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.