The Britain of 1951 was moulded by its recent history. The great depression of the 1930s was seen in 1951 as an awful time of misery and mass unemployment, never to be repeated. The world war was regarded in 1951 as a ‘good war’ in which the nation had come together in heroic national effort and shared sacrifice. The rebuilding of post-war Britain under Attlee’s Labour government, above all the establishment of the welfare state. Public and political opinion in Britain believed that never again should there be anything like the Hungry Thirties or the terrible war that followed. Victory in the war must lead a to a better, fairer Britain in the future. This was the basis of the so-called ‘post-war consensus’.
The Attlee government transferred a workforce of 2.3 million people into nationalised industries and took the first steps towards changing an empire into a commonwealth.
Historians with a social democratic outlook, like Professor Peter Hennessey, regard the Attlee legacy as the foundation stone of all that is best about post-war Britain. Even one of Mrs Thatcher’s chancellors (and certainly no socialist), Nigel Lawson is willing to give Attlee credit for setting the direction Britain would follow for a generation. In the post-war consensus, Labour and Conservative parties alike were committed to Keynesian economic policies of high public spending in order to keep unemployment under control.
Left-wing socialists regarded the Attlee years as a lost opportunity, a failure to bring about true equality.
A right-wing view of the post-war consensus is that it was a mistaken policy - that the Conservative Party should have broken with it much sooner and prevented Britain from becoming a ‘nanny state’ overly dependent on welfarism.
Key reasons for the long dominance of the Conservatives after 1951:
The reorganisation of the party machine after the dislocation caused by the war and the shock defeat of 1945. Lord Woolton, the party chairman, and R.A. Butler as a policy expert took leading roles in this process.
The infighting between Bevanites and Gaitskellites that so badly weakened the Labour Party in opposition.
The Conservatives recognised the extent of public approval for the legacy of the Attlee government - key.
While the Conservatives were quick to denationalise the steel industry, already in process by the Attlee government, and road transport in 1951, they left the rest of Labour’s nationalisations alone.
Other key themes included:
The legacy of national unity and cooperation left by the war; in the wartime, coalition ministers from all the major parties had shared the responsibility for handling domestic policies.
The idea of what Nigel Lawson called ‘big government’; many Conservatives were convinced of the need for government intervention in social and economic policies.
The importance of maintaining full employment; the bitter memories of the 1930s had been a key issue in the 1945 Labour landslide. Conservatives were very anxious to avoid being seen once again as the ‘party of the mass unemployment’.
The importance of the trade unions; the unions had become more powerful and exerted more influence both during the war and also because key industries like coal and the railways had been nationalised. Conservatives wanted a cooperative relationship with the trade union ‘barons’.
The popularity of Labour’s welfare reforms, especially the NHS; many Conservatives had changed their minds and were much less hostile to the welfare state.
The political arithmetic in parliament; the Conservative majority was slender. The Conservative leadership did not feel in a strong enough position to set about dismantling the Attlee legacy, even if they had wanted to. This realism did not please the party faithful at grassroots level, many of whom opposed the consensus all along. They believed that the Conservatives could have achieved more during this period.
Churchill was an old man (80 when he finally retired in 1955) with many serious ailments. Politics was almost a part-time job; and Churchill’s main interests had always been in other things. He thought of himself as an international statesman. He spent more time abroad, meeting world leaders or relaxing at his favourite holiday spots than in Downing Street. Day-to-day government was often left with the acting Prime Minister, Anthony Eden, and key ministers such as Rab Butler, the Chancellor, and Harold Macmillan.
The Conservative government was lucky in its timing, coming to power just as the economic recovery was beginning to show through. From 1952, most economic indicators pointed upwards. Men’s weekly wages were going up (£8.30 in 1951 rose to £15.35 ten years later). There were massive increases in private savings. There was a boom in car-ownership. Home-ownership increased, helped by easy access to cheap mortgages. Harold Macmillan, as housing minister, fulfilled the election pledge of getting the construction of new homes above 300,000 per years, achieving this one year earlier than planned. Macmillan’s pledge was a powerful weapon with voters, many of whom had been waiting for new homes for many years. However, Attlee’s government had already taken similar steps - a million houses were built by 1951, of which four out of five were built by the state. Attlee’s government had also built increasing numbers of council houses, 55,400 in 1946 rising to 217,000 in 1948.
