Britain since 1945 1.

Publié le par jean-paul Revauger



Great Britain Since 1945 : Political and Social History.


  1. The Legacy of the Second World War.
  2. The Post-war settlement
  3. Britain under the Conservatives: 1952-1964
  4. Labour at work: 1964-1970




  1. The legacy of the Second World War.


    1. Politics
    2. The new functions of the State
    3. The social scene
    4. Britain’s international standing.


    1. Politics.

In political terms, the Second World War represents a watershed, which enables us to consider the inter war years as period of transition. Before the First World War, politics were structured  by the opposition between the Liberals and the Conservatives, sometimes still referred to as the “Tories”. The Liberals gradually lost the status of the main opponents of the Conservatives in the I920’s and 1930’s, and were often divided, since their leading members sided with either the Conservatives , or the Labour Party. Labour was able to form two short lived governments, in 1924 and 1929, which relied on Liberal support in the House of Commons for their survival, but the two experiments were brief, and the last one ended rather ignominiously: the Labour Prime Minister, Ramsay Mac Donald, under pressure from the Bank of England , defected from his own camp, and agreed to form a “national government” under the political control of the Conservatives. Labour had therefore remained marginalized in British politics, throughout the I920’s and 1930’s,  in spite of the numerical strength of the working class.


The consequences of the war time coalition government.


The war made it politically necessary for the Conservative Prime Minister Winston Churchill to broaden the political base of his government, and to include all political and social forces. Labour was entrusted with essential government departments, such as the Ministry of Labour. The Minister in charge was Ernest Bevin, the leader of the Transport and General Workers’ Union, (which represented, among other categories, the dockers, a very militant section of the working class). Among the Labour ministers stood Clement Attlee, who had been the Labour leader since the demise of Mac Donald in 1931.  The Labour Party was recognized as a legitimate player on the political field. The stigma resulting from  its social origin was no longer strong enough to exclude it from office as a matter of principle. A number a individual Liberal leaders played an important part, but the party was no longer a political force seriously to be reckoned with. By the end of the war, it was clear the two major contenders for power were the Conservatives and the Labour Party.

            The Conservatives themselves were in a rather uneasy position. Winston Churchill had become Prime Minister, because of his clear stance vis a vis Nazi Germany throughout the 1930’s, but the bulk of the Conservative Party had been proved wrong by history. The leadership, with the support of Conservative opinion, had followed a policy of appeasement in the I930’s, and had grossly underestimated the threat Nazism represented for all democracies, and for British interests. British Conservatives believed Hitler could be encouraged to expand eastward, towards the Soviet Union, and would leave Western countries alone. This policy had led Britain to  refuse support for the Spanish Republic, and to accept the Munich agreement which enabled Hitler to expand into Czechoslovakia. Churchill had remained isolated, within the Conservatives, since he alone considered Nazism as the most serious threat. He was therefore immensely popular after I940, when he was proved right by Hitler’s offensive , but the other Conservative leaders of the I930’s were eliminated from the scene, and  were replaced by a younger generation (RA Butler, Harold Macmillan, Anthony Eden) who was prepared to accept the social changes brought about by the war. Although the Prime Minister was a Conservative, the Conservative Party was therefore in a weaker position than one might have thought.


    1. The new functions of the State.


The war brought about extremely significant changes.  Britain was traditionally the country of free trade, of the free market. Market laws were supposed to be unfettered, and the functions of the State had so far been limited to the bare minimum. Conservatives were influenced by the ideas of 18th century philosopher Edmund Burke, a traditionalist who also shared the ideas of liberals as far as economics were concerned. The Left, whether it supported the Liberals or the Labour Party, was ideologically dominated by liberalism, which represented the matrix within which the Labour Party evolved and grew.

            Practical considerations led to a momentous increase in the functions of the State during the Second World War, which took Britain very far form its original liberal principles. Free trade was no longer an option, since all imports had to be protected by the Royal Navy. Huge convoys crossed the Atlantic, and attempted  to dodge the attacks of German and Italian  submarines. Companies were not in a position to import whatever they wished, and resources were allocated by the port directors according to the needs of the defence industry, which had top priority. Besides, imports were not paid for, but payment was guaranteed by the US government, under the “Lend Lease agreement”, which stipulated that US suppliers would be paid by the US government for goods shipped to the UK, and that Britain would pay back at the end of the war. Market principles were therefore largely ignored.

