Rebuilding Post-war Britain: Conflicting Views of

the Attlee Governments, 1945-51

by Professor Kevin Jeffreys. University of Plymouth

new perspective. Volume 3. Number 3. March 1998

Summary: Labour won a resounding election victory in 1945, but from 1947 its popularity began to ebb, with economic, financial and foreign policy problems, and it went out of office in 1951. In the meantime it instituted substantial reforms, including the creation of the welfare state and the nationalisation of important industries. How should the party's achievements be judged? Did Labour under Attlee miss a golden opportunity to introduce socialism, or did his governments attempt too much and over-stretch the economy? Kevin Jefferys accepts neither of these alternatives. Instead he praises Labour for making Britain a better place in which to live.

Introduction: Attlee becomes Prime Minister

WINSTON CHURCHILL'S WIFE was said to have remarked that electoral defeat in 1945 was a blessing in disguise. If so, Churchill said, the blessing was extremely well disguised. In spite of his reputation as Britain's saviour during the Second World War, the Conservatives were decisively rejected at the polls. At the last pre-war election, Labour trailed the Tory-dominated National Government by over 200 parliamentary seats. But as victory against Hitler came into sight during 1943-44, Churchill and other leading Conservatives misjudged the mood of the nation. By championing the wishes of millions who hoped to see a 'New Jerusalem' emerging out of the ashes of war, Labour swept into office in 1945 with one of the biggest landslide victories in modern politics. As Churchill licked his wounds, the enigmatic figure of Clement Attlee entered No. 10 Downing Street, at the head of the first-ever Labour government with a clear majority over all other parties combined.

Attlee was much under-rated at the time. He clearly lacked certain qualities. On the 'equivalent of the Richter scale for oratory', Peter Hennessy has written, 'the needle scarcely flickered'. Yet Attlee was a leader with considerable self-belief, and his shrewd common sense and skilful handling of colleagues enabled him to remain at the helm for six gruelling years. He was confronted by desperate economic hardships and found his parliamentary majority greatly reduced in 1950. Yet by the time his second, short-lived administration came to an end in 1951, Attlee could reflect with pride on what had been achieved. The face of domestic politics had been transformed by a new 'post-war settlement': this included a mixed economy containing many nationalised industries; the maintenance of high wartime levels of employment; and the introduction of what became known as the welfare state.

Historians, social scientists, journalists and politicians have debated long and hard about the type of society Britain became in the immediate post-war years. Before assessing some of the conflicting interpretations, we mightfirst set the scene by outlining four broad stages in the history of the Attlee governments.

Full Speed Ahead 1945-46

Britain had lost a quarter of its national wealth in defeating Hitler; without urgent attempts to recover lost exports markets, the government faced a 'financial Dunkirk'. Yet fortified by the negotiation of a controversial American loan, ministers forged ahead with an extensive reform programme, as promised in Labour's election manifesto. The pace of change in the early days was encouraged by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Hugh Dalton, whose economic policy was designed to favour ordinary working-class families, most of whom were still suffering from the privations associated with war. Food subsidies were retained in order to keep down living costs; progressive rates of taxation were kept in place; and regional development was pursued vigorously, so helping to avoid any return to mass unemployment in pre-war industrial blackspots. Under the watchful guidance of Herbert Morrison, Labour's organisational supremo, several major industries were taken into public ownership. In later years the development of a mixed economy was to falter, but in the aftermath of war nationalisation provided a popular means of seeking to redeem industries such as coal mining that had been inefficient and unprofitable in private hands.

