Monday, September 17, 2018

Alf Burton and the Post War Consensus



In 1947, when our character, Alf Burton, arrived in London, it was nearly  half way through the first term of the Attlee Labour Government.    Victory for the allied forces,  two years earlier , had come at an incredibly high price for many countries around the world.  Vast areas of Europe had been devastated. Millions of  civilians had died. 

Of the 950,794 recorded British casualties, a total of 357,116 were dead, 264,443 (74%) of whom had been members of the armed forces.  Fatalities within the Womens’ Auxiliary Services, Home Guard, Merchant Marine and fishing fleets numbered 32,708, while the civilian death toll was recorded as 60,595.   A total of 593,678 people were recorded as wounded, missing or taken prisoner.


Residential and industrial areas of major British cities had been flattened by enemy bombing.  Essential national infrastructure was war damaged, poorly maintained, run down and worn out.  Food and essential commodities were rationed and in short supply.   The government’s financial position was precarious.   In the twelve months after the war’s end, around 3 000 000 members of the armed forces were  demobbed and re-entered civilian labour markets, while 16 000 000 workers  changed jobs as industry realigned to a peacetime structure.  Women  quit factories, farms, emergency services  and essential industries to return to more traditional roles.

The end of Winston Churchill's coalition government came swiftly, following the German surrender, but while Britain and her allies were still at war with Japan.  The Prime Minister  had asked his coalition partners to continue the wartime  arrangements pending the anticipated defeat of Japan, but they were in no mood to agree, already anxious to pursue a new peacetime agenda. The Labour Party formally rejected this proposal at their Party Conference in Blackpool. Churchill therefore resigned, but continued as caretaker Prime Minister at King George VI’s urging.  As the entire War Cabinet had resigned at the same time as the Prime Minister, the new interim cabinet was made up entirely of Conservative members, rather than the mixed war-time coalition. Dissolution of the parliament was on June 15th, to be followed by the General Election on July 5th, 1945. 
  
The  major issues of the 1945 general election would be aspirational, rather than being about  rewarding past glories, or even expressing gratitude for wartime strength and leadership.  There were any number of complex factors in play, the most significant of which was Labour’s impressive and ambitious manifesto promising Cradle to Grave care under a Welfare State.   Housing, food, health  and full employment through Keynesian demand-management economics; government spending, nationalised industries and a Mixed Economy would, in theory,  replace Depression era  austerity.

(Lord)  Peter Carrington, later Foreign Secretary under  Margaret Thatcher, but by the end of  World War Two serving with the Grenadier Guards in Germany,  offered this analysis to the BBC World Service in 2015:

“...I don't think any member of my squadron voted conservative...The very simple reason from their point of view was unemployment...A lot of them had been unemployed before the war.  They blamed the pre-war (National) government which they thought was basically a conservative government, it was a simple as that…”

Aspiring Labour MP Denis Healy laid the blame heavily with  Chamberlain’s appeasement policy, saying that many soldiers, sailors and airmen  were Labour  supporters as a result.

Labour MP Tony Benn, who would enter politics in 1950, succeeding Chancellor Stafford Cripps in the constituency of Bristol South East, said;

“...People said to each other, in the thirties,  we had mass unemployment, we had the Means Test, we had fascism, we had rearmament.  No unemployment in the war, we said.  If you can have full employment to kill Germans, why in God’s name can’t you have full employment to build hospitals, build  schools.  And that was why we won.  It was a rejection of 1930s Tory policy.  It was just a determination to build a new society…”

Churchill himself, though a strong voice against pre-war appeasement, had a complicated political past which came back to haunt him.    From crusading for liberal reform in Edwardian times, his more recent ideology had been strongly Conservative, vehemently  anti- socialist, austere, and  he had taken a strong combative line on working class issues like the General Strike.  During the 1930s, the so-called wilderness years, he repeatedly clashed with his own Party.  He spoke out against any moves toward Indian self-government, and supported the King during the Abdication Crisis, bringing him into direct conflict with Prime Minister Baldwin and the Cabinet.  He fought against the pacifist dream, and strongly advocated rearmament in both the House of Commons and in the press, writing for large circulation daily newspapers about the Nazi threat, which included  violations of the Versailles Treaty and the rapid expansion of the Luftwaffe.  Although he was ultimately proven right, and his political opponents largely discredited, he was widely seen in the parliament as something of a pest.

