Managing the Economy, Managing the People: narratives of economic life in Britain from Beveridge to Brexit

by Jim Tomlinson (University of Glasgow)


book‘It’s the economy stupid’, like most clichés, both reveals and conceals important truths. The slogan suggests a hugely important truth about the post-1945 politics of the advanced democracies such as Britain: that economic  issues have been crucial to government strategies and political arguments. What the cliché conceals is the need to examine what is understood by ‘the economy’, a term which has no fixed meaning, and has been constantly re-worked over the years. Starting from those two points, this book provides a distinctive new account of British economic life since the 1940s, focussing upon how successive governments, in seeking to manage the economy, have sought simultaneously to ‘manage the people’: to try and manage popular understanding of economic issues.

The first half the book analyses the development of the major narratives from the 1940s onwards. This  covers the notion of ‘austerity’ and its particular meaning in the 1940s; the rise of a narrative of ‘economic decline’ from the late 1950s, and the subsequent attempts to ‘modernize’ the economy; the attempts to ‘roll back the state’ from the 1970s; the impact of ideas of ‘globalization’ in the 1900s; and, finally, the way the crisis of 2008/9 onwards was constructed as a problem of ‘debts and deficits’. The second part focuses in on four key issues in attempts to ‘manage the people’: productivity, the balance of payments, inflation and unemployment. It shows how in each case  governments sought to get the populace to understand these issues in a particular light, and shaped strategies to that end.

One conclusion of the book is the grounding of most representations of key economic problems of the post-war period in Britain as an industrial economy, and how de-industrialization undermines this representation.  Unemployment, from its origins in the late-Victorian period, was largely about the malfunctioning of  industrial (and male) labour markets. De-industrialization, accompanied by the proliferation of precarious work, including much classified as ‘self-employment’, radically challenges our understanding of  this problem, however much it remains the case that for the great bulk of the population selling their labour is key to their economic prosperity.

The concern with productivity was likewise grounded in the industrial sector. But outside the marketed services, in non-marketed provision like education, health and care, the problems of conceptualising, let alone measuring, productivity are immense. In a world where personal services of various kinds are becoming ever more important, traditional notions of productivity need a radical re-think.

Less obviously, the notion of a national rate of inflation, such as the Cost of Living Index and later the RPI, was grounded in attempts to measure the real wages of the industrial working class. With the value of housing as key underpinning for consumption, and the ‘financialization’ of the economy, this traditional notion of inflation, measuring the cost of a basket of consumables against nominal wages, has been undermined. Asset, especially housing, prices matter much more to many wage earners, whilst the value of financial assets is also important to increasing numbers of people as the population ages.

Finally, the decline of concern with the balance of payments is linked to the rise in the relative importance of financial flows, making  the manufacturing balance or the current account less pertinent. For many years now Britain’s external payments have relied on the rates of return on overseas assets, exceeding those on domestic assets held by foreigners. We are a very long way indeed from 1940s stories of ‘England’s bread hangs by Lancashire’s thread’.

De-industrialization has not only undercut the coherence and relevance of the four standard economic policy problems of the post-war years, but has also destroyed the primary audience that most post-war economic propaganda was aimed at: the industrial working class. While other audiences were not entirely neglected, it was the worker (usually the male worker), who was the prime target of the narratives and whose understandings and behaviour were seen as the key to the projected solutions.

A recurrent anxiety of this propaganda was the receptivity of those workers to its messages. This anxiety helps to explain much of the ‘simplified’ language of this propaganda, as well as its patterns of distribution. More fundamentally, this anxiety rested upon uncertainties about what kind of arguments would a working-class audience find congenial; there was perennial debate about the efficacy of appeals to individual as opposed to the ‘national’ interest. Above all, there was a moral message of distributive justice which infused much of the propaganda, ultimately grounded in the belief that working class culture had within it ingrained notions of  ‘fairness’ that had to be appealed to.

While ethical appeals continued to inform economic propaganda into the twenty-first century, the fragmentation of the old audience accelerated. In addition, given the upward lurch in inequality in the 1980s, and the following period of continuing growth of incomes right at the top of the distribution, appeals to ‘fairness’ have become much more difficult to make credible. Strikingly, concerns about inequality emerged across the political spectrum after the 2007/8 financial crisis, at the same time as the narrative of debts, deficits and austerity had driven post-crisis policies that increased  inequality. Widespread talk of ‘reducing inequality’, whilst having obvious political appeal, especially after Brexit, would seem to be largely rhetorical.


Managing the Economy, Managing the People: narratives of economic life in Britain from Beveridge to Brexit is edited by Oxford University Press, 2017,  ISBN 978-019-878609-2

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EHS 2018 special: Long-term effects of financial crises

by Chenzi Xu (Harvard University)


The global financial crisis of 2008 was not unique. It had a precedent in the London banking crisis of 1866. Just as in 2008, the crisis began in the core financial market and spread to the periphery, the same happened in 1866.

The 1866 crisis has only been studied as a purely British event, but my research presents new evidence that it was a global financial crisis on the scale of 2008’s. The cities around the world that depended on British banks that happened to fail in London suffered immediate losses in exports activity. These losses took decades to recover, with the hysteresis persisting until the twentieth century.

