Governing Post-War Britain: The Paradoxes of Progress, 1951-1973

August 23, 2012

The period covered by Governing Post-War Britain is that of "the long boom", a period of economic success. But by the 1970s, the British people, although doing better, were feeling worse. That is the central paradox that Glen O'Hara seeks to explain.

Much of the damage, in O'Hara's view, was done by the inappropriate use of foreign archetypes, especially in economic policy. In the 1950s, the rate of growth in the UK was higher than it had been in the 1920s. Yet, by 1960, instead of being gratified, Establishment opinion came to be worried by the still higher rates of growth being achieved in France, West Germany, Scandinavia and even - so it was for a time believed - the Soviet Union. We were enjoined, therefore, to pull our socks up and adopt more purposive methods in order to compete. What was ignored was that most of our competitors had started from a lower per capita base and had advantages - such as cheap labour - that the UK lacked. The attempt to adapt foreign experience to Britain - in particular "planning" of the type adopted in France and supposedly in the Soviet Union (the success of German free market policies was, for some reason, ignored), did little, therefore, to improve our economic position.

O'Hara finds the fundamental answer to his paradox in the unintended consequences of government action. That was just as much the fault of academics as of ministers, for social scientists knew much less about the workings of the economy and society than ministers fondly believed. Governments, of course, sought certainty; but scholars of integrity could not provide it, and were often sidelined in consequence. In 1962, Sir Alec Cairncross, the government's chief economic adviser, told Selwyn Lloyd, then chancellor, who was desperate for a formula to raise the rate of growth: "In economic affairs there is always plenty of room for differences of opinion... the things we really know as beyond dispute are often outweighed by the things we can only guess at. So any economic adviser is a bit of a charlatan half the time." In retirement, in 1972, Cairncross said: "We do not know for sure how the economy works and... it certainly does not work in the same way for long." Other social scientists of less integrity, eager to retain the confidence of ministers, claimed knowledge that they did not have - and told ministers what they wanted to hear. In two other policy areas that O'Hara uses to illustrate his central argument - comprehensive education and land-use planning - similar problems arose in consequence of social scientists pretending to knowledge where agnosticism would have been more appropriate.

Albert Hirschman, in his 1991 book The Rhetoric of Reaction: Perversity, Futility, Jeopardy, criticised the view that all government intervention serves simply "to exacerbate the condition one wants to remedy" as part of the strategy of conservatives. O'Hara is careful not to embrace such a strategy. Unintended consequences, he believes, can be happy ones. "Though perhaps often achieving 'perverse' effects, the British government's actions rarely made the exact problem under scrutiny worse." Instead, they caused "problems to emerge in other arenas, evoked unheralded opposition, or produced unexpected second-order problems of management and administration".

Governing Post-War Britain is an important work of scholarship, based securely on wide reading in the archives as well as in secondary sources. It will prove of value not only to historians but also to anyone interested in analysing the impact of the social sciences on government. But it is a pity that O'Hara has not been better served by his publishers, who have priced the book so as to put it beyond the range of students.

Vernon Bogdanor is research professor at the Institute of Contemporary British History, King's College London. His books include The Coalition and the Constitution (2009).

Governing Post-War Britain: The Paradoxes of Progress, 1951-1973

By Glen O'Hara. Palgrave Macmillan, 328pp, £60.00. ISBN 9780230230569. Published 11 April 2012

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