edited by: Joseph Melling, Alan Booth
Aldershot, Ashgate, 2008, ISBN: 9780754608745; 183pp.; Price: £55.00
University of Dundee
Date accessed: 30 November, 2020
Ever since the rise of American and German challenges to British industrial hegemony in the late 19th century, stories of 'decline' have played a key role in narratives of British history, extending well beyond the narrow confines of the economy. Of course, declines have taken place. It is in the nature of industrial capitalism to experience a constant rise and fall of different sectors; Marx's classic account of the fate of handloom weaving could be replicated a hundred fold from the economic history of Britain for the last century and a half. Above and beyond the demise of individual industries we have also seen the decline of broader sectors - agriculture, obviously, in the 19th century - and much of manufacturing, in the de-industrialisation evident from the late 1960s. But British historical narratives have gone far beyond charting and analysing these shifts, into using them as evidence of economic and societal pathology; the stories of decline have underpinned a declinism, in which specific instances of decline are treated as symptoms of something much bigger and much more serious. Ultimately, we commonly have a history in which 'what went wrong?' is the spoken or unspoken question, to which the declinist narrative is the answer.
This historical narrative has been firmly rooted in the politics of the periods with which it deals. The original declinism of the late 19th century was inextricably interwoven with the protectionist challenge to the liberal international political economy of the age, and its alleged incapacity to sustain Britain's imperial hegemony. Joseph Chamberlain my rightly be seen as the first major political figure to seek power on a platform of 'reversing decline'. (1) In the inter-war period the decline of the old staples provided the grounds for similar pessimism about Britain's industrial future. Since 1945 declinism has become entrenched in part because, like, in Freud's view, human sexuality, it is 'polymorphously perverse', not least in its politics. In the late 1950s/early 1960s post-war declinism was invented by the centre-left as a critique of Conservative failings ('13 wasted years'). In the 1970s it was revivified and deployed to even greater effect by Mrs Thatcher and her allies in her assault on the post-war consensus.
Historians have, at least initially, tended to take their cue from contemporary polemics. Too often, the journalism and other present-grounded literature has indeed functioned as 'the first draft of history'. But eventually second drafts have been written, and these have progressively demonstrated the inadequacy of declinist accounts for each of the main sub-periods. For the pre-1914 era the once dominant declinist account, with its emphasis on 'entrepreneurial decline' has been radically undercut by a mass of re-evaluations, but above all by Sidney Pollard's Britain's Prime and Britain's Decline. (2) For the inter-war period it is now accepted by most historians that for all the agonies of unemployment and the decline of staple industries, this was a period when in the aggregate the British economy performed better than those of most other countries, especially in the 1930s. A similar 'counter-revolution' in interpretations of the post-war period is now underway, with recognition that the 1950s and 1960s were indeed, by any sensible standard, including growth rates, a 'golden age' of British economic performance. Further, that the Thatcherite story of her governments' policies rescuing Britain from terminal decline is political myth-making of the first order; the British economy performed worst on almost every measure after 1979 than it had in the golden age. (It performed poorly in the mid-1970s, though a major recession was avoided, but this was a passing phase, and was quickly corrected by c.1977).
Declinist history typically accompanies its 'what went wrong?' question with a list of the 'usual suspects', who can be blamed for causing the problems diagnosed as at the root of decline. Top of this list in many declinist accounts are the workers and their unions. Jo Melling's and Alan Booth's book can be seen as addressing this declinist demonology, but in doing so providing not just a critique, but also opening up positive avenues to a more adequate account of the role of workers and unions in post-war Britain.
The book consists of substantial introductory and concluding essays by the two editors, an individual essay by each of them, and two other essays, by Mike Anson and Andrew Jenkins. What unifies the book is a general skepticism about declinist accounts of Britain in the golden age, allied to a desire to use detailed empirical research to re-assess the role of labour and unions in the British economy and British society more generally in these years. Alan Booth's individual chapter draws on work presented at greater length in his recent book on the management of technological change, here focusing on the banking system. (3) This nicely integrates accounts of changes in technology (mechanisation followed by computerisation) with changes in the labour market. It shows how banks were in many respects technological innovators, and shows how this may have contributed to poor productivity growth because before the arrival of online systems key elements of service may not have been open to efficient automation. His essay is sensitive to the complex implications of the feminisation of the banks' work-force, a process which while replete with stories of women's segregation and subordination, opened up a space for some women to carve out a career well before the major legal changes concerning gender at work of the 1970s.
Jo Melling's essay seeks to re-assess the role of foremen in British industry without deploying the declinist incubus of seeing that role as part of a 'failed Fordism'. Contrasting the experience of Ford in the US and the UK, it is argued that the response of the former to the rise of supervisory unions was to improve the wages and conditions of supervisors while crushing their union. By contrast, in Britain supervisors offered much less of a challenge to their employers in part because of the hostility of manual unions to independent supervisory unions. What is important in this account is both the decisive break with the 'American mass production versus British craft production' dichotomy which so bedevils study of post-war manufacturing (and the analysis of the car industry in particular), but also recognition that the differences in industrial relations between the US and British cases have no straightforward relationship with differences in productivity levels. As Melling stresses, 'Difficult labour relations were not confined to less competitive enterprises and did not necessarily entail poor levels of productivity, profitability or wage gains' (p. 45).
