Victorian Studies 43.2 (2001) 348-350
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The British Industrial Decline
The British Industrial Decline, edited by Jean-Pierre Dormois and Michael Dintenfass; pp. xii + 234. London and New York: Routledge, 1999, £55.00, $95.00.
Even historians of modern Britain who know little of economic history are surely aware that the issue of Britain's decline, especially its economic decline, is perhaps the central question of post-1870 British history. Its dimensions are endlessly debated by historians, most particularly by economic historians who regularly contrast the British experience with that of allegedly more fortunate comparable societies such as Germany and Japan. Superficially, the facts are stark enough: in 1870, Britain was still the "workshop of the world," the foremost manufacturing power in the world. By 1913, Britain had plainly been overtaken as manufacturing leader by the United States and Germany. Despite an arguable rebound in the interwar years and the immediate post-1945 period (chiefly because most of its rivals were in ruins), from 1960 onwards Britain declined relentlessly and precipitously, so that by the mid-1970s it was widely known as the "sick man of Europe." If Britain has improved since 1980, this has only been partially and not in the manufacturing industry, in growth rates, or in the leadership of the technological sector.
So runs the familiar account. Is it true? Is it true of the whole of the British [End Page 348] economy? If it is true, who or what was to blame? That there is absolutely nothing like agreement on any of these points is the most obvious lesson to be drawn from the excellent collection of essays comprising The British Industrial Decline, most of which were initially delivered at an international conference on "The Roots of British 'Decline' in the Late Victorian and Edwardian Period" at the University of Montpellier, France, in 1995. They treat the old familiar themes in new ways, and the collection is a highly successful one, showing the range of historical approaches to this subject.
B. W. E. Alford shows that Britain's growth rate, manufacturing output, and GDP per capita clearly declined in relative terms in the period from 1870 to 1913, in a way which diverged from stronger comparable nations like Germany and the United States. One of the most interesting essays in the book, Correlli Barnett's "The Audit of the Great War on British Technology," argues that, during the First World War, Britain developed a new "total strategy" and "a remarkable technological revolution" (109) which was similar to "the German or Japanese version of capitalism, a partnership between state and industry, rather than the Anglo-Saxon versions" (112). This, he suggests, might have taken Britain down a very different, much more successful path. After the war, however, Britain "revert[ed] to her Victorian and Edwardian total strategy based on laissez-faire, the City of London, the gold standard pound sterling, and the Empire" (112), with, in his opinion, lamentable consequences. This is a highly original and provocative view, well worth considering seriously; it also shows Lloyd George and his followers in a more favourable light, and for different reasons, than in most accounts. Other articles in this book, for instance those by James Foreman-Peck and the econometric contribution by David Greasley and Les Oxley, also echo this theme of certain British decline.
Yet other writers in this collection take a very different view. To them, the obsession of historians with Britain's manufacturing deficiencies ignores the great area of British strength: its financial/commercial sector and, especially, the City of London. The City, so long criticised for allegedly ignoring the financing of British industry, emerges in these revisionist treatments as one of Britain's greatest assets. This viewpoint is urged, in particular, in "The City of London, 1880-1914: Tradition and Innovation," by Peter Cain, one of the leading protagonists of the so-called "gentlemanly capitalism" interpretation of the British economy, and also in W. R. Garside's essay on the north/south divide in Britain's economic life and Michael Sanderson's essay "Education and Economic...