The Productivity Race: British Manufacturing in International Perspective 1850-1990, and: The Conservatives and Industrial Efficiency, 1951-64: Thirteen Wasted Years? (review)
- Technology and Culture
- Johns Hopkins University Press
- Volume 41, Number 2, April 2000
- pp. 363-366
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Technology and Culture 41.2 (2000) 363-366
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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...