Economic Ideas and Government Policy: Contributions to Contemporary Economic History

By Alec Cairncross | Go to book overview

3

ECONOMISTS IN WARTIME*

The part played by economists in the Second World War has been little studied but was of an importance not appreciated by the public then or since. Equally, wartime experience had an influence on the development of economics as a discipline that has been given little attention. It was in the Second World War that economists in any number entered government service, discovered government, exercised a major influence on policy and left behind an expanding demand for economic advice from professional economists. This article seeks to provide a sketch of some of their activities.

If there is no adequate account of the contribution they made to the war effort in Britain—or indeed in any other country—this is partly because few economists have published an account of what they did. Economists rarely publish diaries—as James Meade 1 did—or autobiographies—Lionel Robbins, 2 or are rarely the subject of biographies—Austin Robinson. 3 Even in the case of Maynard Keynes the six volumes of his writings in the Second World War 4 do not give a full picture of his activities on such important matters as the budget, monetary policy and reparations. Nor has there been much research on the detailed economic management of the wartime economy apart from the official histories, 5 almost none of which mention individuals. An article like that of Alan Booth on the origins of points rationing 6 is a rarity. Moreover, the Civil Service List did not appear in wartime, so that even for identification of the economists who were then in government one is heavily dependent on the memories of those who were in Whitehall and have survived.

Up till 1939 there was no separate category of economists in public service in Britain. Anyone called ‘Economic Adviser’ in those days was unlikely to have engaged in the academic study of economics; and indeed the practice of appointing administrators of businessmen with that title was still followed on occasion after the war. In the Second World War there were at least fifty officials in Whitehall who had at one time or another been university teachers in economics. In the First World War I have been able to trace only four: Keynes, Walter Layton, 7 Henry Clay 8 and Hubert Henderson 9 —all of them

* From Contemporary European History, 4, 1 (1994), pp. 19-36.

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