Mark Roodhouse. Black Market Britain, 1939-1955. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013. xii + 276 pp. $125.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-958845-9.
Reviewed by Augustine Meaher (Baltic Defense College)
Published on H-War (January, 2015)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air War College)
Fifty Shades of Black and Grey: Spivs and Speculators and the Market
The very term “black market” conjures up images of shady characters selling ill-gotten goods in dark alleys. Mark Roodhouse shines a bright and academic light onto the British black market from 1939 to 1955, with an intense focus on the postwar decade. The black market was far more complex than the popular image of Jewish speculators and well-dressed spivs, although Roodhouse convincingly shows that the popular image of the black market influenced government attempts to control it. These efforts failed for a variety of reasons that the author details with excellent examples that are both entertaining and informative.
The black market by its very nature is a difficult topic to research, and Roodhouse’s approach of mixing economic theory, social and political history, and sociological models is the only way that such a difficult and interesting topic could be academically researched. Roodhouse is an economic historian, and at times his references to economic theory and jargon will be beyond the average historian. However, his arguments are so well supported and demonstrated that minimal economic knowledge is needed to understand the core arguments of Black Market Britain, 1939-1955.
Roodhouse is keen to discover why people took part in the black market and why they chose not to, and implicitly why so few in Britain traded on the black market when they easily could have. The black market encompassed illegal transactions, while the grey market comprised exchanges that, while not illegal, were shady deals sprung from the informal local communities of favors and obligations exacerbated by the war. To answer this question, Roodhouse uses an approach based on analytical sociology that explores two key subsidiary questions: what was the extent and pattern of noncompliance; and to what extent did enforcement and prosecution influence noncompliance? His research allows him to conclude that the vast majority of people chose not to partake in the black market because “they thought the regulations both necessary and fair” (p. xi); patriotism alone could not have ensured continuous compliance.
Roodhouse’s argument is all the more impressive as many of the primary sources were not preserved, and those that still exist were difficult to locate and did not alone present a comprehensive view of the black and grey markets, which of course left no records of their own. But Roodhouse excels at using and combining the available sources to make a coherent and engaging argument that is full of interesting examples. His command of the material allows readers to place themselves in the shoes of those buying and selling on the black and grey markets and those attempting to prosecute them. Interestingly, there was often very little difference between those groups, and there was almost no difference between those who chose to partake in illicit trade and those who did not. Most tellingly, simply consorting with those who did trade in the shadows did not lead one to do so oneself.
Roodhouse’s most interesting and impressive research is his exploration of enforcement. Enforcement of trade controls was far too weak and haphazard to ensure effective compliance. It was almost always left to local authorities, and controls were selectively enforced. A noticeable and amusing exception to the pattern of local control was successful attempts by the Royal Mail to intercept packages from the Republic of Ireland that contained items subject to controls. The Irish were also a problem within the United Kingdom, as some felt that they were not part of British society and thus not bound by the same social constraints that ensured the success of the rationing regimes.
The selectivity of enforcement demonstrates clearly that enforcement was not the key to large-scale compliance with the controls. Likewise, the eventual failure of the controls in the early and mid-1950s, as Britain became increasingly affluent and the populace began to question the fairness of the controls, underscores Roodhouse’s central argument. Controls in Britain were only possible so long as the population supported them. This created an interesting situation. Britain could enjoy an effective controlled economy at little legal or police cost, but once popular support disappeared, the controls could not be enforced. It is a telling insight into British society in the immediate postwar period, and it underscores the impressive value of Roodhouse’s research. Although Black Market Britain could be read narrowly as a simple economic history, it is far more than that. It is an excellent snapshot of British society at all levels, and of how these levels interacted with each other legally and illegally. The engaging and informative style and interesting examples make it a work suitable for undergraduate and postgraduate courses, and ensure it will be consulted for years to come.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-war.
Augustine Meaher. Review of Roodhouse, Mark, Black Market Britain, 1939-1955.
H-War, H-Net Reviews.
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