The Productivity Race: British Manufacturing in International Perspective
The Conservatives and Industrial Efficiency, 1951-64: Thirteen Wasted Years? *
The Productivity Race: British Manufacturing in International Perspective, by S. N. Broadberry. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997. Pp. xxv+451; tables, notes, bibliography, index. $74.95.
The Conservatives and Industrial Efficiency, 1951-64: Thirteen Wasted Years? By Nick Tiratsoo and Jim Tomlinson. London: Routledge, 1998. Pp. x+211; tables, notes/references, index. $50.
The topic of productivity as a benchmark of national industrial performance has spurred several recent works on British manufacturing. Embedded in a larger debate over Britain's alleged economic decline, these [End Page 363] works tend to divide into two camps. Predominant are those that argue that the inability of British manufacturing firms to "modernize" and move closer to the American model of mass production ultimately imperiled the nation's overall economic position, particularly after 1945. On the other side of the question stand those scholars who defend "flexible specialization" and craft production techniques as comparable, if not superior in some ways, to the rival system of mass production in terms of labor performance and product output. Thus, by preserving an indigenous base of manufacturing "flexibility," British and other European firms possessed certain autonomous advantages over the rigid, "market-conforming" fate that controlled the activities of American, and to a lesser extent German, mass producers.
Renewed academic interest in U.S. attempts to export mass production techniques and promote industrial reform under the Marshall Plan and through the activities of multinationals has also sparked studies on both sides surrounding the postwar challenge of "Americanization" and its impact upon European reindustrialization efforts. In many ways, these new works by S. N. Broadberry and by Nick Tiratsoo and Jim Tomlinson help to clarify as well as further confute the debate on the relevance of alternative manufacturing methods and preferences as the impetus for Britain's economic decline.
In the manner of his previous works, Broadberry presents an impressive array of statistical information and comparative data intended to establish, and then illuminate, the long-term position of modern British manufacturing in relation to its chief industrial competitors, the United States and Germany. Using material primarily gleaned from notable published sources, Broadberry examines in exhaustive detail the production practices and performance of seventy-seven British industries operating in a wide range of new and traditional market sectors between 1870 and 1990, including raw materials, chemicals, engineering, consumer goods, and information technologies. As the basis for his analysis, Broadberry also identifies several factors--labor productivity, technical preferences, variances in individualized performance, changes in markets and technology--as central indicators of Britain's divergence from or conformity with world manufacturing trends since 1850. Chief among those trends (ushered in primarily by the advent of mechanized production) was the rise of "total factor productivity" (TFP) as the definitive measure of industrial efficiency and, accordingly, national economic success.
In the "productivity race" that has ensued since the mid-nineteenth century, British firms seem to lag consistently behind American and German competitors more willing to structure their labor, management, and production practices in pursuit of larger market shares captured through increased output. Indeed, Broadberry's work provides a comprehensive base of evidence charting a number of American and German [End Page 364] industries that achieved productivity levels sometimes seven times higher than those of their British counterparts, particularly after 1945. Despite such compelling data on the severity of the British "productivity gap," Broadberry also makes a reasonable case that this imbalance was largely confined to the period 1950-79, following market adjustments prompted by decolonization and the rise of the European Common Market, along with other challenges imposed by mass production and its predominance. While he views the history of British manufacturing as path-dependent, framed by national preferences for technological adherence, unionized labor practices, and state-managed markets over innovation, Broadberry concludes that on a macro level Great Britain's industrial performance has "not been as disastrous as is sometimes thought." In particular, he notes that changes in state policy since 1979 have prompted important readjustments in many British industries, especially in such high-tech areas as aerospace and computing, now intent on achieving greater privatization and competitive success.
Tiratsoo and Tomlinson probe even further the interconnectivity of rising productivity rates and changing conceptions of national success and industrial modernity in the postwar era. In their earlier work on the wartime and immediate postwar governments, the authors investigated the impact and then the embrace of productivity reform as a panacea for British recovery planning and reindustrialization efforts. Subsequent attempts to integrate American mass-production techniques into British manufacturing were, however, generally met with managerial ambivalence and worker hostility. Even with the failure of such experiments, fostered mainly by the Anglo-American Council on Productivity and the British Productivity Council, the perception persisted in government sectors that British national and economic woes rested largely on industrial decline and technological obsolescence.
In their latest work on industrial policy as shaped by the Conservative Party between 1951 and 1964, Tiratsoo and Tomlinson highlight the carryover from the recovery period and then the intensification of government measures aimed at increasing British "industrial efficiency" in response to new economic pressures wrought by international liberalization. The Conservatives and Industrial Efficiency is oddly organized and unevenly supported (a substantial portion of the material pertains to the origins and aftereffects of Clement Atlee's government policies). But it does make the extremely important point that the Conservative Party moved to embrace industrial reformism in the early 1950s, not out of its conversion to the tenets of economic liberalism but out of a technocratic admiration for the "sources of efficiency," most notably economies of scale and mass production and their byproducts of social control and national reengineering. The book is also valuable as it unveils the previously hidden yet critical social and cultural changes that were occurring in the British business community [End Page 365] in response to the American challenge of the 1950s and 1960s. In many respects it supports an alternative to Broadberry's argument: namely, that when reform finally came in British business practice in the 1980s, it arrived not as the sudden consequence of shifting government policies but rather as the culmination of fifty years of corporate reexamination, managerial introspection, and aggregated internal change.
Overall, historians of technology will be dutiful impressed with Broadberry's volume, in particular, which stands as the most comprehensive and useful overview of the history of British manufacturing to date. He wisely steers clear of the tiresome tendency of declinist literature to debate and then advocate the social and technical superiority of one model of industrial production over another. Instead, Broadberry anchors his main arguments on the relative strength and long-term vibrancy of British manufacturing in relation to mass-manufacturing nations in solid, empirical data. When taken along with Broadberry, the work of Tiratsoo and Tomlinson rounds out the political, social, and cultural dimensions of the story of postwar British industrial planning and business performance. As the authors duly note, the overall rejection by Great Britain of postwar American reforms came not out of moral commitment to resist the invasion of a divergent industrial system but ultimately as an outgrowth of the inertia that plagued the nation's economy and government policymaking well into the 1970s. In this way both works are extremely valuable, as they set a context for examining the postwar redevelopment of British industry and the political, social, and technological factors that bound Great Britain to return to its traditional, though declining, path of manufacturing and market performance.
Dr. McGlade is an assistant professor of history and chair of the Interdisciplinary Studies Department at Monmouth University in West Long Branch, New Jersey. She is the author of several essays and articles on the export of American technical assistance and business education to Western Europe after 1945.
* Permission to reprint a review published here may be obtained only from the reviewer.