Professor Alan Booth

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 Britains 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 Britains 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 Britains 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 historians 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.