The Labour Manifesto for 1945 celebrated the Party’s achievements as part of the wartime coalition, railed against Great War  profiteers, the  hard-faced men who had done well out of the war, and warned  voters that the devastating  interwar economic hardships  could easily be repeated under a new Tory administration;

“...Great economic blizzards swept the world in those years. The great interwar slumps were not acts of God or of blind forces. They were the sure and certain result of the concentration of too much economic power in the hands of too few men. These men had only learned how to act in the interest of their own bureaucratically-run private monopolies which may be likened to totalitarian oligarchies within our democratic State. They had and they felt no responsibility to the nation…Similar forces are at work today. The interests have not been able to make the same profits out of this war as they did out of the last.  The determined propaganda of the Labour Party, helped by other progressive forces, had its effect in taking the profit out of war…”



The Labour manifesto can be read in full here;



The manifesto laid the blame for the interwar slumps  squarely at the door of the Big Interests, which, it went on to argue,  had had things all their own way and were subject to precious few public controls.   One of Churchill's own rallying phrases was effectively re-written and applied against him; Never was so much injury done to so many by so few…”

One particular passage in the manifesto must have resonated strongly;

"...The gallant men and women in the Fighting Services, in the Merchant Marine, Home Guard and Civil Defence, in the factories and in the bombed areas - they deserve and must be assured a happier future than faced so many of them after the last war.  Labour regards their welfare as a sacred trust..."

Memories of poverty and starvation; shoe-less children,  unemployment,  depression-era hardship and appeasement remained raw, but as election day 1945 approached, was it in any way conceivable that Winston Churchill could be voted out? 

In spite of the overwhelming optimism that a Conservative win was inevitable, there were some contrary indications during the campaign, as Churchill’s daughter, Mary, (later Baroness Soames)  recalled;

“...Of course he had reason to feel optimistic.  During the course of the election campaign, he did these great tours in open cars,  and great crowds assembled; rushing, cheering and surrounding him.  But my mother, she had  noticed, in the crowds, that quite often, four or five rows back, there were people not cheering, or quite watchful, with hostile faces.  She was very perceptive…”

There was no doubting Churchill's  abilities as a wartime leader; John F Kennedy later commented that Churchill had weaponised the use of language,  while author and World War Two historian Antony Beevor opined that he had set the benchmark, for better or worse, for political leadership in wartime for generations to come.  But in 1945 the needs and expectations of the country were suddenly very different, and Churchill's  partisan campaigning seemed to miss the mark.  He was derided as little more than a mouthpiece for  press baron and  senior Tory, Lord Beaverbrook, and unfortunate comments  linking socialism to the Gestapo - included in a campaign speech against the advice of his wife, Clementine - might have been the last straw,

“...I must tell you that a socialist policy is abhorrent to British ideas on freedom. There is to be one State, to which all are to be obedient in every act of their lives.  This State, once in power, will prescribe for everyone: where they are to work, what they are to work at, where they may go and what they may say, what views they are to hold, where their wives are to queue up for the State ration, and what education their children are to receive. A socialist state could not afford to suffer opposition - no socialist system can be established without a political police. They (the Labour Government) would have to fall back on some form of Gestapo….”

You can hear some fascinating recollections from Lady Mary Soames, daughter of Winston Churchill,  including first hand accounts of Potsdam and the 1945 election, on the website of the BBC radio series Desert Island Discs



So; however complex the reasons, in the summer of  1945;  Blood, Toil, Tears and Sweat was out; and the progressive Welfare State, with the promise of full employment, and cradle to grave care,  was in.











“...We want the complete political extinction of the Tory Party and twenty-five years of Labour government. We cannot do in five years what requires to be done."   

Aneurin Bevan (Labour Minister of Health and  Housing)









Contrary to predictions that the Conservatives would form Government with a small but workable majority, the result was a landslide in favour of Clement Attlee’s Labour Party.     It took several weeks for the final result to be confirmed, allowing for ballot papers  to come in from those serving overseas. As it turned out, 393 of the 640 constituencies forming the House of Commons were returned for Labour with only 189 Conservative. Labour’s majority in its own right was 146 seats. Of the remaining 44 Liberal, Independent and others, 20 could be generally counted on  to support the new Government, 24 would likely align with the Tory opposition, with 14 non-aligned independents.  Only 119 Labour members were card carrying trade union members.  There were lawyers, journalists, physicians, teachers and local government workers making up the parliamentary party while 126 Labour members had seen active service in the War.  There were 23 women in the House of Commons, 21 of whom were Labour Members, with one Conservative and one Liberal.  (Note: Website ukpolitical.info cites 24 women, with 1 additional member classified as  other)




Council elections followed  several months later in November.   The success of the  Labour Government was also reflected at a local level, primarily in the North, Midlands and London.  Labour took control of over 60 significant towns in  England and Wales, including 5 additional London boroughs.

