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Published online by Cambridge University Press:  29 November 2004

University of Bristol


In explaining Britain's post-war relative economic decline, contemporary historians have concentrated upon ‘government failure’: not enough, too much, or too much of the wrong sort of government intervention. Implicitly, such explanations conceive the British state as both centralized and powerful. Recent developments in political science have questioned this traditional view. Using this insight to structure its historical analysis, this article examines the wide array of policy changes that flowed from the British government's adoption in the early 1960s of an explicit target for higher growth. It finds that the principal reasons for the failure of these policies can be found in the fragmentation and interdependence of Britain's economic institutions – the source of which lay in the particular historical development of Britain's polity. These issues of governance required new conceptions of both policy making and policy implementation able either to strengthen the power of the centre to impose change, or to promote consensus building. However, lacking a sufficient shock to the system, and imprisoned in a mindset in which the British state was conceived as both centralized and powerful, elites saw little need for fundamental institutional change.

Research Article
2004 Cambridge University Press

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The research for this article was conducted during a doctorate funded by the ESRC (R00429734705) and the Institute for Historical Research, London. It was written during a British Academy post-doctoral fellowship at the London School of Economics. I thank all these institutions for their generous support. I am also deeply indebted to Martin Daunton, Rodney Lowe, Roger Middleton, Rod Rhodes, and Mark Wickham-Jones for their support and for invaluable comments on the research; to Robert Millward, Neil Rollings, Max Schulze, and the anonymous referees of the Historical Journal for their perceptive comments on earlier drafts; and to those who commented on working papers presented over several years to the Economic History Society, Institute for Contemporary British History, Political Science Association, and European Group on Public Administration, and to the ‘Signposts to the Sixties’ and ‘Affluent Britain’ conferences at the University of Bristol in 1999 and 2002.