Cost of keeping the home fires burning

Fighting with Figures

September 15, 1995

One of the bonuses of turning government departments into agencies has been the great improvement in the presentation of their printed products. The Central Statistical Office has certainly produced an attractive glossy commercial paperback in a format which could attract the more general reader.

The book is a revised edition of their 1951 Statistical Digest of the War, and has been produced to mark the 50th anniversary of the end of the second world war. To bring some life to the series of tables of statistics, Peter Howlett provides a very short introductory commentary to each chapter. His text is illustrated with evocative photographs of the home front.

Reviewing a collection of statistical tables has its difficulties. The accuracy of the figures, within the constraints of the carefully footnoted definitions, are almost certainly as good as is possible. The commentary is worthy and draws attention to the trends revealed by the tables. There is material to stimulate follow-up investigation in countless directions. The problem is that for all the glossy presentation, the use of two-colour printing, the high quality paper, the couple of graphs at the start of each chapter and a foreword by Churchill's private secretary, Anthony Montague Browne, the tables of figures lack life.

The book would be much better if it provided the data on computer disk with a suitable graphical program to allow comparative statistics to be created. As it is, tables are in a variety of formats, which makes the extractiuon of figures for month-by-month comparisons somewhat difficult. Obviously the Central Statistical Office realises the potential of computer accessible tables as the book's inside cover informs us that they provide a wide range of data on disk.

Despite all these drawbacks, the casual reader cannot help but stumble over fascinating insights into this unique period of British history. The extraordinary growth in production of aircraft is well known, but the steady decline in performance of the coal industry shows another side to the national effort. Indeed the table showing industrial stoppages indicates a less than happy work force on the home front. The chapter on social conditions is full of detail about health, pensions, crime and house building. It appears that a decline in the police force numbers was matched by a decline in offences. But while we can examine month-by-month the consumption of manganese ore, there are no statistics about schools or universities. Indeed the only reference to education is in the global figure for central government expenditure, where it is lumped together with broadcasting. All in all, there are probably more worthwhile commemorative publications to be had at the price.

Air Marshal Sir Timothy Garden is commandant, Royal College of Defence Studies.

Fighting with Figures

Author - Anthony Montague Brown and Peter Howlett
ISBN - 0 11 620719 1
Publisher - HMSO
Price - £19.95
Pages - 298

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