Ernie Bevin and Clement Attlee
New Prime Minister, Major Clement Attlee (1883 - 1967) , brought a lifetime of social and political experience to his new role.  University educated and of middle class background, he had experienced at first first-hand the terrible poverty in London’s East End by working as a community volunteer. He became a committed socialist, although while his political beliefs were to the Left he retained socially conservative attitudes.  After service in World War One, he was  elected Mayor of Stepney in 1919 and then Labour member for Stepney Limehouse in 1922. 

From 1935 he led the Opposition in the House of Commons, supported Baldwin’s Government during the Abdication Crisis, then criticised the Government’s appeasement policy and supported Chamberlain’s declaration of war against Germany.  Attlee’s refusal to commit to  a wartime coalition with Chamberlain, reflecting widespread dissatisfaction with the Prime Minister’s  leadership following his ill-advised and failed negotiations with Hitler, was a key factor leading to Churchill’s rise to the Prime Ministership and leader of the Wartime Coalition, for whom Attlee served as Deputy Prime Minister from 1942. 

There are a couple of interesting articles about Clement Attlee at the website of sculptor David McFall R.A.  The biographical information is fascinating, in addition to one of the lesser known aspects of his government's welfare reforms, the death grant.  Mr Attlee himself had a strong personal commitment toward eliminating the stigma of a pauper's funeral. 

Follow the link here;




King George VI, once recovered from the shock of Winston Churchill's defeat, forged some unlikely friendships within the new government.





The immediate post-war period in Britain was beset by demoralising shortages of many essential goods and services.  More than 4 000 000 homes had been destroyed or badly damaged by enemy bombing, leading to a crisis in housing availability. Many commodities remained in short supply and, in some instances, rationing was actually extended to become even harsher than the wartime regime.  One particular cause of resentment was the continued rationing of  motor spirit (petrol), for which rationing was not lifted until after the 1950 election, by which time the general anger and disillusionment in the country was reflected in the government's near defeat at the polls.

The state of the nation’s balance of trade and finances generally were grim, with Britain struggling to repay the foreign loans it had secured to finance the War Effort.   The legal framework for the Lend-Lease arrangement with the United States came to an end immediately after the war ended.  This mechanism had allowed Britain to import military vehicles, machinery, war materiel, raw materials and food, without actually paying for them. 

Lend-Lease had authorised the US to-

“…Aid any nation whose defence is vital to United States’ interests..”(…and be repaid..) “…in kind or property, or any other direct or indirect benefit which the President deems satisfactory….”

Read more about Lend-Lease here:


                                             FDR Presidential Library -Lend Lease

Britain’s War Effort been financed on the never-never.  John Maynard Keynes negotiated a massive bridging loan with the US to try and keep Britain afloat.   Without financial support from the US and Canada, including assistance under the Marshall Plan, Britain would have defaulted on its debts.  By the winter of 1947, fuel shortages, crippling rationing, inadequate supplies of food along with the housing crisis were made harder to endure by one of the coldest winters on record.

Food shortages were actually exacerbated by Britain’s Marshall Plan foreign aid commitment, under which devastated democratic European nations were supported by the West, in order to alleviate famine, economic failure and from, by necessity, succumbing to  Communist annexation.  The diversion of wheat imports from Britain to Europe forced the Attlee Government to introduce bread rationing, a core  essential  that had remained off the ration throughout the war.

The bedrock of the Labour manifesto was the Cradle to Grave Welfare State, the seeds of which had been sown in a report compiled by economist Sir William Beveridge in 1942.  BBC radio at the time described Beveridge as the recognised authority on present day and post war problems.

“...The security plan in  my report has three sides to it.  First, an all in scheme of social insurance.  Second, a scheme of children’s allowances.  The report proposes third, an all in scheme of medical treatment…We shall take the first step to security with freedom, and with responsibility...”

Welfare State initiatives enacted by the Attlee government, aside from the NHS, included  legislation that enshrined family allowances, national insurance for industrial injuries and pensions, and rent control provisions.

The National Health Service (NHS) was the  key institution that  would form the definitive legacy of the Attlee Government.  Minister of Health (and Housing), Aneurin (Nye) Bevan, said of the existing fragmented health system-

“…Our hospital organization has grown up with no plan, with no system; it is unevenly distributed over the country...I would rather be kept alive in the efficient if cold altruism of a large hospital than expire in a gush of warm sympathy in a small one…”

One of the inconsistencies, or indeed injustices, of the incumbent arrangements was that general health cover provided by a limited national insurance scheme  for those lucky enough to be in employment, did not even extend to workers’ own  families. 

