Principal Investigator: Dr Sean O’Connell
Co-investigator: Dr Paul Corthorn
Research Assistant: Dr Stuart Aveyard
Funded by the Leverhulme Trust, 2012-13
The project’s aim is to increase historical understanding of the political and social histories of consumer credit in the UK. The study begins with the Hire Purchase Act (1938), which was result of the growth of consumer credit, growing concerns about its misuse and the concomitant social distress brought by rising debt. The termination point for the project is the Thatcher government’s liberalisation of consumer credit in the 1980s, which secured the UK’s position as the most diverse consumer credit market in Europe. Consumer credit featured prominently in government thinking, both as an important aspect of economic policy and as an issue capable of giving birth to regular debates about personal debt and social problems. Whilst much has been written about the social aspects of consumer credit between the 1930s and 1980s, and on related themes such as the impact of affluence, or the emergence of the consumer movement and consumer protection policy in the UK, no historical investigation has unpacked the relationship between government, consumers and credit in the UK. In the aftermath of the ‘credit crunch’, this is an apposite moment at which to fill this lacuna.
The primary aim of this project is a straightforward one: to chart the relationship between the major political parties and the development of the modern consumer credit regime. Although this important task is the major aim, the research will also engage with a number of other significant historical issues and debates. The research will analyse political responses to the economic and social impact of the growth and increasing diversity of consumer credit. In doing so, it will also provide a case study that explores the relationship between successive governments and consumer society. The evolving ideological positions within and between the major political parties - in the context of growing consumer use of various forms of credit - will be probed to delineate debates and policies surrounding what was an increasingly significant factor in the economy. As well as its assimilation of political and socio-economic history, a noteworthy aspect of the work will be its integrated approach to political debates between and across parties. Much British political historiography tends to focus on one or other of the two main parties. This project will, instead, examine all three major parties and consider their evolving opinions of the role of consumer credit within the British economy and society. The intention is to offer a fresh contribution to debates about issues such as which political party proved most adept at exploiting the emergence of a more affluent electorate; the post-war ‘consensus’ and the emergence of neo-liberalism; and the extent to which Britain developed a different model towards consumer protection than those of her European neighbours.