How to look for records of... Economic policy and government spending in the 20th century
How can I view the records covered in this guide?
How many are online?
1. Why use this guide?
This guide provides advice on which records to consult at The National Archives for studies of the UK economy and the economic policy of central government in the 20th century. The records of numerous central government departments can provide insights into these subjects but the focus of this short guide are two of the primary decision-making bodies, the Cabinet and the Prime Minister’s Office, and the Treasury, the government’s economic and finance ministry, responsible for maintaining control over public spending.
2. The basics of how to locate records
You can view some of the records referred to in this guide online – they are covered in section 3. All the other records referred to remain available in their original paper form only and locating these records begins in Discovery, our catalogue. For very broad searches simply use keywords such as:
- ‘budget’, ‘spending’ ‘funding’ and an area of public spending, such as ‘housing’, ‘transport’ ‘science’ and so on
Refine search results to specific kinds of documents by adding words to your search such as:
- ‘bill’, ‘report’, ‘minutes’ or other document types
The private papers of various Chancellors of the Exchequer are available within our records. To locate these, search the catalogue using:
- “Chancellor of the Exchequer” plus “private office papers” and a date
- the name of a minister (for example, R A Butler or Lord Butler) plus “private office papers”
Alternatively, you can browse within the records of specific departments by clicking on the letter codes below for an overview of the records:
- Treasury (T) – correspondence and reports on the control of public revenue and expenditure
- Cabinet Office (CAB) – records of the supreme decision-making body in government
- Prime Minister’s Office (PREM) – includes correspondence to and from the Prime Minister’s Office, briefing papers and policy papers
- Foreign Office (FO) – correspondence, policy and negotiation with other states
For advice on searching effectively, read Discovery help.
3. Online records
3.1 Cabinet Papers
Read our research guide to Cabinet and its committees for advice on searching our catalogue for cabinet papers.
The archived Cabinet Papers site has themed pages which you can browse, some with links to downloadable documents.
3.2 UK Government Web Archive (1990 to present day)
Search the UK Government Web Archive for archived versions of over 2000 UK government websites and social media accounts. Websites for HM Treasury, Office for Budget Responsibility, and Number 10 are among those which may be useful for researching contemporary economic history.
The UK Government Web Archive includes social media, such as Twitter, and archived videos.
3.3 Parliamentary Papers (1715 to 2005)
Search the House of Commons Parliamentary Papers website (institutional subscription required) for sessional papers of the House of Commons (1715-2005) or additional material for both houses dating back to 1660. Search by keyword, date and paper number.
4. Treasury records
The Treasury was reorganised in 1919, 1948, 1962 and 1975 and as a result the arrangement of Treasury records changed too. It is easier to locate Treasury records from 1920, and to a lesser extent from 1909, with keyword searches in our catalogue, as explained in section 2. Prior to these years, you will need to use Treasury registers, available at The National Archives in Kew. Consult our guide to Treasury Board letters and papers 1557-1920 for advice on how to do this.
For a sense of the topics covered by Treasury records, and how they are arranged, take a look at the list of Treasury functions for the year 1982-1983 (PDF).
To find records of a particular sector, group or division of the Treasury you can use the advanced search in our catalogue to target Treasury records using the department code T and then refining your search results using the ‘Subjects’ filter. Alternatively, you can browse the Treasury material by hierarchy to identify the records grouped by its different areas of responsibity.
The following Treasury record series may prove particularly useful for some areas of research:
- T 171 – Budget and Finance Bill Papers (1859-1980). This series records the Chancellor’s meetings with advisers and includes papers relating to debates in Parliament and the Chancellor’s budget speeches. Budget papers post-1980 can be found in the series T 366.
- a collection of papers from Lord John Maynard Keynes’ private office in T 247
- T 267 – Treasury Historical Memoranda (1957-1976). This series contains memoranda on recurring issues or episodes of long-term significance. For example there are papers on negotiations with the European Economic Community (1961-1963) in T 267/14.
- T 639 – Private Office of the Chancellor of the Exchequer: Geoffrey Howe’s records (1979-1983). This series contains high level policy work and correspondence at a ministerial level. For example, files concerning budget preparations, economic strategy and European and international issues are included.
- T 640 – HM Treasury: Chancellor of the Exchequer: Private Office Papers [Nigel Lawson]: Private Office files (PO-CH/NL prefix) 1979-1990
5. Some useful Cabinet record series
For more detailed advice on the records of Cabinet, read our guide to Cabinet and its committees. The following record series may prove particularly useful for research into economic policy:
- minutes and papers of the Economic Policy Committee and various other committees and sub-committees on economic policy in CAB 72)
- CAB 147 – consisting primarily of economic advice and briefings provided by Dr Thomas (later Lord) Balogh to the Prime Minister and other ministers
- CAB 134 – Miscellaneous Committees: Minutes and Papers (General Series) (1945-1987). This series contains records of standing Cabinet committees including the Economic Policy Committee. See section 12 of our guide Cabinet and its committees for more information
6. Records in other archives
6.1 The Bank of England Archive
Visit the Bank of England Archive website for information on their holdings and how to view material.
6.2 The Parliamentary Archives
Visit the Parliamentary Archives website for information on their holdings and how to view material. The Parliamentary Archives hold many documents relevant to the study of 20th-century economic history including the papers of Andrew Bonar Law.
6.3 Records held locally
The National Archives’ catalogue has details of collections held by over 2,500 archives across the UK. Search our catalogue with the names of politicians to find out where their papers are held. You may need to refine your results using the filters.
7. Further reading
Use our library catalogue to find a recommended book list. The books are all available in The National Archives’ reference library. You may also be able to find them in a local library. You can buy from a wide range of history titles in our bookshop.
You can also listen to the podcast on 20th-century Treasury records.