Skip to content

Response to Review of Governing Post-War Britain: The Paradoxes of Progress, 1951-1973

I am very grateful to Professor Toye for his generous, perceptive and thought-provoking review of my new book, Governing Post-War Britain: The Paradoxes of Progress, 1951–1973. It is a pleasure to read a genuinely engaged and helpful review that very clearly tackles the issues the book has attempted to address, before moving on to consider how the emergent historiography of post-war Britain might build on any insights my work might contain. I am in particular pleased that Toye finds that the book has ‘thematic coherence’, for the case-study approach adopted within its pages can lead to just that ‘diffuseness’ that he warns against in his review – and I am gratified that the in-depth, empirical and archival approach to each detailed question in turn also finds favour with this reviewer.

I am also very interested in his helpful critique of the book’s analytical framework – the application of complexity theory and the concept of ‘unintended consequences’ to post-war public policy. In each policy area – transnational policy transfer, strategic macroeconomic policy, the art of what Jim Tomlinson has termed ‘managing the people’, or the boundaries between governed and governors, as well as the provision of state education – Governing Post-War Britain sets out to show just how far apart were Whitehall’s intentions and the ultimate reality.(1) But as Toye points out, such a caesura is a one-size-fits-all description of the unexpected results that are familiar from all personal and social action: ‘an innate party of the human condition’, indeed. No doubt Charles I did not intend to threaten the very existence of the monarchy when he attempted to govern on his own; George III and his Ministers sought to bind the American colonies closer to the ‘mother country’, not drive them away; Sir Robert Peel did not envisage splitting the Conservative Party when he began his initial tariff reforms. So there is clearly further work to be done in sharpening the usefulness of this idea. To be fair, the concept was used in the book itself to point out allied problems that became more acute during what postmodern historians might term ‘late modernity’: the period of fast economic growth, and ‘linear’ thinking in straight lines, that characterised the age of Americanised economics and sociology in the post-war era.(2) Unintended consequences might clearly become more prevalent, more acute and just more quantitatively important in such an age, when governments thought that they could alter social reality, and then set out to do just that – often creating a very different situation from that which they had originally imagined.(3)

What we might require here is a new set of categories involved in ‘governmental unintended consequences’ – for instance those that are the reverse of what was intended, those that involved unexpected knock-on effects, those that perhaps exceeded expectations, those that arose precisely because of the scale of intent, and those that rubbed up against projects emanating from different parts of the government machine. Many more might be listed. The book does hint at this in the conclusion (pp. 196–7), though perhaps not explicitly enough: there is a large and growing literature attempting to tie types of intention to categories of variant outcome.(4) Relating our discoveries of historians to these complicated theories, and varieties or scales of intervention to ultimate ‘failures’ and ‘successes’, should probably now become one way in which to proceed with future research projects on post-war governance.

Toye also pushes me to elucidate on the concept of ‘imagination’. What I had in mind here was something along the line of ‘cognitive dissonance’ – the state in which individuals, no less than policy actors, can hold two different and conflicting thoughts in their mind at the same time. In this respect policy entrepreneurs wrote, more or less honestly, about the world beyond Britain’s borders; but what they were also doing was imagining their home country. Here I would single out for further use the work of the geographer Mark Bassin, and his interdisciplinary concept of ‘geographies of national identity’ – constructs of the Other which tell us more about those doing the observing than the observed. Bassin works particularly on Russia, but what views of ‘eastern-ness’ and Siberia tell us about the Russian state’s modernisation programmes is just as important as the empirical information they convey.(5) So, too, were Britons’ post-war observations about France, Scandinavia and the Soviet Union: all societies that seemed ordered, progressive and above all much more successful than a chaotic, backward and floundering Britain. It is here that I might take issue with Toye’s relativistic view of reality, for it has become clearer and clearer in recent years that the UK was certainly not the weakened, atavistic power in decline that these fevered imaginings posited. This was far from the impression created by the ‘condition of Britain’ literature at the time.(6) Some recognition of this – rather than the extreme view that there is no hard-and-fast difference between constructed perceptions and what social science might latterly reveal – should surely form some part of our view of 20th–century Britain, a much more successful economy and polity than it has often been given credit for.

Even so: there seems, in general, much to be done along exactly the lines suggested in this review, namely teasing out the differences between ‘ideas’ and ‘reality’. This would continue with some of the work that Toye and others have characterised as dissecting the ‘rhetoric’ of economic and social policy, as well as the increasingly unhappy nature of press and voters’ views of politicians’ efficacy and truthfulness, as well the nature of popular concepts of political life itself – especially how both parties and state should be organised and might perform.(7) These might be fused with some of the very in-depth case studies contained in Governing Post-War Britain to form a new literature that rejects the difference between ‘imagination’ and ‘understanding’, working instead at the boundary where those two types of interpretation rub against one another.

There is a pressing need for such academic rigour. None of these questions have gone away. Prime Ministers still announce ‘new’ initiatives, only to find that the boring details of – for instance – the electricity market, or the European Union, or the international banking system – get in the way. Governments blunder into quicksands, striking out in bold new directions, only to find themselves back where they started. The field of English Higher Education policy, in which the 2010 Coalition Government set out to save money by ‘liberating choice’ and charging higher fees, has for instance become a confusing sequence of micro-management and more and more off-the-books taxpayer expenditure.(8) One could give many other examples from administrations of all colours – but what is more urgently needed is a way of judging when these policy minefields are likely to emerge, and how severe their effects are likely to prove. Hopefully Professor Toye’s insistence on a more finely graded scale of unintended consequences will help here. It is to be hoped that such dialogues will continue to push the study of 20th–century British history, and indeed British history more broadly, into ever-more unexpected, complicated and even chaotic directions.


  1. J. Tomlinson, ‘Managing the economy, managing the people: Britain, c.1931–c.1970’, The Economic History Review, 58, 3 (2005), pp. 555–85.Back to (1)
  2. D. W. Ellwood, The Shock of America: Europe and the Challenge of the Century (Oxford, 2012).Back to (2)
  3. J. C. Scott, Seeing Like A State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (New Haven, CT, 1998).Back to (3)
  4. N. Em Aydinonat, The Invisible Hand in Economics: How Economists Explain Unintended Social Consequences (Abingdon, 2008).Back to (4)
  5. M. Bassin, ‘Geographies of imperial identity’, in The Cambridge History of Russia, Vol. II, ed. D. Lieven (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), pp. 45–66.Back to (5)
  6. G. L. Bernstein, The Myth of Decline: The Rise of Britain Since 1945 (London, 2004); M. Grant, ‘Historians, the Penguin Specials and the ‘State-of-the-Nation’ literature, 1958–64’, Contemporary British History, 17, 3 (2003), pp. 29–54.Back to (6)
  7. See, respectively, R. Toye, Rhetoric: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford, 2013); J. Lawrence, Electing Our Masters: The Hustings in British Politics from Hogarth to Blair (Oxford, 2009); M. Pugh, Speak for Britain! A New History of the Labour Party (London, 2010).Back to (7)
  8. Higher Education Policy Institute, Higher Education: Students at the Heart of the System: An Analysis of the Higher Education White Paper (London, 2011); G. O’Hara, 'Vince Cable and David Willetts have vandalised our universities', The Independent Eagle Eye Blog, 13 December 2011.Back to (8)