Industry's quick, quick, slow

Science, Technology and the British Industrial 'Decline'
January 23, 1998

David Edgerton provides what can be called a revisionist view of the performance of British industry in the century since 1870 and of the influence of British science and technology on this.

It is a common belief among social historians and scientists that the deterioration in British industrial performance relative to that of most other industrialised countries after 1870 can be explained by the failure of British industry to develop and exploit new technologies. Edgerton argues that this belief is mistaken: British industry was not backward in the development and exploitation of science and technology. The two had a peculiarly strong influence on British industry, education and government policy. His personal eccentricity is an admiration for the results of British military research, especially military aircraft in the interwar years.

Edgerton's survey of the evidence on British industrial performance is impressive in its thoroughness. It is a valuable sourcebook for anyone who wants to know what has been written about the impact of technology on British economic performance since 1870. It supplies a corrective for the writings of those political scientists and historians who have argued that a lack of investment in research and development caused the British economy to perform less well than the economies of other industrialised nations. Edgerton demonstrates that British industry invested as much or more in research and development as the industries of France, Germany and Japan until the 1970s, so that low investment in technology cannot explain why output grew slower in Britain than elsewhere.

Edgerton's desire to correct the errors of earlier historians leads him to go too far in the opposite direction, and to downplay the extent to which British industry lagged behind its main competitors after 1870. For all the century covered by Edgerton's book, productivity was growing more slowly in Britain than in most industrialised countries. Between 1870 and 1913, and between 1950 and 1973, growth in Britain was near to the bottom of the league. There is more to explain about British economic performance than Edgerton implies.

The true value of his work is to demonstrate that the input of resources into science and technology, measured by expenditure on research and development and the number of scientists and engineers, cannot explain Britain's relatively poor performance. Other studies have shown that the rate of industrial investment cannot explain its slow growth. Qualitative factors are likely to provide the explanation: poor industrial management and bad government policies are the most often cited causes.

Edgerton considers that British government policies have been unjustly criticised. He argues that the expenditure on research and development for military purposes since the 19th century was successful in its own right, making Britain probably the major source of military innovation before 1940, and strengthened the civil activities of the military contractors. He also maintains that the British aircraft industry produced aircraft of high quality in the early 1930s, mostly for the Royal Air Force. These claims seem no better justified than the relentlessly critical views of Corelli Barnett, which Edgerton rightly criticises. The British aircraft industry may have produced aircraft of high quality, but they were of obsolete design: British interceptor fighters were slower than contemporary US airliners.

Edgerton is less enthusiastic about the high expenditure on military research and development after 1945. He suggests that the losses on defence research and procurement were almost certainly greater than the losses on the Concorde and nuclear reactor programmes of the 1960s and 1970s. The concept of a loss is not easily applied to a military programme, which is being developed and acquired by a government for its own use. Talk of a loss is only meaningful if the cost of the British programme is being compared with the cost of an alternative, such as buying from a foreign supplier.

What he could reasonably have said is that British governments wasted highly skilled resources by their desire to retain a domestic source of supply for most weapons. If more weapons had been bought from foreign suppliers, Britain could have been richer. Edgerton rejects the argument that high expenditure on military research and development reduced the amount of civil R&D. He says that, as industrially financed R&D was high by international standards in the 1960s, it is unlikely that industrial expenditure was being constrained by a shortage of scientists and engineers, or that higher expenditure in industry would have improved industrial performance. Edgerton argues similarly that high government expenditure on developing civil aircraft and nuclear reactors is unlikely to have harmed the performance of other industries.

The quality of the people involved in the government-financed R&D is the factor Edgerton overlooks: the difficulty, and so interest, of the work on defence projects, civil aircraft and nuclear power attracted some of the ablest scientists and engineers. If they had been available for commercial R&D, the work might have been performed more effectively and more opportunities for R&D and innovation might have been found. Industry is run by people and their ability is one of the main determinants of industrial performance.

Edgerton has produced a book that will help students to find their way through the extensive literature on the role of technology in Britain's economic performance and steer them away from the more serious errors of fact and analysis made by previous writers. It is marred, however, by sweeping judgements that are not supported by the facts he supplies, and by occasional obscurity or loose use of language.

David Sawers is a former member of the government economic service and a writer on theeconomics of invention.

Science, Technology and the British Industrial 'Decline'

Author - David Edgerton
ISBN - 0 521 571 8 and 57778 0
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £19.95 and £6.95
Pages - 88

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