Political situation in Britain 1945-1960


1.The Labour government of 1945 to 1951………………………….3-6

2. The creation of a multi-racial Commonwealth………………………7

3.Christian Democracy as principal political phenomenon

of post-war Europe ……………………………………………… 8-10

4.The Conservatives return to power………………………………10-14

5. References…………………………………………………………..15

The Labour government of 1945 to 1951

To exchange the splendours of oratory and the decades of experience of
the greatest of war leaders for a very sincere but decidedly
uncharismatic little man, seemed to the rest of the world an odd thing
for the British electorate to do in the summer of 1945. It never made a
wiser choice. Britain was straining forward to peace and a new social
order, anxious that the disillusionment and lost opportunity which
followed the First World War should not be repeated this time. For that,
Attlee was the man. Churchill had no more desire to establish a social
democratic Britain than he had to give India its overdue
self-government. Attlee was committed to both. The Labour government of
1945 to 1951 was all in all the most competent, effective and honourable
reforming administration in modern British history.

For the first time Labour had an absolute majority in the House of
Commons; for the first time it had gained such a degree of middle-class
support that it could truly be seen to represent the nation as a whole,
and the success of its work can be measured by its genuinely national
character. No Prime Minister of the twentieth century has been less
partisan than Attlee or has had sounder judgment. He gauged his mandate
with accuracy and carried it out with a cool modesty which deprived his
opponents of any chance of convincing the nation that its affairs were
now in the hands of dangerous revolutionaries. No hands were safer than
those of this old boy of Haileybury, which, if lacking the panache of
Churchill’s Harrow, is one of the most respectable of public schools. If
Attlee seemed so very reliable it was perhaps due in some measure to the
fact that he had no pretensions to being either an aristocratic radical
or a rebellious working man.

He came from the most sober of the middle middle-class — just a little
above that which in twenty years time the country would come to prefer
for its Prime Ministers. With lieutenants as outstanding as Bevin,
Cripps and Aneurin Bevan, and with a leader of the opposition as
distinguished as Churchill, it is not surprising that Attlee himself
appeared so ordinary as to be mediocre, even to his lieutenants

The strength of Labour’s achievement lay in being tied to no one man’s
genius. It was a collective and almost unideological response to the
inherent inequality of British society and the unemployment of the
thirties, seen in the light of the indigenous socialism of Tawney and of
the experience of national community engendered by the war. After the
election victory the Labour MPs might gather in the House of Commons to
sing the ‘Red Flag’, but it represented no more than a nostalgic
reevocation of tribal mythology. In the hard light of day the party’s
more doctrinaire socialists, led at the time by Professor Laski,
chairman of the National Executive, were kept very much at arm’s length
by the Prime Minister and his closest colleagues.

Labour’s agenda could be seen as the missed agenda of the 1920s and
1930s: the coal mines were nationalized at last, so too were the
railways and the Bank of England, but little else (Iron and Steel, as a
last and only half-believed-in fling, in 1951). Attlee, Morrison and
Cripps had ceased to believe that massive nationalization would help the
cause of social equality. The economy could be controlled more
effectively and less dramatically on Keynesian principles through the
working of the Treasury. Control rather than ownership was the point;
control to bring to an end the massive social misery of the recent past.
In this they were largely successful. Unemployment, unknown during the
war, hardly reappeared for years; it remained lower than even Beveridge
had thought possible. The really large-scale poverty of pre-war Britain
was gone for good: where in 1936 Rowntree had found 31.1 per cent of
York’s workers living below the poverty line, by 1951 it was only 2.8
per cent. The main weak spot here remained the slum areas in the great
industrial conurbations, and Labour was not very successful with its
housing, but food and health were enormously improved. Infant mortality
rates had been 138 per thousand live births at the beginning of the
century, they were down to 21 by the 1950s. On the basis of the
Beveridge Report the welfare state was solidly erected with its
principal glory, the National Health Service, inaugurated in 1948. For
this Aneurin Bevan, the most radical of Labour’s current leadership, was
directly responsible. The health of the nation, which had improved so
dramatically during the Second World War, with a fair distribution of
basic food, was to be maintained at that level. If education needed to
keep pace with health, the achievement here was less complete. The
Education Act of 1944 provided a charter for secondary education for all
with the raising of the school-leaving age to fifteen and the
establishment of a break at the age of eleven. However, while there was
certainly a very considerable expansion of good secondary education
outside the privileged and fee-paying classes, the hard division which
grew up between ‘grammar’ and ‘secondary modern’ based on the
‘eleven-plus’ examination was not a fully satisfactory answer to the
nation’s needs, and the proportion of really working-class children
getting anywhere near a university remained decidedly low.