The health of the nation was generally poor. Every year, thousands died of infectious diseases including  pneumonia, meningitis, tuberculosis, diphtheria, and polio. Infant mortality (children who died before their first birthday), was around 1 in 20. Many people  suffered with chronic, unresolved medical conditions owing to a lack of available and affordable treatment

A newly qualified Doctor in 1948, John Marks,  told BBC radio;

“...If you were wealthy or middle class even, you bought what was available.  If you were a worker earning less than three pounds a week, you had national insurance  and that covered you for general practice and drugs - not your family.  If you wanted to go to hospital there were two types of hospital; there was the so called voluntary hospital where the doctors worked for nothing, and the municipal hospitals run by the local authority…”

But the often tragic reality was, if people  didn’t work, and didn’t  pay national or private insurance, they  didn't go to doctors  or to hospitals at all.




The new NHS allocated healthcare funding both nationally and at a Local Government level.   Doctors were now paid by the Government on a per-capita basis, in other words,  on the number of patients registered to that Doctor.  Hospitals and medical services were free, and based on medical need rather than ability to pay.  Local Health Authorities were funded to provide ambulance services, child welfare and immunisation, maternity services, family planning and day nursing. In explaining how he had overcome entrenched resistance to reforms from within the medical profession, Nye Bevan said; I stuffed their mouths with gold.  Over 2 500 voluntary and municipal hospitals were nationalised under the NHS umbrella.

The Daily Mail - January 1946


The fledgeling NHS was immediately overwhelmed.  Doctor Marks recalled:

“...People were coming forward in masses, we couldn't cope with the numbers.  We worked every hour God sent.  I mean, the idea of working a 48 hour week, we worked a 48 hour day!  And nobody batted an eyelid.  We looked after vast numbers of patients.  One didn't realise how many people had needed surgery - men with huge hernias, women with  prolapses - who couldn't see a doctor because they couldn't afford it…”

On the broader political  issue of the Welfare State and socialised health, Aneurin Bevan further said;

“…The National Health Service and the Welfare State have come to be used as interchangeable terms and in the mouths of some people as a form of reproach.  Why this is so is not difficult to understand if you view everything from the angle of a strictly individualistic competitive society.  A free health service is pure Socialism and as such, it is opposed to the hedonism of a capitalist society…”

Nationalising a number of essential industries and institutions was a key reform programme alongside expanded health and welfare mechanisms.  The schedule would include the Bank of England, rail, transport and essential commodity suppliers - coal, electricity and gas.

The turbulent post war labour market was also undergoing massive restructuring.  Some industries, principally those that had had a direct role in war related manufacture, were overstaffed for their new peacetime production schedules.  Many other industries, like rail and mining, were chronically understaffed owing to the wartime shortage of able bodied workers.   The war effort had taken a heavy toll on industry
Ellen Wilkinson - Minister of Education 
across the board.  Railways and mines were suffering, with poorly maintained, overused, outdated equipment and infrastructure resulting from war-related shortages of materials and labour.  Private railway companies were rationalised and consolidated into what would become British Railways.  A number of private airlines were absorbed into the British Overseas Airways Company (BOAC).  The Government also ambitiously, and controversially, set about nationalising the iron and steel industries, which had, the Tory Opposition argued,  been profitable and efficient under private control.  Bringing such massive, complicated and cumbersome industries into Government ownership presented massive problems; efficiencies and modernisation were needed throughout much of British industry.  These challenges  hampered efforts to make these businesses profitable in the international market, inhibiting potential improvement in the balance of trade.


In early 1947, The National Coal Board, established under  the Coal Industry Nationalisation Act, took control of 1,647 coal mines, one million acres of land, 100 000 homes and a myriad transport and infrastructure that had been previously owned by 850 separate companies.  The private coal companies were paid a total of 164.6  million pounds.

As part of its extensive legislative program, the Government repealed the controversial Trade Disputes Act of 1927, which had, shortly after the General Strike, dealt a savage blow to organised labour unity by making it illegal for unions outside of a specific trade or industry to strike in support of their brother unionists. The Act had also placed limitations on picketing and prevented Government or crown employees from joining unions that included anyone from outside the Government sector.  Prior to 1927, political donations had been deducted from union members' pay-packets by default, however the member could opt out by choice.  The 1927 Act had reversed this so that the onus was on the member to confirm in writing that he or she wished a donation to be made.   The repeal of this act benefited the Government by shoring up Trade Union support and facilitating the freer flow of  union funds, but would have significant implications for the future of industrial harmony.  The Trade Union movement would continue to make up the third partner in a trilateral model of economic and industrial management, along with Government and Industry.

