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Modern Britain: An Economic and Social History

By Sean Glynn; Alan Booth | Go to book overview

Chapter 2

Growth and living standards

IMPRESSIONS OF ECONOMIC PERFORMANCE

British interwar economic performance has been viewed in both optimistic and pessimistic terms. For contemporary observers the divisions were largely regional. J. B. Priestley (1934) discerned four Englands: the nineteenth-century England of the industrial North; the England of the Dole which could be said to have included most of the industrial North as well as extending into Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland; the traditional rural England of the southern counties and finally twentieth-century England of the bustling home counties, of bypasses and housing estates and suburban villas and cocktail bars gleaming with chromium trim (quoted in Mowat 1955:480-90). More recently, historians have pieced together much more quantitative information on interwar economic performance but without reaching consensus. Opinions have included the highly optimistic views of Aldcroft (1967) who saw the period as one of greatly enhanced growth performance and entrepreneurial rejuvenation and Alford (1972:82) who is more pessimistic, in part because of the heavy unemployment which prevailed.

The impression of stagnation, decay and poverty alongside growth, innovation and prosperity combines with a more powerful sense of major disruption and discontinuity resulting from two world wars and world depression. Above all there is the feeling that unemployment during the period wasted lives and product, constituting an economic disaster and a social and human tragedy: in the 1920s and 1930s ‘the workshop of the world was on short time’ (Mowat 1955:281). By the 1940s there was a general presumption that the interwar years had been a cruel economic waste.

It is, in fact, very difficult to fit the interwar years easily into the long-run themes of British economic historiography. It is clear that during the second half of the nineteenth century British economic growth began to slow in absolute terms and also in comparison with leading industrial nations. During the early twentieth century the economy became stag-

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