In evaluating the limitations of Labour’s success, it is important to
remember that Britain’s economic situation after the war was grave in
the extreme: assets down, debts up, responsibilities as great as ever.
Of the three great allied powers, Russia had suffered by far the most
through the war; she also gained enormously by the peace. Britain had
suffered much and lost in every way. America had suffered very little
and gained everything. The war over and with the cool Truman as
Roosevelt’s successor, she did not see herself on top so as to help
needy old friends, but to make the world safe for the speedy realization
of all her hitherto, unspelt out ambitions. The new order was to be
centred irremediably upon the US. The United Nations were to be located
in New York. The World Bank was not to leave American soil. Lend-Lease,
on the other hand, was to be immediately terminated. The British Empire
should be decently dismantled, to be replaced so far as convenient by a
string of American bases spread across the globe. Neither politically
nor economically could Britain say a very firm Nay to much of this. It
could only procrastinate while waiting for America to wake up to the
fact that Soviet power required that their allies be strengthened not
weakened, and this of course soon began to happen. The inauguration of
Marshall Aid in 1948 was the result. For Britain the immediate struggle
was simply to stay in business; perhaps it was fortunate that her people
hardly saw it this way, remaining somewhat mesmerized by the
consciousness that they had ‘won’ the war. For the time being the
country was still shorter on food than during the conflict: bread
rationing was a post-war phenomenon. The Labour government battled
through the economic crisis quite effectively during the chancellorship
of Stafford Cripps, but it came nowhere near to achieving any sort of
economic miracle. In such circumstances the weight of its social
achievement is the more remarkable.

For all its singing of the ‘Red Flag’ the socialism of Attlee wanted
nothing in common with Soviet Communism. The prosecution of the cold war
was safe in his hands. So was the development of Britain’s independent
nuclear deterrent: whatever has been thought of it subsequently, it
seemed obviously necessary to Attlee at the time. Doubtless it was too
late to save the countries of eastern Europe from a narrow party tyranny
imposed by Stalin, but Labour probably did as much as the Conservatives
would have done to protest and resist. Indeed Ernest Bevin may well be
claimed as Britain’s finest conservative Foreign Secretary since
Castlereagh. No Tory Foreign Secretary of this century has so well
personified the British bull dog — as Churchill himself recognized. His
task was to harness the United States to the defence of Europe and the
non-Communist world, while surrendering as little as possible to
America’s anti-imperial syndrome. British responsibility in Palestine
was hurriedly abandoned in 1948, largely under American pressure and
fairly disastrously for the future of the Middle East; but on other
matters the growing fear of Russia on both sides of the Atlantic was the
necessary lever to bring the two into line. The working of the Marshall
Plan for Europe’s economic recovery owed much to Bevin, while the
establishment of NATO in 1949 may well be seen as his supreme
achievement and, for better or worse, the principal foundation of
British foreign policy for the next half-century.

The welfare state emerged then into the full light of day, on a basis
established well before by Lloyd George and even Neville Chamberlain,
linked with a far more widespread and deeply pondered anti-Communism
than characterized any earlier phase of British history. This
undoubtedly helped both the churches and the middle classes overcome
their surviving hostility to the degree of socialism to which the
government was committed (though, when vested interests were at stake,
that hostility was still fierce enough — as within the ranks of the
BMA). Nevertheless, all in all, the inheritance of Temple, Tawney,
Beveridge; the Christian Socialist idealism of Cripps; the tough
anti-Soviet line of Bevin; the sheer sanity and respectability of
Attlee; the fact that at heart Conservatives like Butler and Macmillan
could go along with quite a large part of Labour’s programme: all this
ensured that, despite a not too successful economic strategy, Labour’s
revolution was the most widely supported and the least seriously
challenged of all the great legislative reforms of modern British
history. It established a modern, benevolent, and rather bureaucratic
shape taken for granted by all British governments until the late 1970s.

