1951 marked the end of Clement Attlee’s post-war Labour government and the return to power of the Conservatives under Winston Churchill. There were other ‘turning point years’ include the 1979 start of the ‘Thatcher revolution, and 1997 with its landslide victory for Tony Blair and New Labour. Following the Attlee legacy were more than twenty years of rising prosperity and of ‘consensus politics’, a period when both the main parties followed similar centrist politics. Attlee led Labour’s first-ever majority government and introduced the welfare state. The Liberals had ceased to be a major party in the 1920s.
The economic situation of Britain in 1951 was contradictory. The war had badly damaged the infrastructure. Britain was saddled with massive debts. Pre-war markets had been lost. The old staple industries had been in decline long before the war. From 1945, Britain had needed massive financial aid from the United States in order to begin economic recovery. Key industries such as coal, steel and the railways had just been nationalised by the Attlee government, partly in the hope of bringing faster modernisation. Rationing was only just coming to an end and many consumer goods were scarce and expensive.
Conversely, Britain was still one of the leading economic powers in the world. British companies were at the forefront of key sectors such as oil, chemicals, tobacco, shipping and financial markets. There was considerable optimism about Britain’s economic prospects in 1951, especially as certain European competitors, like Germany, had suffered even worse devastation. The British economy after 1951 remained a mixture of growth and decline. Living standards rose almost continuously. Britain’s economic growth was to prove slower and more patchy than that of the United States, Japan and the emerging markets of the EEC. British governments, both Labour and Conservative, repeatedly attempted to launch ambitious programmes for economic modernisation to increase investment, to improve productivity and competitiveness but their hopes were never fully realised.
Many people in the Britain of 1951 were ready for social change. There was a strong sense that the post-war world had to be made better than what had gone before: a fairer Britain, fewer economic inequalities, with less rigid class distinctions and wider educational opportunities.
Many people in Britain were self-consciously proud of having ‘won the war’. Britain was one of five permanent members on the security council of the United Nations and a key ally of the United States in the Cold War.
Britain had emerged from the world war weakened and impoverished. Britain’s role as a colonial power had actually been declining since the First World War; the decision of the Attlee government to withdraw from India in 1947 symbolised Britain’s inability to maintain its former imperial status.
Militarily and economically, Britain could not compete with the new American and Soviet superpowers. It was the sudden realisation of Britain’s weakness in February 1947 that led to the launching of the Marshall Plan to rebuild war-torn Europe, including Britain, through American aid.
As the European Coal and Steel Community took shape in 1950 and 1951, European politicians seemed eager for Britain to be involved. The opportunity was ignored. The eyes of British leaders, of both main parties, were fixed on the world beyond Europe, on the ‘special relationship’ with the United States, on the Empire and Commonwealth.
In a speech in New York in 1952, Anthony Eden, the Conservative prime minister, explained the unenthusiastic attitude towards joining the European federation: ‘Our thoughts move across the seas to the many communities in which our people play their part…without it we should be no more than some millions of people living on an island off the coast of Europe’. The post-war illusions were shattered by the 1956 Suez-crisis. Britain’s place in the post-war world was shaped by the decisions to go ahead with Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent and to stand aside from the progress that led to the formation of the EEC.