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The change that shaped post war Britain Essay

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Attlee’s Gov was responsible for initiating much of the change that shaped post war Britain. Much of the groundwork had been done before the 1st w.w. especially by Lloyd George. The idea of a better post war world, symbolised by the Beveridge report became the aims in which people believed they were fighting because people could remember promises made after ww1 and how they didn’t materialise. Lab was promising a new world, by putting forward a good set of policies.

The Beveridge report of 1942 provided a blue print for politicians to follow, and it was Lab which embraced these proposals. The creation of the welfare state was immensely popular, however, cons objected to the structure of the nhs. In 1950 Lab introduced contributions and charges for those who could afford them. Lab also put a great deal of effort into housing although their record was somewhat disappointing. Although unemployment never became a major problem, unemployment benefit and pensions were greatly improved.

Britain had lost a quarter of its national wealth in defeating Hitler, without urgent attempts to recover lost exports markets, the Gov faced a big problem. With the negotiation of an American loan, ministers forged ahead with an extensive reform programme. Food rationing was kept in place in order to keep living costs down, progressive rates of taxation were kept in place, and regional development was pursued vigorously to help avoid any return to mass unemployment.

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Socialists advocated public ownership to prevent unemployment, redistribute wealth, rationalise production and create better relations with industry. The war years saw an increase in interest in public ownership because of the successful role played by the Gov in the economy at the time. To a considerable extent the nationalisation programme was a continuation of policies e.g Disraeli encouraged the purchase by the Gov of a minority shareholding in a private profit making concern, the suez canal.

Common ownership in 1945 was the principle which most distinguished the party from the libs and cons. Labour didn’t intend to take the whole of British industry into public ownership, there was also a refernce to industries ‘not yet ripe for public ownership’. Many socialists believed that, on grounds of principle, the state should control at least the basic industries.

A Lab Gov would aim to create a prosperous economy with full employment and nationalisation was presented as a means to this end. Several major industries were taken into public ownership such as bank of England, coal, iron , steel electricity and transport. By 1948-49 nationalisation was tending to become unpopular. Cook has dismissed Lab’s whole nationalisation programme as merely ‘an administrative manoeuvre’. It was public ownership without real public control.

The jewel in Lab’s welfare crown was the NHS, which introduced free access to a wide range of hospital and general practioner services. The Cons voted against the 1946 nhs act, though opposition dwindled as the popularity of free medical care became obvious. The aim was to provide adequate hospitals throughout the country. The act was a personal triumph for Bevin.

Coal and railways were 2 classic issues of nationalisation, neither had been profitable before the war and were heavily unionised in favour of abolition of private ownership. Lloyd (1970) states ‘it was the performanance of these 2 industries that did more than anything else to reduce enthusiasm for public ownership and this played its part in weakening the Lab Gov.’ The Gov was unlucky in that the takeover was followed by the severest winter for decades, creating a demand for fuel which could not be met.

Foreign Policy

Brit’s position in 1945, had massive prestige, having fought largest against Hitler, but massive debts to match. In Germany, Brit found itself administering a zone which could not feed itself, and as a result Brit taxpayers had to pay to feed their former enemies, while managing on rations themselves. The nation could not afford these commitments. The new international climate intensified British rationing at a time when France and West Germany seemed to be fairing much better.

Attlee together with some of his ministers decided to build the atomic bomb, a very expensive undertaking and was hidden from the H O commons. This decision may have been justified in that Britain was within range of soviet bombers and the ussr was itself actively developing nuclear weapons. The development of the Brit atomic bomb was contrary to American wishes and was undertaken cos the Brits were not yet certain of u.s support in Europe. There was also anger that the Americans were renaging on the wartime agreement to share the nuclear technology which they had first developed.

NATO set up in 1949 was a landmark in Brit foreign policy. It agreed to regard an attack on anyone of them as an attack on them all and to take action. It was the sort of alliance which might have prevented the 1st and 2nd world wars. Bevin and Attlee supplied not only the political will for NATO but many of its ideas aswell.

Brit was in many ways dependant on the u.s after 1945. They recognised that they needed American financial aid to prevent bankruptcy and military support to ensure their own defence and that of western Europe. Attlee initiated negotiations with the united states for financial help. All they were able to secure was a loan with interest and other strings attatched. British industries were less able to export, traditional markets had been disrupted, many necessities could only be bought from the U.S. Brit had new international responsibilities which represented a heavy drain on its financial resources. Economic problems inherited by the Lab Gov were enormous, as stated by Keynes ‘they forced Brit into dependance on the americans’

The opponents of the u.s loan argued that American exporters needed them, and that terms should be rejected. Independent experts believed that conditions of the loan were impossible to fulfil. Their view was proved correct when in 1947 the Gov was forced to suspend the dollar convertibility of sterling.

Marshall aid started just after the u.s loan had been used up, Brit had suffered from American inflation, prices rose as consumers attempted to buy goods in short supply. Brit had agreed when it negotiated the original loan to make sterling convertible within 1 yr of the loan agreement. It did so in 1947 which led to a run on the pound forcing suspension of convertibility. Considerable damage was done to the economy and balance of payments. This further included cuts in the food rationing.