            The old financial principles, based on thrift and the reduction of debts, were swept aside. The leading light of economics, John Maynard Keynes, had so far been an  influential expert, but was only officially endorsed until the war. His major work,  General Theory, had been published in 1936. His views, in the I930’s,  were based on the idea that the reduction of unemployment  ought to be the chief priority of any government. This could be achieved if the State decided to reflate the economy and expand popular consumption, by reducing taxation, reducing interest rates, and commandeering public works, as FD Roosevelt did in the US during the New Deal. States could, in some circumstances, afford to run a large deficit, provided this enabled the stimulation of demand, leading in turn to the rise of production, of profits, of investment, and of wages. The psychological taboo of indebtedness was therefore broken. In the early 1940’s, it was indeed repeatedly broken, not in order to reduce unemployment, which disappeared very fast, but in order to fight the war. The financial function of the State during the war consisted largely in absorbing whatever financial means were to be found in the country, and using every possible means to obtain loans from Britain’s former colonies and current allies. The country’s financial resources were entirely drained to that effect. The right of individuals or companies to invest, save or spend as they wished , which is supposed to feature very high in the definition of “anglo saxon capitalism” was swept aside. The “rich” were deprived of the right to enjoy their fortune.

The rest of society was also under the control of the State. Those individuals who were not conscripted into the Army, Navy or Air Force were forced to work. Employees lost the right to change their employer, unless they obtained permission from the State. Women, up to the age of 5O, had to join the labour force. People accepted this, and demand was so great and varied that everyone found a channel for their energy. The use of force was not necessary.

Consumers themselves felt the influence of the State. In order to save raw materials, “utility schemes” were set up: the designs and materials of clothes, furniture and a number of appliances were chosen by the State. The clothes were known as somewhat lacking in terms of  charm or fashion, but as good value. Recipes for meatless shepherds’ pies and other government-sponsored delicacies were described as loathsome, and became the butt of countless jokes. Vegetarianism was officially condoned.


C. The social scene.


The inclusive strategy of Winston Churchill, which led him to integrate Labour Ministers in his government and cabinet, also applied to the social scene. This was only partly deliberate, and resulted also, to a large extent, from economic and technological developments far beyond the reach of government. Britain had always been an extremely divided society, as a result of economic inequality and of the development of the free market. Poverty before the war was stigmatised, and the Protestant ethic dominated society. Success was evidence of goodness, not something to be ashamed of. God rewarded the elect, who were also expected to invest wisely the fruit of their labour, and not squander it or hide it away. Conversely, poverty was evidence of lack of support from On High, and of a moral fault. The poor only had themselves to blame, and were not seen as the victims of economic developments, contrary to what is often the case in different cultures. This world view is described in Max Weber’s master work: The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.

            During the war, society became more united practically, and psychologically. Economic hardship was experienced by a lot of people, including the middle classes. The little old ladies living in Margate, who were made homeless because their houses were bombed, could not be blamed for their plight. The eradication of poverty became a government policy, and came to be seen as an important goal. Londoners were, briefly, evacuated during the Blitz, and working class children were sometimes sent to the more affluent countryside, where people  discovered their existence and poverty. Besides, the common experience of life in the armed forces brought together people from different social classes, who would never have met each other otherwise.

In practice, the wages of industrial workers increased rapidly, when the income derived from financial investments stagnated, and taxation increased. The life-style and living standards of the qualified industrial worker became the norm. This represented a major change, and paved the way for the labour victory of 1945. A few years later, this would also bring about the frustrations of the middle class and the sarcasms of many post war writers and journalists (Evelyn Waugh …)

            Industrial relations were rather peaceful, with one notable exception, coal mining, where significant strikes broke out. Industrial relations were a major concern for the government, since they had become extremely problematic during the 1st World War. The then Prime Minister, Lloyd George, had been forced to negotiate with striking engineers in Glasgow in 1917, at a time when the production of munitions was vital. It was felt necessary to avoid a similar situation. Trade Union leaders were absorbed in government and in the administrative machinery running the country. Specific institutions were created in industry, called the “Joint Consultation Committees” . They were made up of employees, supervisory staff and even management, and discussed informally ways of improving production. They were not used for bargaining over pay or working conditions, but their goal was to increase the production of weapons and munitions. Discussions took place outside hierarchical relationships, and the anticipated side effect was a reduction  of the hostility between employees and employers.

Government policy was also conducive to more equality. Poverty eradication policies led to the abolition of the Means Test, a practice which was extremely humiliating for the poor. The Means Test, invented by philanthropic organizations in the 19th century, consisted in “testing people’s means”, i.e. checking their financial situation before assistance was offered, such as unemployment benefits. In the aftermath of the 1931 financial crisis, the Means Test, by then an official policy,  had been systematized, and inspectors were sent round to people’s homes and neighbourhoods, to make sure claimants did not have an undeclared job, or supposedly single women did not have a man about the house.