The creation of a multi-racial Commonwealth

Perhaps the most decisive and unquestionably right of all Labour’s
achievements was the granting of independence to India in 1947. If there
was no reasonable alternative, it is also true that the speed and lack
of tergiversation with which it was done owed a great deal to Attlee
himself and to his choice of Lord Mountbatten as the last Viceroy. Rapid
withdrawal from so vast and ancient a responsibility combined with a
last minute agreement to divide the sub-continent into two separate
States — India and Pakistan — was an operation too immense and, really,
too unplannable not to bring with it some fearful disorder, yet it is
probably true that if Attlee and Mountbatten had not committed
themselves to a minimum of delay, the overall breakdown of order
throughout the country could have been a great deal worse. Since the
late eighteenth century Britain had owed much of her world position to
the possession of India. Now it had gone and people at home seemed
strangely little affected by the ending of this extraordinary
relationship, so that the standard histories of Britain mostly
understate the significance of what had happened. The development of
British Africa may have appeared to offer sufficient imperial
compensation for the loss of India, Pakistan, Ceylon and Burma. At the
time it did not occur to people how quickly the rest of the Empire would
go too. In the earlier 1950s young colonial officials were still being
offered a lifetime of work ahead of them administering some African
territory. But in regard to India, Attlee had taken a decision which
would constitute a decisive precedent for the Empire as a whole: each
land could go when it would, provided a majority so desired and some
sort of democratic structure, frail though it might be, had first been
established. The Commonwealth Conference of 1949 was almost as pregnant
as the founding of NATO for the future shape of Britain’s relationship
with the rest of the world: India and Pakistan could remain within it as
republics and therefore, in due course, many another country too. The
creation of a multi-racial Commonwealth rendered the dismantling of the
Empire a much easier and more positive exercise than it would otherwise
have been.

Christian Democracy as principal political

phenomenon of post-war Europe

Attlee’s Britain was the third of ‘The Big Three’. It was also the first
State of a battered western Europe. Germany, Italy and France had all
been damaged by the war a great deal more than Britain, and Germany was
now truncated of its eastern provinces, filled with millions of refugees
from the east, and divided into four zones of occupation. The
relationship between Britain and her main European neighbours would be
increasingly important yet never satisfactorily apprehended. On the
Continent out of great disaster grew a greater renewal which, while it
in some ways paralleled what was happening in Britain under Labour, was
also distinctively different. The principal political phenomenon of
post-war Europe was Christian Democracy, an animal of which British
people tended to be somewhat suspicious. It was, above all, a Catholic
phenomenon though in Germany especially it also attracted considerable
support among more conservative Protestants. In pre-war Europe the
Catholic community had already demonstrated a strong and deeply rooted
tendency towards democracy. But still more powerful, especially in Rome,
had been the fear that democracy was Protestant in origin and Socialist,
if not Communist, in destiny; that it was closely linked with
anti-clericalism and the confiscation of Church schools; that
Catholicism, being an authoritarian religion, could only really be at
home with an authoritarian government. The concordat signed in 1940
between the Vatican and Portugal represents the last important
expression of a Catholic political approach which had hitherto in
practice steadily crushed Catholic aspirations towards democracy. The
collapse of Fascism and Nazism, together with the strong participation
of Catholic radicals in the resistance movements, redrew the
politico-religious map of western Europe. Effectively the world was now
divided between Communist States on the one hand and countries trying to
model themselves on the principles of Anglo-Saxon democracy upon the
other. The bulk of European Catholics (and Protestants too) were left
with little alternative: except for the lunatic fringe, Christians
ceased to flirt with Fascism and plunged instead into ‘Christian
Democracy’, with the blessing of Pope Pius XII and under the leadership
of Catholic democrats surviving from a former era: in Italy Alcide de
Gasperi, Don Sturzo’s right hand man from the 1920s; in Germany Konrad
Adenauer; in France, Resistance leaders like Georges Bidault.

