The Economic Prescience Of J.B. Priestley


But a curious interpretation has become attached Britain's dismal record, and this is that the agreeable British quality of life is somehow related to slow growth. Surely, the argument runs, the cheerful civility of the English people, the amiable self‐indulgence and leisurely ways, the stability of social and political life, the provision of broad welfare services and the redistribution of wealth are ultimately more satisfying—and important —than chasing after the rainbow of a bigger gross national product.

But Britain has come to a sorry state, harrassed and disrupted by militant labor unions, afflicted by a hyperinflation that could reach 15 per cent this year, weighed down by an enormous trade deficit, divided on class lines and paralyzed politically.


It's hard to know where to begin to sort out the mess, but we might suggest one of the most fundamental failtures of postwar Britain has been the failure to grow.

There's nothing like a little prosperity to smooth out class distinctions and animosities, to give the working classes the good life spread before them through magazines and television. The industrial wage scale in Britain is ridiculously low.

J. B. Priestley, in his new hook, “The English,” considers the aggressive mood of English workers and comments, “They may not know it, but really they are telling us that our kind of civilization lacks juice and nourishment.” We would suggest that what British civilization lacks is money.

What workers want is a bigger piece of the prosperity. Faster economic growth would have made it possible pay more and possibly remove one of the causes Britain's ongoing economic crisis.

Why has Britain, uniquely, failed to grow? This is one of the postwar puzzles. But it seems to be a combination of factors. One is that, from about 1958 to 1967, Britain bore the burden of trying to run a major currency as last trapping of empire. This led to stop‐and‐go economic policies in an ultimately vain defense of the pound.


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Other reasons suggested are the ineptitude of the British businessman, the bloody‐mindednesP, of the British worker, the failure (in the land of Keynes and rifleshot fiscal policy) to pay much attention to such blunderbuss tactics as controlling the money supply and maybe even the confiscatory welfare‐state taxes which prevented the accumulation of capital.

It's not that Britain counted the cost of economic progress, found it excessive and chose instead a lowgrowth policy. It just happened—perhaps inevitably, given the English character.

Mr. Priestley, in his book, recognizes the current malaise. “Perhaps we are suffering,” he writes, “from the triumphant early start of the Industrial Revolution,” which the aristocratic tradition prevailed over the social democratic one and mill owners let themselves be seduced by a country‐house style of life and shortchanged their own business in terms of money and attention.

Similarly, Mr. Priestley is frankly nostalgic applauding the Luddites of the early 19th century who smashed the power looms that threatened their cottage industry.

“No machines dictated how and when they should work,” he writes admiringly. “They were men, not cogs, and if a beautiful afternoon called them to the moors the trout stream, then off they could go.”

This might be fine if the year is 1813. But what happens when those men fail to deliver engines on'time a Ford Motor Company subsidiary in Germany? Then Henry Ford 2d curtails his capital investment in Britain, and growth is slowed.

Although times are changing, the English still seem distrust instinctively the pace and pressures of modern industrial life.

“Long ago, they led the way,” Mr. Priestley observes, “but now that it has gone so far, arriving at the frontier of some steel‐and‐concrete robotland, secretly they long to loiter, and even call a halt, before the grass has all gone.”

It's a lovely, sentiment. But who can afford it?