Foreign policy was also presenting a number of challenges.  Britain no longer had the desire nor the ability to effectively maintain, police and protect the empire.   Gandhi's independence crusade, The Quit India Movement, had been gaining momentum since 1942, and on February 20th, 1947, Attlee told Parliament that British rule in India would end no later than June 1948.

In her 2015 book, “The Raj at War”, (Random House), author Yasmin Khan explained…

“...The war flattened out the pretensions of empire, making ceremonial and ritual excesses look archaic, challenging old compacts between King Emperor and the Landed Elites.  It heightened nationalism both in Britain and India, so that older forms of trans-national solidarity became dated and obsolete.  The Raj was left in debt, morally redundant and staffed by administrators whose sense of purpose could not be sustained.  Ultimately the war delivered decolonisation (and the partition of 1947), neither of which was inevitable or even foreseen in 1939...”

Colonial excesses were now seen as  out-of-step with bleak and austere post-war Britain.  But however noble the motives, the process of transition was disastrous. Arbitrary and hastily conceived borders, partitioning Pakistan and East Pakistan (later Bangladesh), led to a post-independence bloodbath of heartbreaking magnitude.

With increasing apprehension over the rise of Communism in Europe and the emergence of a Cold War nuclear arms race, Prime Minister Attlee was facing challenges at home and abroad.   His formidable Foreign Secretary, former Union Leader - the Docker’s KC - Ernie Bevin (1881-1951), was at the forefront of the establishment of NATO and oversaw the initial steps in turning the British Empire into a Commonwealth of independent nations.

Foreign Secretary Bevin  had  worked at a number of labouring trades before becoming a union organiser.  His reputation, and prospects, rose dramatically in 1920 after his submission to an inquiry investigating conditions of transport workers achieved the standardisation of a minimum wage for British transport and dock workers.   The following year he successfully oversaw the merger of 32 separate unions to establish the Transport and General Workers Union, of which he served as inaugural General Secretary.  Although an advocate for negotiation over direct action,  he was prominent in organising the General Strike of 1926.

Ernie Bevin went on to hold a critical post in Churchill’s coalition War Cabinet, as Minister of Labour and National Service.  Clearly any residual animosity that Bevin might have harboured toward Churchill’s hard-line attitude in opposing the General Strike had been set aside in the interests of the war effort. Churchill, for his part, maintained a lifelong respect for Bevin, describing him as by far the most distinguished man that the Labour Party have thrown up in my time,  and later supporting Bevin’s efforts as Foreign Secretary from the Opposition.

Bevin's performance as Foreign Secretary was not universally lauded, however, and failures in terms of Middle-East policy, critics asserted, exposed his limitations as a diplomat, while unfortunate remarks over the resettlement of Holocaust survivors left him open to accusations of antisemitism.

Britain was one of five member countries of the new United Nations that had secured veto power over the organisations’ major decisions.  Attlee’s idealism was on display during his own speech at the first UN General Assembly, held at Methodist Central Hall, London, in January 1946  -

“…Let us be clear as to what is our ultimate aim. It is not just the negation of war but the creation of a world which is governed by justice and moral law…”

Attlee’s long experience  and quiet leadership kept a Cabinet, and a political party, of varying ideologies and strong personalities focussed on the overriding common purpose.   Unlike Churchill, who often had to be reined in by his wartime colleagues after exhilarating but overegged speeches and perhaps foolhardy plans, Attlee’s leadership was quiet, decisive and disciplined.   He would not hesitate to bring Party members into line if he felt they were falling short of his expectations.  After Labour’s Party Chairman, Harold Laski, made an unwelcome foray into the Government’s handling of foreign affairs, Attlee assertively defended his Foreign Secretary;

“...You have no right whatever to speak on behalf of the Government.  Foreign Affairs are in the capable hands of Ernest Bevin. His task is quite sufficiently difficult without the embarrassment of irresponsible statements of the kind which you are making...a period of silence on your part would be welcome...”