In May 1866, Overend and Gurney, a bank’s bank and one of the most prestigious financial entities in London, declared bankruptcy. A panic erupted and almost 20% of banks headquartered in London failed. Crucially, these banks had been established in the mid-nineteenth century to globalise financial markets and trade, and they operated in cities around the world.

Figure 1. Map of British credits and failures around the world


Figure 1 shows the concentration of British banking, and the degree to which the banking crisis in London affected them. Red denotes greater losses in British financing, and the size of the circles denotes the amount of lending before the crisis.

I study the impacts of the failures of British banks in London on trade activity around the world, outside of the UK, at hundreds of ports. At the extreme, losing access to all British credit caused exports to drop 80% in the year following the crisis. The aggregate global loss in trade was 17%, which is comparable to the levels seen in the latest crisis. Given that the mid-late 19th century was otherwise a period of great expansion and growth, the counterfactual without this crisis would have been even more spectacular.

The historical context also makes it possible to study the long-run effects, and I find that countries suffering the largest drops in the supply of British credit did not recover their exports to previous partners for several decades. These persistent effects suggest that losing access to financial markets can cause substantial hysteresis.

These long-term consequences of financial market instability have yet to be established for recent crises simply because not enough time has passed. But early evidence suggests that international trade has not rebounded, even ten years after the financial crisis.

Do the rules of the game matter? Monetary regimes and financial stability since 1920

by German Forero-Laverde (Universidad Externado de Colombia / Universitat de Barcelona)

Financial crises come in many shapes and forms. They can occur in stock markets, private or public debt markets, housing markets or any asset class you may think of (yes, even tulips). Attempts to predict the timing and asset class where the next crisis will show its ugly head have been unsuccessful in part due to the amount and diversity of forces at play. The veil of uncertainty that surrounds them and the negative effect they have on long-run economic growth makes the study of crises both pertinent and challenging.

The research, presented at the 2017 EHS annual conference, studies one possible factor that may be related to the frequency and intensity of booms and busts in stock and credit markets: the rules of the game. It studies the possibility that the monetary regime, competing decisions on monetary policy, exchange rates and capital flows, is related to the evolution of financial aggregates to different time horizons. The underlying idea, following the Bank for International Settlements, is that different regimes endow the financial system with varying levels of elasticity, allowing for imbalances to accumulate in the form of booms and unwind in the form of crises at different rates and intensity.

This is a stepping stone in the road to answer a question that has troubled policy makers for over a century: Should authorities and regulators intervene in the market trying to anticipate crisis, or is the best course of action to react once crises ensue? If regimes do play a role, and the channels of accumulation of imbalances are contingent on the institutions at play, it is possible that authorities may have a wider array of tools at their disposal to avoid the accumulation of financial stability.

In order to do it, the research proposes three new measures for the evolution of the stock market and credit aggregates since 1922 until today for France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Sweden and the UK. The new measures, the Boom Bust Indicators – BBIs, result from a variation on our earlier work, and allow us to characterize booms and busts depending on their effects to different horizons: explosive ones affect the short-run (up to one year); expansive ones have an effect up to the third year; and pervasive ones show effects after 5 years.

BBIs complement what has been traditionally done in the financial crisis literature. They depart from decomposition techniques such as spectral analysis in that they use all the information in the original series instead of extracting a part of the data. They depart from turning point analysis and other crises dating techniques since the outcome is a triplet of continuous series instead of a summary sequence of dates for booms and crashes. They complement measures like the severity index which pays unduly little attention to explosive booms and busts to the benefit of lengthier events. Finally, the measures allows for comparisons across countries and time. A sample of the three measures for the UK stock market is presented in Figure 1.

Figure 1: Boom Bust Indicator for the UK stock market 1922-2015

Forero-Laverde - Figure 1

The research studies the evolution of BBIs for credit and stock markets under five different regimes: the gold exchange standard (GES), the fixed peg rate of Bretton Woods (PEG), the managed float of the Exchange Rate Mechanism (MF), the periods of free floatation (FF) and the European Monetary Union (EMU). To characterize the differences in behavior under each regime we pool all countries together and measure the statistically significant differences in means and volatility for BBIs under each regime. They were graphed in a scatter plot, where the X axis represents volatility and the Y axis represents the mean. Results for the long-run measure are presented in Figure 2. The farther a regime appears from the origin, the more elastic it is as it coincides with stronger variability in the indicator.

Figure 2: Regimes according to mean value and volatility of long-run BBIs

Forero-Laverde - Figure 2

Although the mechanisms through which the regime impinges on the boom-bust cycle of credit and stocks still remains unclear, it is possible to highlight several findings. First, there is a role for the monetary regime on the evolution of asset prices and credit. Second, some sort of currency peg, with commitments to exchange rate stability and capital controls, favors financial stability both in the short and long run. However, stricter pegs are favorable for controlling stock market booms but increase both short run and medium run volatility of credit growth. Finally, a nominal anchor of the currency, through the gold exchange standard or the European Monetary Union, appears to be insufficient in generating financial stability as they coincide with booms and heightened volatility in stock and credit markets.