H. W. Richardson: Economic Recovery in Britain 1932–1939. Weidenfeld and Nicolson. 63s.
The ’thirties in the popular imagination were years of severe economic stagnation. There was political and financial crisis in Europe, a National Government in England cutting unemployment benefits in the interests of the conventional ‘political economy’. The Abdication shook the imagination of newspaper readers as the Loch Ness Monster had in the earlier years. The world of John Betjeman, Noel Coward and the tired musical was more ‘real’ than the two million unemployed. The weakness of concentration on the political and social narrative without a serious attempt to analyse the economic and imperial substructure has been rightly castigated by Gareth Stedman Jones in his review of A. J. P. Taylor’s History of England 1914–1945 (nlr 36).
Dr Richardson’s book does not suffer from much wit or frivolity. His style is massive, his statistical commentary is omnipresent and his mastery of applied economics is apparently complete. His book disputes the traditional view of economic stagnation and formally Richardson is correct to emphasize recovery while others have persisted in mourning the depression without detailed analysis of any other variable aside from the unemployment statistics. The booms in housing and consumer durables have already been documented in Parry Lewis’ study of building and Andrews and Brunner’s Life of Lord Nuffield, but the evidence had been available to the urban historian of London in the form of the houses designed to a model on the North and South Circular roads. The boom began in 1934, but a short cyclical downturn in 1937 meant that even the rearmament boom of 1938–39 could not reduce unemployment below one million before the outbreak of war. One doubts whether Richardson’s attack will remove the older version of the ’thirties which is by now so completely engrained in the minds of politicians, historians and psephologists. The ’thirties have become part of the Labour Party’s traditional propaganda. Historians have ignored the plans of the Lloyd George Liberals in the Yellow Book and their public works programme.
It would, however, be wise to remember that in Britain between the wars, even in the boom years of 1928 and 1929, more than one million workers were unemployed and that from 1930 until 1939 the consistent figure was 1½ million, which rose to over 2½ million from 1930 to 1932. Even a rise in national income by over 20 per cent from 1932 to 1937 did not compensate for the disasters of the ’twenties and the continuing commitment to the outdated industries of coal, textiles and shipbuilding. The ’thirties did not lead to the structural adjustment on which rapid growth could have built in the ’forties and ’fifties.
There are three criticisms, which are serious. First, Richardson’s failure to understand monetary factors. The abandonment of gold almost certainly had a considerable influence on preserving the level of exports in the period 1932–37 in the face of severe tariff rates imposed in Europe and the United States. He also ignores the political and human consequences of unemployment and the difficulties of relieving it in the depressed areas. Finally he says little or nothing about possible Government intervention to alter any of the structural reasons for depression in British industry. Richardson’s book cannot be called exciting to read or a stimulating presentation of an entirely new thesis, but it is a detailed contribution to the economic history of capitalist Britain in the recent past.