Minister of Health with responsibility for housing, Aneurin Bevan (1897-1960) was another example of a management challenge.  He was the son of a coal miner and had worked in the mines from the age of 13, until eye disease, and perhaps a reputation for shop floor militancy, had forced him to seek other employment.  He was elected as Labour member for Ebbw Vale in 1929.  His great legacy would be the foundation of the NHS, however he was no fan of bipartisan consensus politics, once describing Tories as lower than vermin and often being highly critical of his own party as well as his political enemies.   The figurehead of the Labour Party’s  left faction, the Bevanites, he explained, in part, his committedly partisan approach to The Observer:

“….We know what happens to people who stay in the middle of the road. They get run down…”

Winston Churchill once described him as a merchant of discourtesy and a squalid nuisance  in response to Bevan's often abrasive and combative manner.  Churchill also said of Bevan, on the foundation of the NHS,

“…I can think of no better step to signalise the inauguration of the National Health Service than that a person who so obviously needs psychiatric attention should be among the first of its patients…”

Tony Benn later recalled;

“...When I was first elected to Parliament, Aneurin Bevan was Minister of Health.  He was a Welsh miner, and of course, the mining communities had suffered terribly.  There were 7 800 killed in the years before the 1935 General Election and over a million injured.  What the NHS did, was to recognise that the health of the nation was a national interest, and that was the beginning and end of it.  That's what it was all about.   It took the anxiety out of ill-health…”

As the Government entered the final full year of its first term, the contentious Iron and Steel (Nationalisation) Bill, was presented to parliament.  This measure resulted in serious conflict with the Conservative Opposition, which had otherwise been generally supportive of the Government’s reforms.  A number of compromises were made along with an agreement that the nationalised conglomerate would not be established until after the approaching general election and a resulting mandate one way or the other.

Taxes were considerably higher under Labour than the pre-war rates, a necessity for the funding of the Government's wide ranging social programmes.  Labour’s key claim of a tight rein on the cost of living was coming unstuck, although they asserted that food subsidies were saving the average family around 14 shillings per week.  The peak inflation rate of 7.7% in 1948, improved to around 3% by 1949-50, but would spike  again  to around 9% in 1951. Aneurin Bevan said that the NHS was costing double what the Government had estimated and budgeted for.  Other sources suggest that the blowout was as much as 3 times the initial budget. Rationing was lifted on clothing, but high prices and low availability appeared to make little difference.  Meat and butter rations were increased but the sugar ration was cut.  The voters had suffered through years of war only to be faced with what must have felt like endless austerity and deprivation.  A number of industrial actions disrupted essential services like transport, coal mining and the docks, the latter resulting in a declared State of Emergency. 

The Government was also struggling to uphold a key component of its manifesto, rebuilding the nation’s war-damaged housing.  Production targets were difficult to achieve because of the continued shortage of building materials.  About 9 000 fewer permanent new homes were built in the first part of 1949 as had been constructed during the corresponding period of the year before.  Aneurin Bevan, whose remit extended beyond Health and into housing reconstruction, proposed a bill that would subsidise private home improvements up to 50%, but a total of 35.5 million pounds was cut from the subsequent year’s building program. Bevan had envisioned a mixed housing market, affording people the choice of public or privately owned housing within the same communities;

“…We should try to introduce in our modern villages and towns what was always the lovely feature of English and Welsh villages, where the doctor, the grocer, the butcher and the farm labourer all lived in the same street.  I believe that is essential for the full life of each citizen-to see the living tapestry of a mixed community...”

A key part of the overall  housing strategy, conceived before the end of the war, was the construction of large numbers of modest prefabricated dwellings, known as EFM (Emergency Factory Made) housing, using some POW labour, as a temporary solution to the anticipated housing crisis.  However, as the Independent reported, after 70 years, a number of those homes were still in use, and some have even been heritage listed.


A preserved EFM dwelling

"...Prefabricated houses were put up across Britain as a temporary solution to the post-Second World War housing crisis and were meant to last no more than a decade. Yet for 70 years, thousands of families have continued to call them home. Dubbed palaces for the people, they offered not only cheap rent, but unheard-of luxury to men returning from the war and to their families, who had been bombed out of their homes during the Blitz and ended up in overcrowded houses with no electricity or plumbing..."

Nye Bevan’s building program reached a peak of 227 600 new homes in 1948.  During the subsequent decade, future Conservative Prime Minister Harold Macmillan assumed the housing portfolio unencumbered by other responsibilities.

Clement Attlee said of Macmillan;

“….By far the most radical man I've known in politics wasn't on the Labour side at all—Harold Macmillan. If it hadn't been for the war he'd have joined the Labour Party. If that had happened Macmillan would have been Labour Prime Minister, and not me…”

It is perhaps no surprise then, that as Housing Minister, MacMillan stepped up building to 300 000 new homes per year, although he was not as hamstrung by post war labour and material shortages that had so frustrated Nye Bevan.  But policies under the MacMillan stewardship, critics argued, would lead  to the adoption of high-rise housing estates, which would have major social implications for future governments, and for the country.

