ALLEN, George Cyril
28th June 1900 to 31st July 1982
Allen was an economist who did notable work on industrial structures and international trade during the decades before and after the Second World War. He was one of the few Western economists of his time with a deep understanding of Japan and its economy. As well as his academic career he served several times as a government advisor.
Allen was born in Kenilworth, Warwickshire on 28 June 1900, the son of a domestic servant. He was educated at King Henry VIII School in Coventry and then at the University of Birmingham. Here he studied under William Ashley in the Faculty of Commerce, which Ashley had founded in 1902. Ashley remained a strong influence on Allen until the former's death in 1927. Allen graduated with an MComm degree in 1921, writing his thesis on 'Restrictive practices in the copper mining industry'. This work impressed John Maynard Keynes, who published Allen's first article in the Economic Journal in 1923.
In 1922, at Ashley's suggestion, Allen took up a post as lecturer in economics at the Nagoya Higher Commercial School in Japan. Returning to the UK in 1924, Allen held a research fellowship and then a lectureship in economics at Birmingham while also studying for his PhD; this was awarded in 1928. His thesis was published as The Industrial Development of Birmingham and the Black Country, 1860-1927 in 1929, a work which bears the hallmarks of Ashley's influence. Allen had already published Modern Japan and Its Problems in 1928, the first of many works on Japan. He remained very fond of Japan and had a close personal connection with the country throughout his life, as he describes in his memoir Appointment in Japan, published posthumously in 1983.
In 1929 Allen was appointed as the first professor of economics and commerce at Hull University College, and also married Eleanora Shanks. In 1933 he moved to the University of Liverpool, where he was Brunner Professor of Economic Science until 1947. He was then professor of political economy at University College London until his retirement in 1965. In 1980 he was named a supernumerary fellow of St Antony's College, Oxford where he helped to establish the Institute of Japanese Studies.
Allen's first experience of government advisory work came in 1930, when he served as an advisor to Liberal Party leader David Lloyd George, then in the twilight of his career. During the Second World War he was an advisor to the Board of Trade and helped to plan the postwar reconstruction of Britain. From 1944-53 he was a member of the Central Price Regulation Committee and from 1950-1962 he served on the Monopolies and Restrictive Practices Commission. From 1945-8 he advised the Foreign Office on policy with regard to Japan. For his efforts, Allen was awarded the CBE in 1958, the Order of the Rising Sun in 1961 and the Japan Foundation Award in 1980. In 1965 he became a Fellow of the British Academy. Allen died in Oxford on 31 July 1982.
Allen's economics are heavily influenced by Ashley and the German Historical School, and his early work at least was strongly historical in flavour. He left behind a large body of work, most of which falls into one of two categories. The first is his work Japan, which had considerable impact at a time when knowledge of Japan and its economy was sketchy at best. Allen published nine books on Japan, one co-authored with the American economic historian Elizabeth Boody Schumpeter, as well as two other books on the Far East. He predicted with some accuracy how the Japanese hunger for raw materials in the 1930s would lead to expansion and conflict, but in the postwar period he strongly urged rapprochement for Japan and support for its economic reconstruction. He foresaw that Japan would become a major economic power.
The second major issue that preoccupied Allen was British industry's response – or lack of it – to economic pressures. British Industries and their Organisation, published in 1933, describes in more detail the themes of Allen's two Rowntree lectures (see below). Allen argued that the country as a whole and many of its industries had suffered from a lack of planning and control. Unrestrained competition had resulted in many wasteful practices and an uneven distribution of resources. Allen argued for more cooperation between firms and more government involvement, not in the running of industries but in the planning and control of how resources were allocated. He also argued strongly for more professional management.
Allen was twice called upon to lecture at the Rowntree conferences in 1930, in April and again in September. At this point he was still only thirty, and had just taken up his post as professor at Hull. Thanks to his two early books on Birmingham and Japan, he was a rising star, and it seems likely that he was invited in hopes that he would give a fresh and new perspective on a world which had been plunged into economic turmoil by the crash of 1929.
This he endeavoured to do, though his words would have come as little comfort to some of his audience. In his first lecture, 'The prospects of British industry', Allen pulls few punches. He discusses the cotton and coal industries – two of the pillars of British growth during the Industrial Revolution – and charts their relentless decline since the end of the First World War. Export markets are being lost to more agile competitors, he says: 'the success of this country in winning back a demand for its goods is related to the competitive strength of other nations, and there seems to be an inevitable tendency for new nations to enter the industrial field, and to compete in just those industries which are the most seriously depressed.' Japan, of course, is one of those new entrants.
Allen discusses the need for rationalisation in some sectors, and points out – probably again to the discomfort of at least some of his listeners – that many firms were only being kept alive by bank loans and should be allowed to fail. He suggests that the old 'staple' trades like cotton and coal have had their day. The time has come, he says, to focus on new trades such as the luxury industries, and to take advantage of Britain's strengths: 'Great Britain has many advantages over most of her competitors in the production of highly finished and highly composite goods. She has the experience, she has the skill and she has the multiplicity of industries which are essential.' For this to happen, though, there must be a process of what Allen calls 'labour transference', whereby workers from old industries are trained and re-skilled so they can participate in the new ones. Allen finishes the lecture with a call for a completely new industrial strategy for Britain: 'It is in the production of highly finished and highly composite goods, rather than in the production of bulk goods, that the future of this country lies.'
Allen's second lecture later that year, 'A Review of the World's Industrial Situation', is equally bleak. He discusses various theories of the causes of the Great Depression, and says that while structural issues in industry and restrictive practices have made the problem worse, the real problem is much deeper. The return to the gold standard in 1925 is particularly to blame. Falling gold prices since that time had driven down wholesale prices more generally, Allen said, and this had impacted on the profits of businesses. In other words, the signs of an economic downturn had been there for some time, but had been largely ignored by governments and businesses. The only solution, says Allen, is that 'the central banks and governments of the world should agree to some common policy' with regard to the control of gold reserves and international money supply. He is emphatic that the world's economic problems can only be solved through international coordination and cooperation.
Even if that were to occur, Allen is pessimistic. 'I consider that the present depression is a major depression, and recovery from it is likely to be slow', he says. He goes on to argue that the situation could be eased if some restrictive practices in employment and working conditions were abolished, 'but [we] can do little in that line under present conditions, because the relationships existing between the different partners in industry are so strained that it is almost impossible to effect adjustments without economic warfare.' He also forecast accurately that the depression had changed not only the economy but the society of Britain for good: 'It is improbable that the coal industry or the cotton industry will ever again absorb the population which they once absorbed, or play the same part in our economic life.'
'Allen, George Cyril', in Contemporary Authors, New Revision Series, vol. 32 (1988).
Donnithorne, A., 'Allen, George Cyril', in The New Palgrave: A Dictionary of Economics, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.
Gowing, M., 'George Cyril Allen', Proceedings of the British Academy 71 (1985), pp. 473-91.
Silberston, A., 'Allen, George Cyril', in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.
Witzel, M., 'Allen, George Cyril', in D. Rutherford (ed.) Biographical Dictionary of British Economists, Bristol: Thoemmes Press, 2004.