Nationalised Industry and Public Ownership,

by William Robson, Allen & Unwin. 50s.

Nationalised Industry in the Mixed Economy,

by John Huges, Fabian Society. 4s.

professor robson’s book is stuffed with facts and meagre in analysis. In places it reads like a catalogue, but it is all there. Existing forms of public ownership are dutifully listed and unevenly discussed. Reasonably enough, most detailed attention is paid to the public corporation. Its development, from the Port of London Authority in 1908, through the Electricity Board, the B.B.C. and the London Passenger Transport Board of the inter-war years, to the industries nationalised by the 1945 Labour Government, is described and, in a manner, discussed.

Careful consideration is also given to the performance of each of the nationalised industries, with special reference to investment and price policies, labour relations and administrative efficiency. This is by far the most valuable section of the book, since the appraisal is judicious and the documentation irreproachable. Much of the criticism directed against the nationalised industries since 1945 is proved to be ill-informed where it is not malicious. The shortcomings of coal and railways since nationalisation are shown to be due to the decrepit condition they had reached under private ownership, while post-war technical advances in electricity supply, broadcasting and nuclear power compare favourably with any industry in the country. There is no attempt to whitewash policy or structural defects or to maintain that all is well with the conduct of nationalised industries. But, on balance, Professor Robson’s verdict is that “each one of them is undoubtedly in a better condition than it would have been under private enterprise or, as was the case with gas and electricity, divided between private and municipal ownership. By this I mean that its operating efficiency is higher, its equipment more up to date, and its future prospects brighter than they would have been if the industry had not been nationalised.”

The most unsatisfactory feature of the study is the author’s failure to reach firm criteria for determining future nationalisation policy. He is unimpressed by the Labour Party’s decision to take into public ownership industries which, after due and no doubt prolonged enquiry, are found to be “failing the nation”. This would merely “saddle the State with all the most inefficient, backward, contracting or stagnant industries”. Nor does he see much point in the recommendation, in Industry and Society, that the State should acquire equity stocks in large companies so as to share in capital appreciation while leaving control of the firm in private hands. It is, in fact, hard to see what this could achieve that would not be better done by a capital gains tax. The book’s value, then, is as a digest of published information on the performance of nationalised industries with some pertinent and, on occasion, penetrating criticisms. But there is no serious attempt to assess the role of public ownership in the economy as a whole. Consequently, the relation between the public and private sectors of the economy is unexamined. Professor Robson seems unaware that this is an issue—the issue—of crucial importance for the future of public ownership.