The balance of trade remained an issue.   In 1948 Britain imported just over 2 billion pounds worth of goods but exported only about 1.7 billion pounds.  The coal industry, the nationalisation of which had been accepted in a politically bipartisan manner and upon which manufacturing and commerce depended, struggled to maintain sufficient production to meet demand. The struggling nationalised industry was beset with financial losses, inefficiencies and absenteeism, despite efforts by the nationalised Coal Board to improve workers’ wages and conditions and step up production.

The Labour majority was all but wiped out in the General Election of 1950, with the incumbents holding on with a precarious majority of just 5 seats in the Commons.  Disunity was emerging within Government's own ranks and the Liberal Party was calling for controls on spending, limits to nationalisations, the application of food subsidies based on need, and the curbing of an expanding bureaucracy and civil service.  The Liberals, in their 1950 manifesto, asserted that;

"...Crisis upon crisis comes upon us, because we are living beyond our means.  The Liberal Party believes passionately in full employment in a free society, and in maintaining the social services, but unless we practice thrift and get full production, lower rations and mass unemployment are inescapable when the American aid ends..."


Follow the link for a slightly different breakdown of opposition seats.   You can also follow further links to election manifestos and other information;


The Government was finding it increasingly difficult to fund the mounting costs of their welfare programmes along with the demands of defence and re-armament in an increasingly uncertain Cold War environment.  Britain was at war again, with troops deployed to Korea. Inflation continued to outstrip wages growth; the TUC (Trades Unions Congress)  initially agreed to support a freeze but then wavered and allowed individual unions to pursue their own individual wages policies.

In 1950, Chancellor of the Exchequer Stafford Cripps resigned for health reasons.  In April 1951,  Lord Privy Seal Ernie Bevin died, just over a month after ceding the position of Foreign Secretary to Herbert Morrison.  

The decision to apply charges to some NHS benefits, including spectacles and dentures, in order to increase defence spending and step up rearmament in the context of the Korean War, was too much for Labour’s left faction, and key resignations,  including Aneurin Bevan and future Prime Minister Harold Wilson, further destabilised the tottering government. Prime Minister Attlee had no choice but to go to the Country and an election was called within 6 months.

Labour were able to come up with a compelling manifesto, in terms of both domestic and foreign policy, despite divisions within the party.  However the practicalities of Cold War rearmament, arming to save the peace; funding the UK's role in the Korean War, arguably hollow claims of control over the cost of living, and the ability to maintain their health and welfare funding all at the same time, probably seemed too good to be true.






"...In spite of the difficulties of the post-war situation, people of the country are better off than before.  I get a great many letters on this subject, and the number saying better are twenty to one..."

Clement Attlee on campaign, 1951.






During the years of Conservative Opposition, Chruchill had rebuilt his own brand as an international statesman, going some way toward burying the partisan ideological warrior the country had witnessed during the 1945 campaign.  In 1946, he gave a speech in Fulton, Missouri, during which he first coined the phrase iron curtain;

A measure of the global esteem in which Churchill was held was the fact that President Truman flew in to personally introduce Churchill’s address to Fulton’s Westminster College. 

“…From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the Continent. Behind that line lie all the capitals of the ancient states of Central and Eastern Europe. Warsaw, Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Budapest, Belgrade, Bucharest and Sofia, all these famous cities and the populations around them lie in what I must call the Soviet sphere, and all are subject in one form or another, not only to Soviet influence but to a very high and, in many cases, increasing measure of control from Moscow…”

In 1951, Churchill campaigned on his foreign policy
credentials to good effect and sought a mandate for the de-nationalisation of the iron and steel industries.    He promised to make other nationalised industries more efficient, cut expenditure and waste, and assured the continuation of Labour’s Welfare State, and of their employment and housing reconstruction programmes. He declared the extent of the policy of nationalisation of industries a failure, and contended that many workers were worse off, and represented less effectively by their trade unions, now that their employers were the government, rather than private industry. With the country demoralised and frustrated over seemingly unending rationing and economic upheavals at home and dangerous trouble abroad, the electorate chose Churchill’s Conservatives, who took the Commons with a small but workable majority of 17.