Concern about 'our people' - the working classes - also underpinned the rapid introduction of welfare reform. In 1942 the Beveridge Report publicised the need for an overhaul of social security provision. Labour's National Insurance Act of 1946 provided for the first time a comprehensive safety net by bringing together benefits to insure against sickness, unemployment and old age. In housing, Labour faced the task of fitting a population enlarged by a million into properties reduced in number by 700,000 owing to bomb damage. After a slow start, one million new homes were built. Eighty per cent were council houses (rather than being built for private sale) - a clear reversal of Tory priorities in the 1930s. But the jewel in Labour's welfare crown was the National Health Service (NHS), which introduced free access to a wide range of hospital and general practitioner services. The Conservatives voted against the 1946 NHS Act, though opposition dwindled as the popularity of free medical care became obvious, especially among working-class women hitherto unable to insure themselves against ill-health. Labour charges that the Tories would dismantle the welfare state had to be strongly denied. In the words of one Tory MP, 'No one shoots Santa Claus'.

The Crises of 1947

The government's honeymoon period came to an abrupt halt in 1947. In February ministers struggled to cope with the 'winter crisis': fuel shortages compounded by the coldest weather in living memory. As much of industry ground to a temporary halt, the Minister of Fuel and Power, Manny Shinwell, came under attack. 'Shiver with Shinwell' became a potent Tory slogan. In the summer fresh turmoil was created when it became clear that the American loan came with strings attached: the so-called 'convertibility clause' intensified Britain's balance-of-payments problem in trading with the affluent USA and brought sterling under intense pressure on the foreign exchanges. Dalton as Chancellor was forced into a rapid tightening of economic policy - a humiliation from which his reputation never recovered. In November, after controversy over the delivery of his emergency budget, Dalton resigned. In the wake of these recurrent economic difficulties, ministers were faced with a gradual erosion of public confidence. By the autumn the Tories were ahead in the opinion polls for the first time since Attlee came to power. In domestic politics, 1947 thus marked an important point of transition: from the confidence of the early months in power to a less buoyant phase in which ministers spoke of 'consolidating' advances already made.

Stafford Cripps and 'Austerity' 1948-50

The period between 1948 and the general election in 1950 became indelibly associated in the public mind with drabness and petty restrictions. This 'age of austerity' was closely identified with the persona of Dalton's successor, Sir Stafford Cripps, a vegetarian teetotaller noted for cold baths at four in the morning and a prodigious work rate that included three hours at his desk before breakfast. Hoping for similar self-discipline from the nation, Cripps continued with a wartime-style 'fair shares' policy of food rationing. This was in spite of growing resentment among middle-class women over ever-lengthening queues to obtain food of dubious quality, such as the infamous South African fish snoek, which tasted so unappetising that the whole bulk consignment had to be sold off for reprocessing as cat food.

Under Cripps, Labour's domestic policy became more pragmatic. Welfare expenditure was tightened, talk of 'socialist planning' was downplayed, and sterling was devalued in order to make British exports more competitive overseas, above all in American markets. Churchill depicted devaluation as a national humiliation, and the opposition recovered further ground by claiming that scarcities in the shops were entirely the product of government mismanagement. This proved a telling theme at the general election in February 1950, which saw a swing against Labour of 2.9 per cent (compared with 12 per cent against the Conservatives in 1945), so leaving Labour in office but as Dalton said 'without authority or power'. Whereas many working-class areas remained loyal to Labour, the party fared badly in middle-class districts in southern England, where austerity proved to be a prime cause of voter disaffection. Attlee remained in Downing Street, but this time - unlike 1945 - there were no joyous celebrations in the streets.

The Second Attlee Government 1950-1

For several months, the reconstituted government locked capable of confounding those who felt Labour could not survive another full term. But in the summer of 1950 the outbreak of the Korean War proved divisive and contentious. Several Labour MPs felt that the decision to send British troops to combat Communist forces in North Korea smacked of subservience to American wishes. More seriously, the decision to further increase an already large defence budget precipitated the first major split in party ranks since 1945. Nye Bevan as the architect of the NHS refused to accept the case made by Hugh Gaitskell - Chancellor after Cripps resigned on medical grounds - that rearmament required spending cutbacks on the home front. Bevan's resignation over the breaching of the principle of a free health service symbolised an emerging division over future strategy that was to bedevil Labour for years to come. 'The End Is Nye' claimed Tory propagandists, and this proved the case for Attlee when a further small swing was sufficient to bring the Tories back to power at the election of October 1951. Churchill, having spent six fairly leisurely years recuperating from his wartime exploits, could at last leave behind the humiliation of defeat in 1945. Perhaps his wife had been right after all.