A minimum wage was established  in a number of trades, such as catering, where Unions were too weak to be in a position to obtain satisfactory wages through bargaining. The idea of a minimum wage, which became widely accepted in France after the war, was, until Tony Blair became PM in 1997, largely alien to British culture. Whereas State intervention in social regulation is normal in France, this was not at all the case in the UK. Even the Unions did not want a minimum wage, since they felt it would probably be lower than what they could obtain through bargaining. The creation of a minimum wage during the war therefore reflects the new acceptance of State responsibility in social matters. 

            Equality became a key word in war time political rhetoric, an extraordinary evolution in a country like Britain. Even the Church of England, a rather conservative institution (nicknamed “the Tory party at prayer”) was critical of the social consequences of the free market , and the Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple, described the ideal society he advocated as “ a welfare state”. The term was positively connotated, contrary to its (terrible) French  translation, “Etat providence”, which suggests that people tend to rely too much on public assistance.

Indeed, in 1941, a commission of enquiry was appointed on the subject of “social insurance”. This led to a report, published in 1942, the “Beveridge report”. William Beveridge, who chaired the commission and was the driving force behind it, was a liberal, and had been involved in the first social reforms introduced before the First World War. Beveridge largely exceeded his commission, since the government only wanted to know about existing arrangements, whereas Beveridge made far reaching recommendations. What is significant is the enthusiastic response of the public. The government procrastinated about the proposals, and Churchill himself, a dyed-in-the-wool conservative, had very strong reservations. This is probably the reason for the Labour victory in 1945, since the Labour Party claimed its support for the proposals. The Beveridge report was so popular it was used as a propaganda tool against Nazism, showing occupied Europe what kind of society the Allies were fighting for. Translated copies were parachuted over France, and distributed to the Resistance networks. The Free French in London were also enthusiastic, and the Sécurité Sociale, created after the war, owed a lot to Beveridge. It became an essential component of the European social model , and represented both a clean break with the past and a synthesis of the hopes and goals of antifascist fighters.

With hindsight, the key issue is to assess how revolutionary Beveridge really was. He advocated a “universal scheme of social insurance”. The insurance principle would tend to prove that , in fact, he remained within a fairly orthodox financial framework: “we cannot spend more than we earn, and social expenditure should be prudently managed”. This is put forward by those historians who tend to consider Beveridge as a rather moderate reformer. On the other hand, the principle of universalism was rather revolutionary. The idea was to abolish the means test for ever, but this proved overoptimistic, since, in practice,  the level of benefits was low, and insufficient to keep people from falling into poverty: many new benefits were created throughout the 1950’s,  and were means tested. According to Beveridge, people would receive help according to their needs, and would contribute according to their means. Social policy would not be a market, or an opportunity for charitable deeds. The poor would no longer be stigmatised, and would obtain support as of right, as a citizenship right. The level of benefits would not be proportional to people’s former contribution, contrary to the principles of the other welfare system created in Europe in the late 19th century, the bismarckian system, based on people’s occupation, and also influential in France. (The mind boggling complexity of the French system is due to the fact it includes both bismarckian and beveridgian principles: it is a hybrid). In a Beveridgian system, the middle classes would also receive whatever care was needed, but would contribute through taxation and national insurance contributions. Beveridge believed the system should be financed mostly through national insurance contributions. This proves he intended to keep the redistributive principle within very narrow limits. Whereas income tax is both proportional and progressive, and increases in percentage as people’s income increases, national security contributions, as the “cotisations sociales” in France, are merely proportional, and do not increase in percentage. Besides, they can be capped. Over a certain ceiling, they do not increase any more. This system is very advantageous for the middle classes, since their financial contribution is limited. A system based on tax is more egalitarian.  Beveridge’s plan can therefore be considered as the basis for a social compromise between the poor and the relatively well off section of the wage earning classes. The “middle class” does contribute financially to the system, but only to a limited extent. In return for this contribution, they obtain good quality services, in terms of health and education, free of charge. This can be opposed to the social model built up in the United States after the war, where welfare was limited to the needs of the very poor,  taxation remained low, and the section of the population who was not considered as poor was not given free access to services, in particular in the fields of health and higher education. The American social compromise was based on different principles: relatively low taxation, high wages, and expensive services. Beveridge can be considered as  one of the inspirers of the European social model. At the heart of the compromise lies naturally the quality of services. Should the middle classes find the social services inefficient, they would withdraw support from the social deal, and vote for parties who opposed it. From the Second World War until the mid 1970’s, the social compromise functioned satisfactorily, and Britain’s Welfare State was a source of inspiration for the whole world, and the real jewel in the British crown . After the mid I970’s, the quality of services declined, at the time taxation was increasing. This brought about a crisis, the end of the compromise, and the rise of a new model of regulation, introduced from 1979 onward by Margaret Thatcher.

