Photo of Professor Alan Booth

Professor Alan Booth

BA, PhD (Kent)

Professor

01326 253742

01326 253742

My major research interest is in twentieth century British economic history, in both national and comparative frameworks, with particular emphasis on systems of production and work in the manufacturing and service sectors. I also have a strong teaching interest in patterns of economic, social and political development since the 1800s, especially in the Far East.

Research interests

1. British economic performance in the twentieth century I am one of a growing (probably) band of economic historians who believes that the historiography of ‘failure’ and ‘decline’ has been grossly overdone. In particular, it seems to me that there are real problems with the commonly-propagated view that ‘British industry’, in the widest definition of the term, ran into severe problems in the 1930s when the tariff allowed collusion and all forms of restrictive behaviour by business. The ‘evidence’ for this proposition is that Britain’s aggregate productivity performance was poor in the 1930s. Unfortunately, the behaviour patterns that are identified – collusion, restrictive business practices behind a tariff – apply almost exclusively to manufacturing. But manufacturing narrowed the productivity gap with Germany and the USA in the 1930s. We need to reassess the record of British industry in the 1930s (and beyond – since the argument is essentially one about competition as measured by tariff levels) in a more optimistic light. We also need to accept that most of the explanation of Britain’s slow rate of aggregate economic growth and relatively low levels of productivity lies outside the manufacturing sector. The second area of concern with the current economic historiography of ‘decline’ concerns the issue of ‘Fordism’ and its impact on British economic performance. The declinist historiography maintains that it was the combination of mass production, intensive management and Chandlerian forms of organisation that British industry found most difficult. However, I think that I can show that the productivity gap between British and US manufacturing was not at all influenced by the size of the establishment; the productivity gap between large British and large US plant was just about the same as was the gap between small British and small US plant. This suggests that the literature on scale, Chandlerism and deep managerial structures for all its theoretical and empirical strength may be misleading about the fundamental causes of Britain’s productivity shortfall with the all-powerful US manufacturing sector. This position has encouraged me to research technical change in the middle years of the twentieth century in both manufacturing and services and in a comparative framework. The specific, current projects include the following.

2. Automation in British and American manufacturing in the 1950s A comparative study that examines technical change in British manufacturing and services during the long boom (1950-73) and seeks to question the entrenched views on the technological conservatism of British industry. It will also draw attention to the difficulties of applying concepts such as 'Fordism' and 'flexible specialisation' to national industrial systems.

3. Computerisation in British retail banking in the 1950s and 1960s Examining the progress of rapid technical change in a service sector industry in which aspects of British practice were at the leading edge. Central concerns will be the reasons for introducing computers, the methods by which British banks learned about the potential of computers in clerical work, the extent to which computers changed work routines and the management of technical change.

4. Social and economic change in office work in the twentieth century Economic and business historians, with their concerns for individual firms, specific industries and national economies have been far less interested in occupations, and in particular in office work than the topic deserves. In the twentieth century, clerical work has become mechanised, feminised and profoundly re-structured as part of a growing concern with the cost of processing increasing volumes of paper, as managerial structures – and the clerical structures that service management – have deepened and become with ever more intricate details of enterprise performance. I would like to try to incorporate a business historian’s perspective on this process to complement the mass of excellent work already undertaken by sociologists.

5. Government and the service sector in twentieth century Britain. British industrial policy has concentrated heavily on the performance of the manufacturing sector but from the 1950s there was a growing awareness of the importance of services, notably in incomes policy, manpower policy and in growth prospects. This is a largely unresearched field and one which I am keen to probe.

6. Economic thought and economic policy in twentieth century Britain A very long-standing research interest, currently directed at rescuing the reputation of Britain's Keynsian demand management from its many critics.

