Political situation in Britain 1945-1960
TABLE OF CONTENTS
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
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 themselves.
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 forAmerica 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