Interpreting the Attlee Years

How then have observers and commentators summed up Attlee's legacy? Among the majority of historians, Labour has received a fair trial. The counsel for the defence has included distinguished writers such as Kenneth Morgan, Henry Pelling, Alec Cairncross and Peter Hennessy (see Further Reading below). The Attlee era, so the argument goes, constituted Labour's finest hour. This was a period that went some way towards satisfying wartime demands for a New Jerusalem: the economy recovered from the ravages of war while avoiding a return to mass unemployment, and simultaneously ministers never wavered in their determination to fulfil the Beveridge promise of social protection 'from the cradle to the grave'.

Other historians have been less impressed. For left-wing critics, the immediate post-war years were marked by a betrayal of socialist idealism and by wasted opportunities. Instead of using public backing as evident in 1945 to introduce wholesale socialist change, Labour instead opted for cautious reformism: for example failing to break down entrenched class barriers. In Jim Fyrth's recent collection of fifteen essays the left-wing case for the prosecution receives its most extended treatment yet. The tone for the volume is set by John Saville's introduction, which claims that the Attlee government 'disillusioned its own militants' by achieving only modest reform, so providing a 'springboard for the rich totake off into the profiteers' paradise of the 1950s'.

Correlli Barnett and Industrial Decline

From an alternative critical perspective, Correlli Barnett has attacked Labour for introducing too much rather than too little socialism. In his concern to explain Britain's post-war 'industrial decline', Barnett is highly critical of wartime evangelists of a 'Brave New World', such as Beveridge, who were allowed to prevail over those aware of the 'Cruel Real World' of lost exports and vanished overseas investment. The folly of giving priority to welfare reform over economic regeneration was compounded by Attlee after 1945, with the result that Britain missed a unique chance to remake itself industrially while her rivals were crippled by defeat and occupation. In this line of thinking, the newly imposed 'burden' of a welfare state was unsustainable in the longer-term.

This forceful critique was taken up by Conservative politicians seeking to 'roll back' the frontiers of the state in the 1980s, though it has found little support among academics. Economic historians point out that Labour was remarkably successful at boosting industrial production, manufacturing output and the volume of exports (the latter up by 73.1 per cent between 1945 and 1951). The priority given to social needs was hardly surprising given the nation's verdict in 1945: voters promised jam tomorrow were adamant that 'never again' should there be a return to the misery associated with inter-war Britain. If there was a failure to modernise infrastructure, then this was not considered necessary: the swift rise of European competition in the 1950s was not something that could be predicted in advance. Nor was there anything incompatible about aiming for both economic regeneration and social reform. Far from imposing crippling costs, the British version of the welfare state consumed quite limited resources, especially when seen as a positive contributor to the economy and not simply as a burden upon the taxpayer.

Barnett has also been taken to task for failing to acknowledge the 'fair-shares' ethos left by the searing experience of war. Recent studies have been keen to stress that Labour ministers hoped to turn people into better citizens; values such as duty and responsibility were frequently extolled, and the needs of the community were always to come before the wishes of the individual. There was, in other words, a desire for moral as well as economic change, an unusual combination of what Peter Hennessy calls 'hope and public purpose'. Indeed one cause of Labour's demise in 1950-51 has been identified as the party's mistaken view that voters fully shared its ethical vision. Measures to sustain a wartime sense of community, instead of transforming people into active citizens, foundered in the face of apathy. But the effort had been made. 'There were many more responsible than the Labour Party', conclude the authors of 'England Arise', for ensuring that the high ideals of the 1940s were never achieved.