            Recent feminists critics of Beveridge have pointed out that the scheme remained sexist, and reinforced women’s exclusion from the labour force. People were computed and integrated in the system on the basis of the occupation of the head of household, in most cases a male bread winner. In the contemporary situation, with a vast number of single person households and single person families (mostly headed by women), this is no longer appropriate.

For Beveridge, the State’s responsibility was to destroy the “five giants”: disease, want, squalor, ignorance and “idleness”. This referred to health care, national assistance for the poor, housing, education and unemployment policy. It is significant unemployment was called “idleness”, which tends to prove Beveridge’s frame of mind was that of the protestant ethic. He many ways, he was still a man of his time, and he considered the unemployed as to some extent responsible for their plight.

            The government had other matters on its hands in I942, and one had to wait until I946 for the plan to be implemented. One aspect only of the Welfare State was tackled during the war: education.

            A conservative minister, RA Butler, prepared an Education Act, which was adopted in 1944. This made provision for the creation of national system of free and compulsory secondary education for all. This was new, since, contrary to France, there was no real systematic provision of secondary education in the 1930’s, and, in many areas, the working class did not have access to secondary schools. The Butler Act was therefore a considerable achievement, and widened opportunities for gifted working class children.

            It created a “tripartite system”, whereby children were to be assessed at the age of 11, and take an examination called the “11+”. They would then be channelled into either a “grammar school” for the most intellectual, or a “secondary modern school”, or a “technical school”. Throughout the 1950’s, only a small minority of very bright working class children made it through the system, and obtained places in grammar schools. However, this was significant, and, in the context of economic growth and social mobility, the “meritocratic system” did make society more democratic. However, only a small minority of children were concerned, and, by the 1960’s, a lot of socialists were opposing the system, on the grounds that, at the age of 11, one only assessed the children’s cultural and social backgrounds and their parents’ motivation. Therefore, it was only logical that most grammar school pupils should belong to the middle classes. Butler’s tripartite system can therefore be considered as the perfect example of the social compromise between the working class and the middle class. Both classes benefited from the reform: the working class obtained access to education, whereas this was denied to them in the past. The middle class had access to very good quality education , free of charge, and only mixed with a minority of very bright working class children, who could be absorbed and offered promotion.

            In the 1960’s, the Labour government exerted pressure to replace the tripartite system with a single school, where children of different abilities would be mixed the “comprehensive school” (the equivalent of the French “collège unique”, adopted in the 1970’s).

            All those reforms did not affect the training of the offspring of the aristocracy and the upper middle class, who went to the inaptly named “Public schools”. They represented ( and still represent) 5% of the population, but obtained a large majority of places at Oxford and Cambridge, thus guaranteeing the perpetuation of upper class rule.


Britain’s international standing.


Britain was one of the few European countries which were not defeated at some point during the Second World War. This naturally provided it with symbolical prestige and political clout. It stood in stark contrast not only with countries which has spawned Nazism or Fascism, but also with those whose institutions and ruling elites had largely collaborated with Nazi Germany through fear, political conviction or lack of judgement, such as France. Political institutions were intact in the UK, and their legitimacy was unquestioned. The democratic principles on which British politics were based had triumphed over the most serious challenge they had ever met.

The cultural and  historical kinship with the United States provided Britain with unparalleled channels of influence in Europe and the rest of the world. War damages were real, but much more limited than in continental Europe. In terms of human losses, they were less extensive than during the First World War (400 000, against 700 000). Germany lost 3 million men, the Soviet Union over 13 million. In spite of German bombings, British industry had functioned day and night at full capacity. By the end of the war, they had enough weapons and munitions to last for several  years.

            However, from a financial and economic point of view, Britain was both ruined and totally dependent on the United States. The Lend Lease agreement was based on the idea of a loan, which would have to be paid back at some point. American imports alone enabled the country to survive not just from a military point of view, but also in terms of food and basic necessities. Britain had borrowed large amounts from its colonies, and sold a lot of its foreign assets.  Its economy was geared towards the production of weapons, and would have to be transformed and reoriented towards the production of consumer goods, which meant that, in the meantime, it would remain dependent on imports, and on loans.


Britain and its colonies.

