The big comeback

From Empire to Europe: The Decline and Revival of British Industry Since the Second World War


From Empire to Europe qualifies as one of the most compelling works to appear in recent decades on the economic evolution of the United Kingdom since the end of the second world war. Geoffrey Owen, who has spent much of his career as a journalist, has made expert use of the historian's technique, writing individual monographs on specific industries, illustrating how they have fared since the Labour Party came to power in 1945. He argues convincingly that there is no single explanation for Britain's economic difficulties during many of these years; the story is different for different industries. Unwilling to emerge with a cosmic theory that will explain all the failures, Owen analyses the situation in textiles, steel, motor cars, chemicals and pharmaceuticals, challenging the more conventional interpretations of why British industry showed so little capacity for innovation and growth. Comparing the conditions that obtained in Germany and France, and in a different way in the US, with what became common in the UK, Owen uses his examples to advance more general propositions about productivity and industrial change in the 20th century.

Taking issue with those who imagine that the country's decline goes back to the latter decades of the 19th century, Owen argues that Britain was "no less well equipped than its European competitors to profit from the more favourable international environment that prevailed after the second world war". The country failed to do so, and Owen explains why. Politicians must bear some of the blame; so, too, must the chief executives of major industrial firms, but it is not enough to bemoan their lack of judgement or entrepreneurship. To make these men the scapegoats of his tale does not have great appeal for Owen. Instead, he seeks to recreate the political, cultural and intellectual climate of the postwar years, showing how the war itself and the illusions of success it generated militated against change, why Germany and France saw the need to experiment industrially while Britain did not. Owen understands the profound truth that while victory in war is always to be desired, victory, like defeat, exacts a price - if a different one. Excessive self-satisfaction was not especially conducive to either industrial or commercial innovation.

Owen knows that earlier membership of the Common Market, or the joining of the Iron and Steel Community, might have helped Britain, but he refuses to make these the critical issues that determined what followed. Aware of how labour unrest contributed to Britain's problems, he refuses to make industrial strikes the critical factor in Britain's economic decline. For him, the absence of "venture capital" may have been as influential in impeding economic development as the decision to make the Commonwealth all-important, neglecting the burgeoning markets of Continental Europe. In considering how all this has changed recently, why the "sick man of Europe" has recovered, Owen offers ample credit to the politicians, but his is not a story of British heroes or heroines. Britain has found new economic possibilities, often in industries, commercial activity and types of foreign investment that had few antecedents before 1945.

Owen chooses not to take issue with major historians, whose work has stirred much recent interest, such as David Landes's recent The Wealth and Poverty of Nations. Still, it is obvious that he disagrees with Landes's view that "leadership" and "entrepreneurship" were all-important. While recognising the significance of both, he chooses not to give them salience. Nor does he mention Landes's The Unbound Prometheus, which tells a story about British education and culture in the 19th century significantly different from his own. But his most conspicuous difference with Landes lies in the Harvard historian's assertion that Britain's "most egregious failure" was in dyestuffs, plastics and pharmaceuticals. Owen represents Britain's pharmaceutical industry as a "success story" and argues why this was so.

It is the modesty and measure of Owen's work that makes it so attractive. Unwilling to be hyperbolic, to use the exaggerated language of journalism, he recognises the extraordinary changes that have occurred in the past decades, and not only or principally because of the policies pursued by the governments of Margaret Thatcher. Domestic policy reform was crucial, as were the external economic pressures exacted on the British economy. Owen says it all when he writes: "By the end of the l990s Britain had found a role for itself as a medium-sized industrial nation, well integrated into the world market." This is not a view that all British politicians will embrace. Some have too much at stake electorally to suggest that this is what Britain has become.

Stephen Graubard is a professor of history emeritus at Brown University and editor of "Daedelus"