Modern Britain: An Economic and Social History by John Irwin

By John Irwin

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Although the terms of trade improvement appears to have had a relatively small impact upon income growth in aggregate terms it almost certainly had a more important influence on living standards. As a major exporter of manufactured goods and importer of primary products, Britain gained from the sharp relative decline of prices for primary products. If the ratio of British export to import prices in 1913 is assumed to be 100, by the 1920s the index averaged 127 and rose to 138 in the 1930s (Lewis 1949:202).

This group usually had income over £20 per week, or about seven times the average wage, or more. In relative terms, at least, they appear to have enjoyed an exceptionally good position in the interwar period. Finally, at the top of the scale was a tiny but highly influential elite which owned more than 90 per cent of British capital assets, including enormous investments overseas. This elite had switched the basis of its wealth during the nineteenth century from landownership to industry, commerce and finance.

Some fifteen per cent of overseas assets were lost during the First World War and a further twenty five per cent during the second. The low savings ratio in interwar Britain is attributable to inadequate demand and heavy unemployment. After the Second World War with full employment savings and investment rose to new and unprecedented levels. On this basis the most important single source of growth between 1924 and 1937 is additional labour input while capital input and growth in total factor productivity are approximately equal and rather disappointing, especially in comparison with the period since 1945.

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