British Industry Since The Second World War

Has Britain been de-industrialising since 1945? Robert Millward weighs up the evidence for and against - with some surprising conclusions.

For many observers the years after 1950 were the period when the chickens came home to roost for British industry. The signs of industrial weakness seemed to abound. By the 1980s Britain's share of world industrial production was no more than half of its share in the inter-war period, manufacturing exports but a quarter. The cotton industry was in trouble before the war but had virtually disappeared as a world force by the 1960s. From being the world's leading car exporter in the late 1940s, Britain saw in 1994 the sale of its last car firm, Rover, to the German firm BMW.

For the American historian, Martin Wiener, an anti-industrial spirit had pervaded British society before the Industrial Revolution and a '...cultural cordon sanitaire encircling ...technology, industry, commerce' persisted through to the post-1945 period. The epigram 'invented in Britain, developed in the USA and made in Japan’ grated on many an engineer or science journalist. Even economic theorists, who would not recognise an industrial base if it hit them in the face, talked about 'de-industrialisation' and the erosion of the manufacturing base, a constant complaint of both Labour and Conservative politicians.

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