of British (or English) culture and industrial performance adopted in the wide-ranging criticism of national institutions by Wiener and others in the early Thatcher era again formed part of a larger discursive engagement with the ‘the British disease’. (8) We would locate such contributions within the trajectory of a largely conservative, pessimistic appraisal of the roots of decline. An effective analysis of post-war discussions of industrial values should include the distinctive and different model of culture provided by Williams, Hoggart, Thompson and other luminaries of the 1950s and 1960s who profoundly influenced the post-war historiography of British labour. (9)

Second, our arguments concerning business culture relate in particular to what we have understood as a set of beliefs and practices that remained, to a significant degree, rooted in long-established methods of employee management and ‘practical’ (usually expressed as pragmatic) approaches to output bargaining which left a substantial responsibility in the hands of supervisory staff. Such an approach cannot be comprehensively criticised as either irrational or outdated since in many instances it remained a defensible policy. But there were important cultural as well as technical consequences of such decisions. In other instances, as in banking, firms were forced to reappraise a similarly well-entrenched division of labour that was highly and unfairly gendered.

A final comment in regard to the problem of cultural influences on economic behaviour concerns the distinct ways in which the intellectual culture of British science and technology influenced life at work during the second half of the 20th century. The usual form in which economic and political historians have considered this question is in terms of the responses of employers, managers and workers to the opportunities and challenges presented by innovative techniques of production. Another approach is to consider the changing division of labour in regard to the acquisition, accumulation and distribution of information represented by the explosive growth of knowledge and also the technical means for registering and communicating those intellectual assets during the past 60 years. For the expansion of know-how shifted the parameters of power in the British and wider global economy from material-heavy processes, in which the UK had long held some kind of comparative advantage, to information-heavy techniques. Central to the new technologies of information, communication and micro-management of data were the sciences most concerned with the maintenance and management of human bodies – palely but not inaccurately reflected in a recalibration of business personnel functions into the facility of directing ‘human resources’. A concern for the promotion of higher-quality human capital has not only driven governments and business into ever-closer concerns with training and education for competitive output. It has also ensured the pre-eminent place of medicine and body technologies in the forefront of public and private investment initiatives. Along with the reinvigoration of eugenic concerns, which also flowered in the age of Pasteur and Frederick Taylor, has come the increasing medicalisation of both working and private life into an empire of time-management, personal fulfilment and unrelenting ‘stress’. It is with this new age of reason that our current research is mainly concerned.

We have been fortunate in attracting an interesting and well-considered review from Jim Tomlinson and we hope that the debate on economic performance and cultural expectations continues to flourish in the future.

July 2008


  1. See especially, J. Tomlinson, The Politics of Decline: Understanding Postwar Britain (London, 2001). We have also been profoundly influenced by the methodological agenda set out in Nichols’s much earlier investigation of the economic historiography of ‘the British worker question’; see T. Nichols, The British Worker Question: A New Look at Workers and Productivity in Manufacturing (London, 1986) pp. 22-52. Back to (1)
  2. E. F. Denison, Why Growth Rates Differ: Postwar Experience in Nine Western Countries, (Washington DC, 1967); P. Temin, ‘The golden age of European growth reconsidered’, Review of European Economic History 6 (2002), 3-22. Back to (2)
  3. S. N. Broadberry, The Productivity Race: British Manufacturing in International Perspective, 1850-1990 (Cambridge, 1997); S. N. Broadberry, Market Services and the Productivity Race, 1850-2000: British Performance in International Perspective (Cambridge, 2006); B. van Ark, ‘Sectoral growth accounting and structural change in post-war Europe’, in Quantitative Aspects of Postwar European Growth, ed B. van Ark and N. Crafts (Cambridge, 1999) pp. 84-164; and N. Oulton and M. O’Mahony, Productivity and Growth: A Study of British Industry, 1954-86 (Cambridge, 1994). Back to (3)
  4. We first drew attention to the tendency to compare actual British behaviour with ideal type models more than a decade ago: A. Booth, J. Melling and C. Dartmann, ‘Institutions and economic growth: the politics of productivity growth in West Germany, Sweden and the UK, 1945-55’, Journal of Economic History 57 (1997), 416-44. Back to (4)
  5. P. Scranton, Endless Novelty: Specialty Production and American Industrialisation, 1865-1925 (Princeton, 1997). Back to (5)
  6. Quote taken from B. Elbaum and W. Lazonick, ‘An institutional perspective on British economic decline’ in The Decline of the British Economy, ed B. Elbaum and W. Lazonick (Oxford, 1986) p. 15. Back to (6)
  7. The approach that we criticise is found most obviously in the essays collected in the Elbaum and Lazonick volume cited in the previous footnote, but see also A. D. Chandler, Scale and Scope: The Dynamics of Industrial Capitalism (Cambridge MA, 1990). Back to (7)
  8. M. Wiener, English Culture and the Decline of the Industrial Spirit, 1850-1980 (Cambridge, 1981) and C. Barnett, The Audit of War: The Illusion and Reality of Britain as a Great Nation (London, 1986). For a critique of both, see D. Edgerton, Science, Technology and the British Industrial ‘Decline’, (Cambridge, 1996). Back to (8)
  9. R. Williams, The Long Revolution (Harmondsworth, 1965); R. Hoggart, The Uses of Literacy: Aspects of Working Class Life with Special Reference to Publications and Entertainments (London, 1957); E. P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (London, 1963). Back to (9)