In its early post-war fervour European Christian Democracy could then
appear as a left of centre phenomenon — at least in its leadership and
aspirations, though not so clearly in its grass roots voting power. This
was less true in Germany, more in France. Here it was not only
democratic but also saw itself as an essentially reforming force, a not
unnatural ally of Socialist parties. It was committed to much the same
sort of programme as Labour in Britain, though having a less coherent
experience to draw upon; its policies were vaguer, the gap between
immediate circumstance and underlying attitude greater. In France,
moreover, the Mouvement Republicain Populaire (MRP) — just because of
its more left-wing character — quickly lost half its electorate to more
conservative parties, especially the Gaullists; moreover, the issue of
Church schools fatally divided it from the Socialists; while it further
failed for long to grasp that democracy at home was not compatible with
the continued imposition of French rule abroad. No party suffered more
in its integrity from the early 1950s war in Viet Nam. By the mid-1950s
its surviving rump had clearly ceased to be a party of the left. In
Germany and Italy, where there was no de Gaulle (that is to say, no
right wing politician of distinction with an impeccable war record),
Christian Democracy was not challenged effectively from the right and
remained a far larger party, but over the years — and perhaps for that
very reason — it moved no less decisively to the right. If in the 1940s
it could look not too unlike a continental version of Labour, by the
1960s it had undoubtedly become the principal continental parallel to
Conservatism. This was a natural enough development and did not
undermine the basic significance of the phenomenon of Christian
Democracy. The new community of western Europe, growing out of the
devastation of the war and achieving in due course the economic miracle
which always just eluded Britain, would be united by an extremely solid
Catholic political presence in every single country south of
Scandinavia, for finally even Gaullism was but a rather right-wing form
of ‘Christian Democracy’, more adapted to traditional France than the
MRP. It was not wholly an accident that, when the European Economic
Community was brought into being, the beginning of a politically united
Europe, it was done by a ‘Treaty of Rome’.

As Stalin’s iron hand imposed Communist regimes all across eastern
Europe, the sense of the need for a united front greatly grew. Any
lingering hopes of appeasement disappeared in 1948, after the Communist
coup in Czechoslovakia in February and the Berlin blockade imposed in
June; the following year saw both the Communist conquest of China and
the foundation of NATO; 1950 the Korean war. In Malaya Britain now had a
hundred thousand troops resisting Communist guerrilla infiltration. The
United States, which had so easily concurred in the abandonment of
eastern Europe to Stalin five years before, now plunged into an
anti-Communist witch-hunt led by the Catholic senator Joe McCarthy.
Nothing quite so hysterical happened in Britain but the antipathy for
Communism is shown well enough by the fact that 97 out of 100 Communist
candidates in the 1950 election lost their deposits and for the first
time for many years no Communist candidate was elected.

The Conservatives return to power

By 1950 Labour’s appointed work was done. The senior members of its
government were old and tired; there was little heart to go further or
sense of common purpose between the radical left led by Aneurin Bevan
and the old leadership. Its two most outstanding members, Cripps and
Bevin, both had to retire in ill health. In April 1951 Bevan and his
lieutenant, Harold Wilson, actually resigned from the government in
protest against details of Hugh GaitskelPs rearmament budget. Yet the
country was strangely reluctant to let Labour go or the Tories return to
power. The government had not lost one by-election. They retained
control by a tiny majority (of eight) in the 1950 General Election and
though they lost that of October 1951 by a small number of seats they
still possessed more votes than the Conservatives. It was certainly time
for Labour to go, but it was equally clear that the Conservatives had no
mandate to undo the work of their predecessors and in fact little desire
to undo it either. Their programme was to ‘free’ the nation from the
mass of rather dreary controls which the war had brought and State
socialism fostered, and to build houses. The economy was anyway
beginning to prosper and the nation to relax: there were 126,000″
television licences in 1949, 763,000 in 1951. The Korean war set things
back a little but food rationing was at long last phased out in
1953-1954. Road transport and the iron and steel industry were
denationalized, income tax reduced, controls of all sorts lifted, but
the core of Labour’s achievement was in no way touched. The Conservative
leadership recognized that this was what the nation wanted and had no
desire to restart the class war.

