The Economic History Review

The United Kingdom’s disappearing wartime imports 1939–45: A statistical, ideological, and historiographical accounting

Volume 77 Issue 1
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Authors: David Edgerton
Published online: May 1, 2023DOI: 10.1111/ehr.13254

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In this paper I show inter alia that, by one barely known but official measure, imports of goods into the United Kingdom towards the end of the Second World War were more than twice the best-known measure. The lower measure is that found in the historical British national accounts and in the Bank of England’s A millennium of macroeconomic data. That invaluable compendium in fact has both these measures, and indeed another one also, but this is not clear, and there is no proper explanation of the differences between these series. The differences matter. What I will show to be the most obvious, though not the only legitimate, measure of wartime goods imports suggests that real imports were higher at the end of the war than in the 1930s, and higher as a proportion of gross domestic product (GDP). By contrast the national accounts figures show an absolute real-terms fall, and a larger still fall as a proportion of GDP. This really mattered in an economy already exceptional for its high imports. In this paper I clarify the nature of the different measures of imports and how they have resulted in a radically different understanding of the British war effort.

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