Research supervision

I am happy to supervise on most aspects of twentieth century economic history, with particular interest in economic policy, economic performance, business history – especially of service sector companies and organisations. I am particularly interested in supervising in the following areas:

  • Economic thought and policy in Britain since 1900
  • British economic performance, with special reference to technical change automation, in both manufacturing and services
  • The development of clerical work since 1945
  • Systems of production in financial services since 1945
  • Government and the service sector

A growing aspect of my research concerns work with museums and similar organisations. I am happy to contribute to supervision on museum- and archive-based projects.

Research students

M. Anson, Management and labour relations at Swindon railway locomotive works, 1947-67

M. Bufton, The productivity drive in Britain, 1948-63.

J. Holmer, Swedish airline performance and public policy since the 1950s: a reflection of US experience?

Other information

Previous postgraduate students

I have successfully supervised the following doctoral dissertations: Paul turner on wages in the Nottinghamshire coalfield; Hosein Piranfar on the modernisation of agriculture in Iran after 1945; Wayne Garvery on the coalmining community in Kent from 1920 to 1945; Steve Ludlam on public sector unions and wages policy in the 1970s; Mike Richardson on industrial relations in the paper and printing industry between the wars; Mike Anson on trade unions and productivity in the Swindon railway workshops; Mark Bufton on productivity policy in the UK since 1945; and Andrew Jenkins on the gas industry after nationalisation.

I received an AHRC grant in 2008 for my research project on ‘Penlee House Gallery and Museum: Connecting with the Local Community’, enabling the museum to improve its social history gallery and its outreach programme.

Executive positions
Member of the Academy of Social Sciences
Member of the Economic History Society
Member of the Royal Economic Society
Member of the Peer Review College of the ESRC

Biography

I was an undergraduate and doctoral student at the University of Kent (1969-75). I graduated in Economic and Social History (in 1972) but the subject was taught in a very innovative way at Kent. The part 1 of the degree consisted of four teaching terms (exams at Christmas of year 2, not at the end of year 1) and comprised detailed study of the core social science disciplines – economics, law, politics and sociology – in addition to history (which was taught very much as a social science. That social science approach to history has stuck. After completing my doctorate I worked in 1975-6 as research assistant to Professor A.W. Coats of Nottingham University on the role of economists in British government. This involved working in the Treasury as a demi-semi-official historian for one year, and allowed me to walk through the Treasury’s front door in Whitehall every day and to see the streams of business and trade union leaders, bankers and lobbyists who met the Chancellor (Dennis Healey) on a very regular basis. This was huge fun and really consolidated my research interest in problems of economic policy. However, the one-year contract was not conducive to relaxation and I attended a lot of interviews for lectureships, research posts and the like in 1976. Luckily, I was able to grab the best job opportunity that came along, moving in 1976 to Sidney Pollard’s department of Economic and Social History at Sheffield and worked there until 1988, when I came to Exeter. Twelve years in the Socialist Republic of South Yorkshire was a fascinating experience and Economic and Social History, always under threat because of falling numbers of A level applicants, nevertheless combined with the other social sciences in research and teaching. We even pioneered one of the first doctoral programmes – a four-year combined research training and independent research degree – in British policy studies, which was the most stimulating teaching/research environment that I have ever known. At Exeter, the familiar problems of few economic and social history applicants re-appeared, leading to the merger of History and Economic and Social History as part of a major restructuring of the university. The re-shaping of the University has been ceaseless since the later 1990s, but I was happy to move into History and be part of the expansion as it became clear that the merged Deaprtment was much stronger than History and ESH had been in their separate existences. One of the clearest signs of that strength has been the continued expansion of History, first in the School of Historical, Political and Socilogical Studies, and latterly in the expanded School of Humanities and Social Sciences. For me, the best part of that expansion has been the move of HuSS into the University's Cornwall Campus, and since 2006 I have spent the most exciting period in my entire academic life in helping to establish History and Politics alongside the existing provision of Cornish Studies and Theology at Tremough. This has all been rather breathless, and extremely interdisciplinary. We are putting together a very distinctive package at Tremough, with two important and distinctive cores: work with the local small business and volutary sectors; and a strong interdisciplinary flavoour to what we do.