Churchill, returning to 10 Downing Street in his late seventies, was
less a Prime Minister, more a historic monument, asleep or reminiscing
on the past. He was no longer interested in either confrontation or
adventure. ‘Invest in success’, declared Butler, his Chancellor of the
Exchequer and general handyman, uncon-troversially. The man who had
hammered the unions in the twenties was now all for industrial
appeasement: settle it, Churchill told his minister, ‘on their terms’.
As to the new European community, which he had himself encouraged to
come into existence with a prophetic speech at Strasbourg, he was now
not at all interested in Britain’s entry — the Empire must come first.
George VI died in February 1952 a few months after. The coronation of
Queen Elizabeth the next year was not only an occasion of unparalleled
splendour, it was also the symbolic rite of passage in which the
traditional values of society were reasserted at the very moment when
the war and its subsequent austerities could at last be put aside and
the age of affluence begin to dawn. For such a ceremony Churchill was
the ideal Prime Minister.

The government’s principal positive contribution to the new affluence
lay in the field of housing, one of Labour’s weaker spots. The
Conservative manifesto promised 300,000 new houses a year, which Labour
decried as just empty words, but Harold Macmillan was appointed Minister
of Housing and soon more than fulfilled the target. The three million
houses and more built while the Conservatives were in office vastly
enlarged middle England, the houseproud middle class. It is arguable
that the concentration on private building was damaging for Britain’s
real economic expansion and was indeed one of the reasons why this
country never achieved growth comparable to that of Germany or France.
These things are relative. The British economy in the 1950s did grow by
2 to 3 per cent a year, more than it has ever done before or since in
this century, and domestic prosperity grew still more rapidly. Where
there were two and a quarter million cars and one million television
sets when the Conservatives came to power in 1951, there were eight
million cars and 13 million television sets by the time they left office
in 1964. Average earnings had risen by 110 per cent, a rise of over 30
per cent on average living standards, allowing for inflation.

It remains true that while Britain’s economy appeared to flourish in the
1950s, the growth in affluence was not matched by a comparable growth in
production. Elsewhere in Europe, as in Japan, it was different. Europe,
especially hitherto industrially backward southern Europe, was hastily
breaking through into a modern, urbanized, industrialized society:
France, Italy, Spain. A world of peasants was fading almost overnight
into a world of high rise flats, pollution, advanced technology. The
interface between peasant and technocrat is far more intimate in
southern than in northern Europe. Germany, Britain’s traditional
industrial rival, was modernizing on a different tack. Vastly more
damaged by the war than Britain, the will to recover proved more
emphatic. By the end of the 1950s Britain was in fact slipping badly
back in Europe’s economic race. Its industrialization and urbanization
had taken place too long ago, its war scars were too relatively mild.

The Conservatives who had achieved power somewhat insecurely in 1951
were returned with resounding success in 1955 and again in 1959. The
world relaxed. Stalin died and East—West relations grew easier. African
empire, it was quietly recognized as the decade wore on, would soon have
to go the way of India, and no one minded too much. The thing to do was
to make the process as gracious as possible. Even the foolish fiasco of
the Anglo-French invasion of Suez in 1956, undertaken during Eden’s
brief premiership, disastrously divisive as it was, proved to matter far
less than seemed possible at the time. It certainly hastened the
pragmatic recognition that Britain’s imperial power was shrinking fast —
faster than people had imagined even in the gloomy early post-war days.
But what would it matter? Macmillan was now Prime Minister and, under
the genial mantle of SuperMac, as the Empire shrank, the Commonwealth
expanded. Happy little independent States, each endowed with a
parliament on the Westminster model, would succeed to the old colonies.
Trade would grow. Everyone would be free and content. ‘A wind of change’
was blowing across Africa and indeed across the world, Macmillan warned
the South African parliament in Cape Town in February i960, a non-racial
and democratic wind, but so long as you go along with it, there should
be nothing to fear.

