Not ‘Decline and Revival’: An Alternative Narrative on British Post‐War Productivity
From the late 1950s until the 1980s the dominant narrative of post-war British economic history was one of ‘decline’. Originating as a commentary on contemporary events in the very specific circumstances of the late 1950s, ‘declinism’ entered the historiography soon after, and swept almost all before it. Complementary to this narrative there has arisen more recently a literature which asserts that from the 1980s, under Mrs Thatcher, this decline was reversed, in a period of economic ‘renaissance’. This chapter argues that both parts of this account are misleading. Focussing on one of the most systematic and frequently-cited ‘decline and renaissance’ narratives, Geoffrey Owen's From Empire to Europe, this chapter offers a detailed critique of such notions. The 1950s and 1960s were, in retrospect, a ‘Golden age’ of British economic performance, with low unemployment, low inflation, and surpluses on the commercial balance of payments. Growth was healthy by historic standards, and lower than other Western European countries largely because they were ascending from a lower base. Industrial performance was undoubtedly uneven, but that is bound to be the case in any economy responding to rapidly changing competitive conditions. Performance was poor in the mid-1970s, but after 1979 overall economic conditions were worse than in the 1950s and 1960s, with two serious recessions and persistent unemployment. Growth after 1979 was no better than in the ‘Golden age’. Accounts of a ‘renaissance’ in this period owe more to a politicised polemic than sober analysis.
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