Several critiques, in the view of this writer, mistakenly judge the Attlee years against inappropriate yardsticks. Criticism has often been unduly influenced by later developments in politics and society. Britain's 'industrial disease' became a matter of widespread concern from the 1960s onwards. Yet Correlli Barnett's talk of decline finds little echo in the debates of the late 1940s, when much of the nation took pride in having survived and recovered from war. Labour governments in the 1960s and 1970s proved gravely disappointing to activists hoping for fundamental change, and left-wing historians have read back from this a willingness on the part of Attlee's ministers to oppose radical solutions. But at the time very few Labour MPs or party workers had clear ideas about what 'more socialism' might amount to in domestic policy. Indeed for most of the Labour movement, from the leadership down to the rank-and-file, the Attlee years were soon regarded as something of a golden age.

One reason for this sense of shared pride was that Labour stalwarts remembered what came before. When judged against pre-1945 standards, Britain for most of its citizens had become a more tolerable place in which to live. Austerity, the inevitable by-product of war, grated among the middle classes especially, and ministers were increasingly forced on the defensive by opposition exploitation of public weariness with the ethos of fair shares. But in 1951, while the Tories won more seats, Labour secured the highest ever number of total votes, based on massive support in industrial strongholds. For the working classes who made up the majority of the population, job security was on a level unknown in the 1930s, fresh opportunities were opening up for the young in education, and pensions approximated as never before to a living income. Affordable, decent housing came within the reach of thousands of lower income families, and the NHS treated millions of patients in its early years of operation. One woman recalled how, on the evening before the health service was formally launched in July 1948, she was delivered of a baby shortly before midnight. The next morning she received a bill from the doctor; had the baby been born fifteen minutes later, there would have been no charge. This was what Attlee meant when he spoke of having achieved a 'revolution without tears'.

Words and concepts to note

financial Dunkirk: British troops were forced to make a hasty exit from the Continent by advancing German forces at Dunkirk in 1940; five years later the British economy faced humiliating ruin unless remedies were found.

mixed economy: an economy containing a mixture of both state-controlled and privately owned industries.

welfare state: social and economic policies designed to provide security against want and ill-health, e.g. social security, health service etc.

enigmatic: puzzling, hard to understand.

recurrent: occurring again and again.

ethos: distinctive character or atmosphere.

demise: death, ending.

Questions to consider

w What were the reasons for the decline in Labour's popularity after 1945?

w What were the main achievements of the 1945-51 Labour governments?

w 'Attlee's Labour governments were too timid to grasp the nettle of socialism.' Discuss this view.

w Why, and with what justification, has it been argued that the 1945-51Labour governments saddled the British economy with an insupportable welfare state?

Further Reading: Correlli Barnett, The Lost Victory. British Dreams, British Realities 1945-50, Macmillan, 1995; Stephen Brooke (ed.), Reform and Reconstruction. Britain after the War 1945-51, Manchester University Press, 1995; Alec Cairncross, Years of Recovery: British Economic Policy 1945-51, Methuen, 1985; Jim Fyrth (ed.), Labour's High Noon. The Government and the Economy 1945-51, Lawrence and Wishart, 1993; Peter Hennessy, Never Again: Britain 1945-51, Jonathan Cape, 1992; Kevin Jefferys, The Attlee Governments 1945-51, Longman, 1992; Kenneth Morgan, Labour In Power 1945-51, Oxford University Press, 1984; Henry Pelling, The Labour Governments 1945-51, Macmillan, 1984; John Saville, The Labour Movement in Britain, Faber and Faber, 1988; Nick Tiratsoo (ed.), The Attlee Years, Pinter, 1991; Steve Fielding, Peter Thompson and Nick Tiratsoo, 'England Arise!' The Labour Party and Popular Politics In 1940s Britain, Manchester University Press 1995.

Rebuilding Post-war Britain: Conflicting Views of the Attlee Governments, 1945-51 by Kevin Jeffreys new perspective 1998

Kevin Jefferys is Reader in Contemporary History at Plymouth University. He is general editor of the Manchester University Press series 'Documents in Contemporary History', and his publications include The Labour Party since 1945, Macmillan, 1993 and The Churchill Coalition and Wartime Politics, MUP, 1995.

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