Follow this link for more information about the 1951 General Election;

General Election 1951- UK Political Info


BBC Politics suggested that, with the Labour Government's promises largely  put into practice, the Party found itself directionless, its hold on power unstable, and its foreign and domestic policies faltering.  Read more here;


The Conservatives would retain power until 1964.  The period between the end of World War Two and the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979 would be  shared more or less equally, on and off, between the two major parties, both of which would stick  loosely to the Post War Consensus of Keynesian demand management economics, the Mixed Economy, and the funding of the Welfare State.  

But after something of a false start in 1970, in 1979 a totally new way of Government would emerge.   Old Labour would disappear into the political wilderness forever, and a new version would not surface for the best part of two decades.  The new late 1990s Labour would be a long way from the party of Attlee, Bevan,  Cripps and Morrison,  and, in fact, would owe more to Thatcherism than to any of Labour’s three post-war Prime Ministers.

The Conservative, or Dry, wing of the Tory Party would dominate under Margaret Thatcher, an ambitious and strong leader, who would ensure that political weakness and a lack of resolve would not stall Conservative economic reform.  Baldwin’s softer New (One-Nation)  Conservatism, along with Heath’s willingness to embrace parts of the Consensus doctrine,  would be a thing of distant memory, and  economic management prioritising the fight against inflation over the quest for full employment, would be emerge with a new name: Thatcherism.




1945-1951
Clement Attlee
LABOUR
1951-1955
 Winston Churchill
CONSERVATIVE
1955-1957
 Anthony Eden
CONSERVATIVE
1957-1963
Harold MacMillan
CONSERVATIVE
1963-1964
Alec Douglas-Home
CONSERVATIVE
1964-1970
Harold Wilson
LABOUR
1970-1974
Edward Heath
CONSERVATIVE
1974-1976
Harold Wilson
LABOUR
1976-1979
James Callaghan
LABOUR
1979-1990
Margaret Thatcher
CONSERVATIVE


Here are some of the more significant achievements of the Attlee Government in summary;
Education Act 1944; Although an initiative of the wartime coalition, much of the act was put into practice  under Labour Education Minister Ellen Wilkinson; including universal free secondary education, raising the school leaving age to 15, affording  accelerated opportunities for ex-service men and women to train as teachers, and the introduction of free school milk.

National Health Service Act 1946; Established a regime of free healthcare on the basis of need rather than on the payment of fees or insurance premiums.

National Insurance Act 1946; consolidated social security, in which persons of working age paid a weekly contribution and in return, were entitled to benefits when they could no longer work through age or injury.

Coal Industry Nationalisation Act 1946, Electricity Act 1947, Transport Act 1947;  the coal industry, electricity utilities, railways and long-distance haulage operations were all brought under State ownership.

Town and Country Planning Act 1947; legislated the necessity of obtaining planning permission for land development; ownership alone would no longer be sufficient.

The British Nationality Act 1948; created the status of Citizen of the United Kingdom and Colonies (CUKC) as the national citizenship of the emerging Commonwealth.

Children Act 1948: established a consolidated childcare service, reforming services providing care to deprived and orphaned children.


Nurseries and Child-Minders Regulation Act 1948; paid child-minders would now be registered and regulated, with an inspection regime in place to check that their methods and facilities met basic minimum standards.

Establishment of Legal Aid in 1948;  "The charter of the little man to the British Courts of Justice.  The bill will open the doors of the courts freely to all persons who wish to avail themselves of British justice without regard to question of their wealth or ability to pay." (Attorney General,  Sir Hartley Shawcross)

 Reference:

   Statistics from archived Collier's Weekly and verified by other sources where possible
  BBC documentaries (50th and 70th Anniversary of the NHS) and other reporting, including Great Lives and Witness.  Also BBC Politics 97
    Spartacus Educational
    Encylopaedia Brittanica
    Dan Snow’s History Hit  (Online)
    Works and commentary by Antony Beevor and Yasmin Khan as credited
    Ukpolitics.info and gov.uk, also  Anthony Broxton's Tides of History
    FDR Presidential Library
    The Independent; Also Facebook pages- Nye Bevan News and Working Class History

Text, charts and graphs, (Except unemployment/inflation chart which is public domain)  by George Fairbrother.  

Pie charts were constructed from numbers sourced from online archived Collier’s’ Weekly, originally written  contemporaneously  with the events.  Those keen enough to follow the links to other sources might note a slight difference in numbers applied to the Conservative side, most probably due to allied parties and independents being classified by allegiance rather than specifically to Party.

All images are public domain, except for the EFM pre-fab home, credited to Deb. 
Link to Source 

Photo of Nye Bevan at the bedside from Tides of History

If any copyright or attribution has been omitted in error, please advise  and it will be rectified immediately.






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