Mike Anson analyses the much less well-ploughed field of industrial relations and productivity at the Swindon locomotive works. He presents a compelling narrative of the complexities of wage bargaining involved in a 'classic' multi-union, craft-based engineering factory. He suggests that measured productivity at Swindon fell below that of the main competing supplier, Crewe, and sees this in part as a consequence of a failure to provide a system of independent rate-setting in a piece work environment where supervisors were too chronically overloaded to effectively police the 'effort bargain', but where also notions of appropriate product quality led to expensive techniques which may have yielded little functional benefit. The merit of this essay is that it tells a story of poor productivity against a sensible benchmark, where so much declinist literature is characterised by what we may call 'promiscuous otherdom'; the arbitrary use of benchmarks to draw unfavourable comparison with Britain. Plainly non-declinist accounts of Britain accept that productivity and efficiency vary and that some activities can reasonably be deemed relatively inefficient; but such accounts also demand clarity about what is being measured, especially in relation to the notorious shortcomings of labour productivity comparisons, plus plausible benchmarks and explanations of the differences which escape the declinist and pathologising stereotypes of generic 'obstructionism' and 'resistance to change' by the workers and unions, etc.
Andrew Jenkin's essay shows how the newly nationalised gas industry in the 1950s and 1960s responded to competitive pressures from oil (in industrial uses) and electricity (in domestic uses) to shape new oil-based gas production technologies. These technologies significantly pre-dated the discovery of North Sea oil, but allowed that discovery to be rapidly harnessed. The result was rising productivity based on consensual technical change, and with intelligent co-operation between the industry and government ministries. The story told here reads like the realisation of the dreams of many advocates of nationalisation in the 1930s and 1940s; the combination of economies of scale, technical innovation, increased productivity and good labour relations in what can accurately be labelled 'public enterprise' provides a compelling counterpoint to declinist stories about the failure of nationalisation.
All these individual essays form part of a consistent whole; unlike many edited books, this one hangs together, very much aided by the two joint essays by the editors. Together these essays show how pervasive, indeed insidious, 'declinist' notions of post-war industrial relations have been. Thus this reviewer, among others, is rightly criticised for framing discussion of the early post-1945 industrial relations system in terms of being an 'obstacle' to the drive for industrial efficiency, and in so doing exaggerating the extent to which unions acted as single-minded agents for the restoration of free collective bargaining. As is shown here, union attitudes to the role of the state cannot be captured by such reductive formulations, and if that form of bargaining did re-emerge from wartime controls it 'was an outcome that appears less as a strategic entente between union leaders and labour politicians than as an outcome on which employers, organised labour and politicians could agree as a default where more ambitious policies would meet active resistance' (p.146).
One particular aspect of declinist accounts of industrial relations which is well criticised here is the frequent use of allegations of 'defence of craft privileges' against British unions, and so representing craft unions as simply unthinking defenders of conservative, inefficient practices. This notion is unhelpful both because it ignores the crucial context in which unions in the early post-war were working - rational fears of the return of mass unemployment. In addition, it ignores the fact that craft forms of production might well, in context, be the best route to higher productivity. The 'obstructive craft unions' story is often embedded in a wider, and also highly problematic narrative of British industry as unwilling to adopt (American) 'mass production' methods because of conservatism among both employers and workers. But given that 'mass production' as a general description of American industrial practices is largely mythical, it follows that to set up accounts of Britain's industrial history as 'craft production' versus 'mass production' can do little more than recirculate ideologically-driven stereotypes.
In a slightly different register, the editors provide a persuasive account of the development of economic policy under the Conservatives in the 1950s which stresses the limits of Conservative acceptance of the post-war settlement. As they emphasise, while clearly on the electoral defensive initially, the Conservatives were willing to use both direct intervention in wage bargaining and unemployment to try and limit wage increases in these years, and would probably have used the latter more energetically if it had not been for the emergence of declinist critiques of stop-go at the end of that decade. This on the one hand rightly reinforces recent critiques of the extent of the early post-war consensus; but is also rightly implies that declinism did form an element of consensual politics in the 1960s.
While it does not detract from the overall merit of this book, one terminological issue is treated somewhat unsatisfactorily, that is the role of 'culture' in shaping industrial relations behaviour. That role is suggested to be important, but this argument is never driven on very far, in part, it would seem, because the term is left somewhat ambiguous. Thus it is argued 'there were noticeable shifts in British business culture and management practices during the long boom' (p. 20) but the examples given are the growth of internal labour markets and 'institutional loyalty'. This seems to leave open the possibility that these developments could be explained in purely economic terms, as a result of tight labour markets, so that the specific meaning of 'cultural' remains opaque. If we are all cultural historians now, we need to be clear what exactly that term denotes.
But, to repeat, this criticism should not significantly qualify our appreciation of the contribution of this book to moving onto more productive grounds the historical understanding of British post-war industrial relations. The combination of detailed research and the capacity to 'think big' is precisely what is needed if we are, to paraphrase Marx, to reduce the deadweight of declinist thinking on the brains of the living.
- D. Cannadine, 'Apocalypse when? British politicians and British 'decline' in the 20th century' in Understanding Decline, ed. P. Clarke and C. Trebilcock (Cambridge, 1996), pp. 261-84. Back to (1)
- S. Pollard, Britain's Prime and Britain's Decline: The British Economy 1870-1914 (London, 1989). Back to (2)
- A. Booth, The Management of Technical Change: Automation in the UK and USA since 1950 (Basingstoke, 2007). Back to (3)
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.
- 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)
- 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)
- 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)
- 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)
- P. Scranton, Endless Novelty: Specialty Production and American Industrialisation, 1865-1925 (Princeton, 1997). Back to (5)
- 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)
- 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)
- 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)
- 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)