Duncan Bowie highlights the achievements and limits of the 1945 Labour government elected in conditions of huge national debt and destruction, finding lessons for today
The election of 5th July 1945 saw the return of Labour’s first majority administration on 26th July – polling had been extended for the forces still overseas. This was Labour’s most successful election, with Labour winning nearly 48% of the popular vote to under 40% for the Conservatives. Labour won 393 seats to 213 for the Conservatives. The Conservatives had the support of 13 National Liberals. The Liberal party had collapsed, returning only 10 MPs. Labour had the support of three Independent Labour and two Communist MPs, as well as one Common Wealth Party MP. This massive majority put Labour in a much stronger position than its minority administrations of 1924 and 1929-31. The war had led to increased government intervention in relation to a whole range of welfare services as well as control of food distribution and labour mobility, so Labour’s proposals for state control of key areas of production such as coal and steel were less controversial than they had been in the pre-war period. The wartime experience had demonstrated the importance of collective action and collective provision. Moreover, Labour was no longer seen as inexperienced – Clement Attlee had been deputy prime minister, and Ernest Bevin, Herbert Morrison and Hugh Dalton had all had major wartime roles, as had the Labour dissident, Stafford Cripps.
The war had not just seen a systematic approach to the planning of post-war reconstruction, led by Attlee and Morrison, but a widespread popular discussion of wartime aims and the better world that was being fought for. While the First World War had been seen as a ‘war to end all wars’, the Second World War was seen not just as a defence of democracy against fascism, but as a struggle for a more equal society. What is remarkable is the extent of popular engagement in discussion about the future of British society, not just in the form of published books and pamphlets, but in the widespread popular debate, notably among the troops both in Britain and overseas, through the Army Bureau of Current Affairs. Many of the most radical ideas were debated in the forces’ parliament in Cairo, which included future Labour MPs Leo Abse and Henry Solomons as well as members of the Communist and Common Wealth parties, and which voted for the nationalisation of banks, land, mines and transport. The best academic study of the growth of socialistic ideas in the years before the election is Paul Addison’s The Road to 1945, first published in 1975.
The extent of political consensus should be recognised. As was the case in the First World War, and as could also be argued in the contemporary situation, crisis and threat generate a widespread recognition of the case for Government intervention in a laissez-faire society, and for collective action rather than a reliance on individual initiative and philanthropy. Many of Labour’s key policies had considerable cross-party support – for example, the national insurance system originated in the 1942 report by Lord Beveridge, who was actually a Liberal; education reforms originated in the 1944 Education Act promoted by the Conservative Rab Butler. But it was Labour who was trusted to deliver the National Health Service, the council housing programme, the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act and the New Towns.
This was an ambitious programme, delivered at a time when the country was in massive debt due to wartime expenditure. It is true that the programme had to be cut back in 1950 as the country was hit by an economic crisis and Labour lost its overall majority in the election that year, though still winning 46% of the vote to the Conservatives’ 43%. Interestingly, in terms of both vote share (48.8% to 48%) and the popular vote (13.9 million to 13.7 million), Labour actually won the 1951 election, though the Conservatives returned 26 more MPs than Labour and formed the government under Churchill. Some left-wing critics attacked the Labour government for not doing more, and the main criticism from the Keep Left group of Richard Crossman, Michael Foot and Ian Mikardo related to Bevin’s foreign policy, which was seen as being too closely tied to the US and too hostile to the Soviet Union. It should also be acknowledged that with a severe financial crisis in 1950, largely resulting from the withdrawal of post-war US loans, nationalisation and investment programmes were constrained, with the introduction of prescription charges leading to the resignation from government of Nye Bevan, Harold Wilson and John Freeman.
From today’s perspective, it cannot be denied that the Attlee government’s achievements were impressive. When we discuss the constraints imposed on Labour’s current ambitions by the economic context, we should remember that in 1945 Britain was bankrupt after its wartime expenditure, and that in this context of genuine austerity, Labour’s ability to deliver the majority of its manifesto commitments, set out in Let Us Face the Future, contrast with the somewhat lesser achievements of subsequent Labour administrations. What however should also be remembered is that despite the differences of political view and strong personalities within the Attlee government, and the fact that the leadership was a mix of practical working class trade unionists and middle class intellectual socialists (a much more balanced leadership than we have today), there was, at least in the early years of the administration, remarkably little factionalism. A lesson for us all.