The new towns, planned by Labour in the 1940s, such as Stevenage, Crawley, Corby and Cwmbran were rapidly expanding. Farmers did very well economically, encouraged by the continuation of generous state subsidies. Food rationing ended completely in 1954. However, rationing was also gradually relaxed during 1949 and 1950. Bread rationing was ended in July 1948, clothes rationing finished in March 1949 and a month later saw the freedom to buy sweets and chocolate.
The most obvious sign of the new affluence was the surge in ownership of consumer goods - televisions, washing machines, refrigerators and new furniture bought on hire purchase. A visible symbol of the affluence was the advertising industry, especially after ITV launched the age of commercial broadcasting in 1955. In the run-up to the 1955 election, Butler was able to boost Conservative election prospects with a ‘give-away’ budget that provided the middle classes with £134 million in tax cuts.
Labour cabinet minister, Jay, D., referred to this period at ‘the easy years’.
It was a relaxed and low-key election campaign. The national press was overwhelmingly in favour of the Conservatives. Most voters were happy with their rising living standards. The public mood could be described as the ‘feelgood factor’. Eden was returned as prime minister with a healthy Conservative majority of 70. Even Attlee had not expected Labour to win in 1955 and he retired to be replaced by Hugh Gaitskell. It is worth noting, however, that 1955 was not a crushing defeat for Labour, whose share of the vote held up well at 46.4 % in relation to the Conservatives 49.7 %.
There were high hopes for Eden with one of his party colleagues, Lord Hailsham, calling him ‘a prime minister who represented contemporary manhood, rather than the pre-First World War generation’. There was optimism about Eden’s progressive ideas in domestic affairs, his belief in a property-owning democracy and industrial partnership. However, most of Eden’s political career had been in foreign affairs and he had little direct experience of domestic politics.
Ironically, the cause of Eden’s downfall was foreign affairs. His decision to launch military action against the new nationalist leader of Egypt, Colonel Nasser, in October 1956 ended in disaster. The Anglo-French military operation had to be called off in humiliating circumstances with Britain being virtually commanded to withdraw by American pressure.
Suez was a diplomatic and military fiasco, a turning point for Britain’s illusions of imperial power. Eden suddenly seemed weak in the area where he was experienced and came under heavy attack from the Labour Party in parliament and from sections of the national press, notably the Manchester Guardian. In denying his collusion with France and Israel, Eden had lied to the House of Commons. His prestige was badly tarnished.
Suez also split the Conservative Party. The Colonial Minister, Anthony Nutting, resigned from the cabinet. There was a rebellion by nearly forty Conservative MPs. The chief whip, Edward Heath, who was responsible for keeping the party in line was himself strongly opposed to Eden’s actions. Worst of all for the government, the pressure from the United States had exposed Britain’s financial weakness and started a run on the pound. Recognition of Britain’s vulnerable financial position led the Chancellor, Harold Macmillan, to lead the campaign within Eden’s cabinet for Britain to abort the Suez invasion.
Eden never recovered from Suez, although it was on the grounds of serious ill health that he resigned early in 1957. The Conservative Party, however, recovered with remarkable speed. Harold Macmillan emerged as prime minister, despite the fact that he had originally been a prominent ‘hawk’ in favour of the Suez intervention. Party unity was restored, without lasting splits. Economic prosperity continued to gain approval from the voters. In 1959, Macmillan, by now named ‘Supermac’, led the Conservatives to another comfortable election victory.
It seemed surprising that Harold Macmillan should establish such a strong political grip so swiftly in 1957, but there were several factors working in his favour:
There was the continuing affluence of the consumer society, keeping voters contented.
The Labour Party under High Gaitskell had internal problems of its own.
There was also the remarkable ability of the Conservative Party to manage changes of leadership without too much blood being spilt in power struggles.
Macmillan’s main rival, R.A. Butler, did not have enough support among the party rank-and-rile.
The main cause of the crisis, Anthony Eden, had disappeared from the political scene with brutal suddenness; the crisis disappeared with him. While Suez hung over British foreign policy for the next fifty years, Suez hardly made a dent in Conservative political dominance at home.