Its relationships with its former colonies, and the countries it still dominated, changed. Britain was obviously no longer in a position to invest in the administration of colonies, some of which, such as India,  had a very large population and territory. It had become indebted to its colonies, symbolically as well as financially. The psychological impact of the initial Japanese victories on local nationalists was considerable, all over the world, since it showed the white man could, in some circumstances, be defeated. Restlessness was therefore on the increase. The old Empire would have to change.  Britain adopted, even before the end of the war, the American view on the question of the relationship between the dominant capitalist world and its former colonies. This was not the result of conviction, but of a lucid analysis and of a strategic reorientation. Churchill, who had always opposed the decolonisation of India before the war, did not abandon his world view overnight for ethical or philosophical reasons, but as the result of a realistic assessment of Britain’s assets and interests.  The old view, which held since the late 19th century, was based on the  administration of  colonies not inhabited by white, English speaking populations. The latter were granted home rule at an early stage, the former were, in some cases, forced to accept British direct or indirect rule. On the world stage, Britain had  established the Imperial protection system in the 1930’s, i.e. a free trade zone within which exchanged goods were not taxed, but imported ones were. It insulated the British  zone of influence from the rest of the world. Both features would have to be abandoned. America, (a former British colony) was, in those days, opposed to the administration of colonies by foreign powers. It favoured the establishment of independent regimes, who would manage  their own political institutions. Economically, absolute free trade was the goal. American, and, more widely, capitalist influence would be exerted through military alliances, the penetration of local economies would be ensured by free trade, and the local ruling classes would be influenced and turned into allies thanks to the attractiveness of  the American way of life,  education and social model. Britain adopted this view, willy nilly, at a very early stage, when France tried to revert to more traditional forms of domination including direct rule. The price to pay for France was not only the  suspicion of the English speaking world, but two ill fated colonial wars, which nearly brought about the collapse of democracy in the early 1960’s. The shift from “colonialism” to “decolonisation”  which some critics also call  “neo colonialism” was not the result of an enthusiastic conversion, but a strategic, and highly successful move on the part of Britain. The “end of Empire”, even though it might have been traumatic for a number of individuals whose lifestyle was changed, was well ordered, planned and largely successful. This helped Britain remain to this day an influential player, whose influence far exceeds the size of its economy and population.


Britain and Europe.

            Contrary to what is often believed, Britain was not dragged into the cold war by the United States. The anticommunism of the British government predated that of the US. This stood in stark contrast with popular feelings, since, from 1941, and even more strongly after Stalingrad, the Soviet Union  was an extremely popular ally, and the figure of “uncle Joe” (i.e. Joseph Stalin) a familiar icon in the media. Churchill himself as a historian, and   a politician with a very sophisticated  ideological culture, had very clear views on communism. The Trade Union leaders within government, such as Ernest Bevin, had fought communists within their unions since the 1920’s, and had often been denounced and violently criticized by the small but vocal Communist Party. Only a handful of socialist intellectuals  were politically close to the CP, and many among them had been disappointed by the shifts and turns of Soviet policy between 1939 and 1941. The British government distrusted  the Soviet Union, and this appeared at the end of the North African campaign. The USA insisted that Allied troops should land in Sicily, and fight their way North through Italy – which is exactly what they did.  Churchill was dissatisfied with this, and wanted allied troops to land on the Dalmatian coast ,in the area which is now  between Croatia and Montenegro, and head  North through Yugoslavia, Hungary, Czechoslovakia. Thus the division between western and eastern Europe, the “iron curtain” which separated  the capitalist from the soviet zone of influence would have been set several hundred miles to the East.

When a civil war broke out in Greece between the communist-led resistance, and the former supporters of German influence, Britain  opposed its former allies militarily, and helped Greek conservatives return to power. The Greek left was defeated, and many fled to Yugoslavia.

Britain was more of a pioneer than a laggard in the cold war. It chose this role for itself, and eventually managed to persuade the US that, even though it accepted the evolution of its zone of influence, the end of  Empire and decolonisation,  British interests should be protected in the whole world, because the UK was such a useful ally in the struggle against communism. The strategic alliance with the US dominated all theatres.

Britain’s relationship with its European neighbours was naturally of a traditional nature: nation states competed with each other, sometimes on the battle field. The long term goal was the restoration of stability, and, as in 1918, Britain would try to prevent any of its European neighbours from dominating the continent. As Churchill explained in his memoirs , British policy had always consisted in supporting whatever European nation was the weakest: When France was strong, Britain would support Germany, and reverse this policy when the circumstances changed. Thus, Britain refused to support France when it tried to absorb the Saarland (the area across the Rhine from Strasbourg) after the defeat of Germany. The mistakes of the Versailles treaty would not be repeated, and Germany would not be humiliated.  Britain had neither friends  nor enemies in Europe, just national interests, as Palmerston had said in the  19th century.

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