There were, of course, some signs in the later 1950s that there might
still be things to fear — the Notting Hill race riots in the summer of
1958 being one of the more obvious, and the explosion of Britain’s very
own hydrogen bomb another. Ever since Attlee, the government had been
adept at spending ever greater sums on nuclear weaponry without
discussion in parliament or -by and large — anywhere else. Only at the
end of the 1950 did the horrifying reality of nuclear war hanging over
the world since 1945 start to penetrate the imagination of the
multitude. Nevertheless it is impossible not to recognize the sense of
controlled content the nation felt at the time. Unemployment never
reached half a million. At the end of the decade industrial production
was still rising, the balance of payments was fairly favourable,
inflation reasonably low, income tax down (and twopence off the price of
beer). National service was phased out after the White Paper on Defence
of 1957 while, internationally, cold war confrontation was being
transmuted in the age of Khrushchev into rivalry over space exploration
and a race for the moon. Even divorces, which had been high just after
the war, were now well down.

The avuncular and unflappable character of Harold Macmillan, Prime
Minister from 1957 to 1963, provided the ideal coping-stone for this
Indian summer of content, a benign and comfortable age. In earlier days
he had been more drawn to enthusiasm. As a very young man he was close
to becoming a Roman Catholic under the influence of his tutor and friend
Ronald Knox, almost but not quite. In the inter-war years he had been
the Conservative protester, both over unemployment and over Munich, so
much so that he was close to joining the Labour Party, almost but not
quite. By the early fifties, as Minister of Housing, he had become the
most sure-footed of all the Conservative team, and in the post-Suez
disarray he righted the boat with remarkable aplomb. A liberal
Conservative if ever there was one, he yet now seemed rather less
reformist than Rab Butler and more acceptable to the Tory right wing.
All things to all men, he was the crofter’s grandson who believed in one
nation; the Duke of Devonshire’s uncle who saw fit to bring the Duke
into his government — and got away with it. ‘You have never had it so
good’, he told the nation and though that rather simple message has
subsequently produced many sneers, it was yet substantially the truth
and people of later, more harassed, generations would look back to the
age of Macmillan — so much more comfortable and relaxed than that of
Churchill and Attlee before it, more confident and hopeful than the age
of Wilson after it — with increasing nostalgia. If the affluence was
genuine and widely spread, it was, of course, part of a global movement
of prosperity and political relaxation. In its local expression it was
firmly grounded upon the maintenance of Attlee’s welfare state with
which it combined a renewed stress on personal freedom and the
celebration of England’s past. Macmillan was Britain’s last truly
imperial premier. He epitomized the central social, political and
religious judgment of the age: in everything a little bland, a little
too reluctant to delve uncomfortably into the murky deep. Nevertheless
beneath the blandness, humanity steadily prevailed. In July 1955 Ruth
Ellis, the mother of two young children, was hanged in Oxford Gaol for
shooting her lover. He had been both unfaithful and cruel. She had just
had a miscarriage, brought on very probably by his punching her in the
stomach. She wanted to die. Eden was Prime Minister at the time and
Major Lloyd George, an elderly nonentity, Home Secretary. That such a
thing could happen, despite protests, for a crime which in other western
countries would certainly no longer have been punished in this way says
a good deal about the underlying unimaginative moral conservatism still
normative in the mid-1950s. But in fact she was the last woman to be
hanged in Britain. The Commons lobby for the abolition of capital
punishment had been growing steadily stronger, and the very next year on
a free vote there would be a majority for abolition, though this would
only become law ten years later. The hanging of Ruth Ellis appears
strangely barbaric to the Englishman of the 1980s; to most Englishmen of
the 1950s such a thing still seemed in theory justifiable enough, as
running a world-wide empire seemed justifiable; both had seemed so for
centuries. In practice, however, neither appeared any more quite the
right thing to do. Macmillan’s genius lay in the skill with which he
epitomized a somewhat jaunty Conservatism while in fact keeping the ship
of State moving rather rapidly forward. British society was in reality
changing fast in the 1950s and woe to them who failed to see beneath the
drapery of tradition the emergence of a new and unimperial age.


Hastings A. (1991) A history of English Christianity 1920-1990, SCM




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