Labour History Review

A 'Failed Experiment'? Public Ownership and the Narratives of Post-War Britain

Labour History Review (2008), 73, (2), 228–243.

Abstract

Public ownership was a key part of Labour politics and British economic organisation for much of the twentieth century, but may now be regarded as a historical episode, rather than a feature of contemporary life. How is this episode to be evaluated by historians? One route is to incorporate it in the dominant 'decline' narrative, and refer to public ownership as a 'failed experiment'. This paper argues against such an approach, suggesting that the decline narrative is unhelpful and outmoded, and leads to a one-dimensional and overly normative approach. Instead, it is argued that public ownership needs to be analysed as closely rooted in a specific historical context (the 1930s and 1940s) but which came to be deployed in a wholly different one (the 1950s to 1970s). In that latter period its role was not as part of a socialist planned economy, as envisaged by its early advocates, but rather as element of a 'social democratic' economy, in which it played a diverse, unexpected role in underpinning the post-war settlement.

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Author details

Tomlinson, Jim