Two things should be said at the start about James Hamilton-Paterson. First, he has spent much of his life shunning the UK. In a rare profile in The Guardian fourteen years ago, he spoke of leaving Britain over a quarter of a century earlier and dividing his time between Tuscany and the Philippines. He described himself in those days as a ‘rat-poor literary drifter’ and a ‘professional absentee’. So this book, about the failures of British government and industrial management, inevitably has something of the bitterness and nostalgia of the disappointed expat alongside the broader perspective that distance provides.
Second, he writes beautifully. The late, great J G Ballard once said of him, ‘I love his elegant and intensely evocative style: strangeness lifts off his pages like a rare perfume.’ The perfume wafts more densely from his fiction writing – he is a distinguished novelist – but it is hard to think of an economist who could craft such an elegantly readable account of postwar failure as this.
Fostered in part by Brexit, accounts of Britain’s economic failures seem to be in fashion. David Edgerton pointed out in a recent book, The Rise and Fall of the British Nation, that as late as 1950 Britain retained one quarter of the world market in manufactures; between 1950 and 1984 there were just five years without a British Nobel Prize winner. But through the 1970s, the achievements became fewer and less substantial. Hamilton-Paterson takes up the theme with a portrait of the management of Britain since the Second World War that is unremittingly glum.
Having been born in the depths of the Second World War, Hamilton-Paterson wistfully recalls the days when ‘I and my fellow Britons took for granted that nearly everything we bought or used or saw … was British-made by a British-owned company’. As a child, he never thought that ‘Britain was about to become perpetually broke for the rest of my lifetime’. His book is a lament for the passing of this age of island self-sufficiency. It is also an attempt to understand whether ‘our national collapse’ was inevitable.
So he reviews the fate of trains and planes: Network Rail’s dithering failure to get on with electrifying the Great Western main line, the failure of Concorde (David Henderson, an Oxford economist, described the project as ‘one of the three worst civil investment decisions in the history of mankind’) and the procrastination over adding runways to London’s airports. He recounts the dismal saga of terrible management and incessant strikes at British Leyland’s car plants in the 1970s, quoting Sir Michael Edwardes, who eventually brought order to the shop floor: ‘management over a number of years lost their will to manage.’ Then there is the decline of the merchant navy, its numbers down from ninety thousand in the 1970s to nineteen thousand today, and shipbuilding: as late as 1948, he points out, Britain was building just under half of the world’s tonnage of ships. Lousy industrial relations and unimaginative management put paid to that. As a biker, he mourns the decline of the motorcycle industry, beginning in the latter half of the 1960s: ‘A combination of appalling mismanagement, personal rivalries, union intransigence and sheer stupidity was to bring this lively industry to its knees in little more than twenty years.’ Defence, nuclear power, fisheries: all have been damaged by poor government decisions.
And where does the blame lie for this litany of failure? There are the inevitable attacks on Thatcher for accelerating deindustrialisation and on City financiers: banking, he says, ‘is a purely parasitical activity … it manufactures absolutely nothing’. But Hamilton-Paterson thinks some of the roots lie further back: Britain’s failure to value engineers, its lack of coherent industrial planning, an inept civil service, an ‘ill-educated underclass’ and ‘ever-widening disparities of wealth’.
And yet, there is another way of looking at how Britain’s economy has developed over Hamilton-Paterson’s lifetime. The two decades after the Second World War were ones when the countries of Continental western Europe, more damaged by the war than Britain, grew faster as they recovered from a lower base. In Britain, the 1960s were an era of especially incompetent economic management, with the long fight to fend off devaluation and incessant industrial unrest. Intelligent young people steered clear of business careers: none of my contemporaries went into corporate management of any sort, apart from one, whose family company was large and successful. Why should they have done when such a career promised endless wrangles with trade unions and – thanks to exorbitant top tax rates – little reward?
As for Thatcher, her greatest achievement was surely curbing the power of the trade unions. And as for the deindustrialisation for which Hamilton-Paterson berates her, it was aggravated by the way exports of North Sea oil drove up the exchange rate, and has since been accelerated by the rapid rise of low-cost producers in Asia. Manufacturing may now only be about 10 per cent of Britain’s economic output, but even in Germany it is down to around 20 per cent.
Is this really a disaster? Britain, along with Canada and the United States, recovered faster from the financial crash of 2008 than the other members of the G7. And indeed, taking a longer view, Britain has generally done no worse than the other large European economies. Since 1973, when Britain joined what is now the EU, its GDP per head has more than doubled, keeping pace with that of the USA and Germany, and substantially outperforming that of France. Moreover, in spite of the losses Hamilton-Paterson mourns, Britain’s growth per head in the period 1872 to 1914, at the height of the empire, averaged 0.9 per cent a year according to calculations published in 2016 by the Institute for New Economic Thinking at Oxford University, compared with an average of 2.1 per cent in the years since joining the EU. Both historically and internationally, the past forty years have been considerably better for the country than this mournful account might suggest.
This is ultimately a book of advocacy rather than of argument – of nostalgia and regret rather than of comparative analysis and statistics. It is full of examples of lost opportunities and dire decisions, eloquently described. Read it to remember the mistakes of the past, and accept that Britain’s economy will continue to shrink relative to that of China, and possibly to those of the United States and India too. But remember too that for almost two centuries, Britain’s net earnings from exports of services, including income from banking and investment around the world, have generated the surplus that has allowed us to buy more manufactures from abroad than we sell. British motorbikes and ocean liners never sold enough abroad to generate a surplus. It is the parasitical bankers who have done that.