With the help of marshall aid, Brit enjoyed a boom in 1948, yet by summer of 1949 Brit was into its 2nd crisis since the war. This was partly due to the American recession, which meant fewer opportunities for Brit. It led to devaluation of the pound and it was a body blow to brit self-esteem. Despite the difficulties , sufficient progress had been made in Brit for Gaitskell to agree to suspension of Marshall aid by 1951.

Correlli Barnett has attacked Lab for introducing too much rather than too little socialism. The foolishness of giving priority to welfare reform over economic regeneration was compounded by Attlee after1945, with the result Britain missed a unique chance to remake itself industrially. The newly imposed burden of welfare state was unsustainable in the long-term. 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.

Recent studies have been keen to stress that Lab ministers hoped to turn people into better citizens, and the needs of the community were always to come before the individual. There was a desire for moral as well as economic change.


By admission of all historians, the Lab left after 1945 was uncertain of its aims, confused about methods and weak in numbers. Those who pressed at the time for more socialism were, in short, imprecise about what this would mean in practice. For those hoping to see the elimination of capitalism, Attlee’s ministry proved to be disappointing. . Commentators on the political right have attacked the post-war Gov for introducing too much socialism.

With regards to the welfare state, the emphasis on welfare reform diverted attention from desperately needed industrial regeneration and principle of universal benefits as opposed to pre-war selectivity. Lab ministers may have introduced long over-due social reforms, but they failed to redistribute wealth or to break down rigid class barriers, and the continued existence of poverty and social inequality in spite of the welfare state. It had become clear that the welfare state , while advantageous in many ways did not eliminate poverty and brought about no real distribution of wealth in British society.

In 1950-51 Lab was challenged by a more effective Con party, the Cons had twice as many full time agents as Lab’s front bench team was also weakened by the deaths of Bevin and Cripps, and Herbert Morison was seen widely as a failure as foreign secretary. But in 1951, while the cons won more seats, Labour secured the highest ever number of total votes, based on massive support in industrial strongholds.

The Cons accepted Lab’s recent reforms but also promised to ‘set the people free’ from petty Gov regulations. When the Cons returned to power in 1951 they accepted many of the reforms they had critised while in opposition. Attlee had often said he wished to produce reforms that would last and survive a tory victory

Lab’s creativity was exhausted by 1951, leading figures were old, tired or dead. In opposition Lab split into the Gaitskellites and the Bevanites, two factions that seemed for the rest of the decade far more concerned to attack each other than harry Con ministers.

In the 1951 manifesto the party did not call itself ‘socialist’ at all, and there were some who wished to drop the commitment to nationalisation completely. Even before election defeat, nationalisation had become unpopular with some. Public ownership was not a failure but neither had it proved a spectacular success or brought about a revolutionary change in the economy or industrial relations.

It was not clear by 1951 how the nationalisation programme as a whole contributed either to planning or the ultimate creation of ‘socialist commonwealth’. Nor had the Gov with its overriding emphasis on export-led recovery, got to grips with some of the underlying weaknesses of the economy such as reliance on overmenned staple industries.

Lab had not only exhausted its traditional programme, the search for something to put in its place proved to be so damaging that there was unlikely to be any early return to office. Attlees Gov knew where it had been , but was much less certain about where it was going. Lab had retreated on its commitment to economic planning and there had been increasing disillusionment with nationalisation. Lab became a victim of its own success, the implementation of the party’s domestic programme, left the problem of what was to be Lab’s new vision of the future.

However, when judged against pre-1945 standards Britain had become a more tolerable place to live. For the working classes who made up the majority of the population, job security was on a level unknown in the 30’s, 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 reach of thousands of lower income families, and the NHS treated millions of patients in its early years of operation. The NHS and the raising of the school leaving age had been high aims of progressiveness since 1918 and had been high on the political agenda for several years before 1945.

The Attlee era constituted Labours finest hour it is argued. This was a period that went some way towards satisfying wartime demands. The economy recovered from the war while avoiding a return to mass unemployment, and ministers never wavered in their determination to fulfil the Beveridge promise of social protection from ‘the cradle to the grave’.

In the adverse economic situation after the war, when it was necessary to borrow massive amounts of money merely to stave off bankruptcy, any Gov was likely to become unpopular.

A determination that promises of improved social provision must this time be honoured and never again abandoned as they had been by successive Con dominatred Govs after the 1st w w. Labour was elected precisely of its commitment to measures that British people felt had too long been denied.

However, the Gov could claim credit for its part in the nations post-war economic recovery, over the next 6yrs Attlee’s cabinet provided the circumstances necessary for sustained economic growth. There was a 3 fold increase in export volume, industrial output grew by a third. With the assistance of the American loan and marshall aid, the balance of payment showed current account surpluses.

Economic recovery was the essential foundation of Lab’s welfare programme, it offered fresh hope and opportunity. For the young secondary education became a right for the 1st time and Bevan’s house programme meant that affordable, decent accommodation was, as never before within the reach of thousands of lower- income families.

Voters were now given a choice between a Lab party which, to its socialists critics, was tending towards conservatism and a Con party which, to its right wing, had under Butler’s influence committed itself to socialist policies.

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