By Matthew Cookson
Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 1864

Clement Attlee’s 1945-51 government: when Labour’s best wasn’t good enough

This article is over 18 years, 10 months old
Tony Blair's government is now the longest serving Labour administration. The media has made many comparisons between Blair and Clement Attlee, leader of the 1945-51 Labour government. For many in the Labour Party the achievements of the Attlee government, with its creation of the welfare state and nationalisation of key parts of industry, are the high points of the party.
Issue 1864

Tony Blair’s government is now the longest serving Labour administration. The media has made many comparisons between Blair and Clement Attlee, leader of the 1945-51 Labour government. For many in the Labour Party the achievements of the Attlee government, with its creation of the welfare state and nationalisation of key parts of industry, are the high points of the party.

Roy Hattersley, the former Labour deputy leader under Neil Kinnock, sums up that sentiment: ‘Attlee’s government was a crusade. Blair’s ‘project’ is an exercise in mutually agreed efficiency appraisal.’ Labour activists who talk of ‘reclaiming the party’ from the right wing coterie around Blair hold up the 1945-51 government as a model.

Attlee came to power on a landslide in July 1945. The feeling for change was symbolised in the slogan ‘No return to the 1930s’. That decade had seen a devastating economic slump that had left millions unemployed, followed by world war.

At the end of that slaughter the armed forces were discontented to the point of mutiny. This terrified the establishment, who remembered the wave of revolutionary struggles after the First World War. Quintin Hogg, a Tory MP later to become Tory cabinet minister Lord Hailsham, warned parliament in 1943, ‘If you don’t give the people social reform, they will give you social revolution.’

This was recognised by all the major parties. During the war Tory education minister Rab Butler reshaped education, the Liberal Lord Beveridge outlined what became the welfare state and some Tories were prepared to nationalise bits of industry.

That was partly to run an efficient war economy. But from 1942 onwards the government made concessions to workers. The Tory-dominated government rigorously controlled prices and profits. Planning commissions determined what could be produced. Movement of currency and capital was controlled.

Attlee’s government inherited these wartime policies. It set about nationalising the Bank of England, coal mines, electricity and gas, railways, British Airways and other sections of the economy.

All of the new nationalised companies took the form of a public corporation, a copy of private companies with the same hierarchical structure between management and workers. Management was recruited from the former private industries. The same people remained in charge on every level.

Labour nationalised around 20 percent of the economy. And it created the National Health Service, the flagship of Attlee’s government. It guaranteed free healthcare for everyone in Britain and was a huge step forward from the past. For the couple of years after the Second World War it seemed great strides towards equality and improving workers’ lives could go hand in hand with a Labour government running a capitalist economy.

Then crisis hit the economy in 1947. Just as the war years marked a turning point where the capitalists made concessions to the working class, so 1948 signalled a turning point the other way, where they began clawing back those gains. Attlee’s government responded by ending the radical programme.

In 1948 Labour chancellor Sir Stafford Cripps introduced an austerity budget. He was from the left of the party, and had been expelled in the 1930s by the right wing leadership. Cripps introduced a wage freeze. Talk of equality of reward became talk of equality of sacrifice. He told the TUC congress, ‘There is only a certain sized cake. If a lot of people want a larger slice they can only get it by taking it from others.’

He was not prepared to take it from the rich. He shifted taxation from income tax towards the forerunner of VAT, which hits workers and the poor. David Marquand, a leading right wing Labour thinker, wrote afterwards that Cripps’s ‘great powers of eloquence and moral leadership were devoted not so much to persuading the rich to accept a greater degree of equality as to convincing the poor that their share of the national income could not be increased’.

The Tories’ spokesman on finance said Cripps’s 1948 budget marked ‘the end of an era of socialist policy and socialist propaganda’. Labour had already made concessions to rich consultants, allowing them to retain private beds as well as getting regular payments for working for the NHS. Now it moved to introduce prescription charges.

The nationalisation programme ground to a halt. Herbert Morrison, a central figure in the government, said there could be no more advances, but only ‘consolidation’. The only industry to be nationalised after 1948 was steel, and then only after a bitter argument in the cabinet.

Despite the attacks, Labour remained popular. It won the 1950 election with a reduced minority. And in the next election in 1951 it won almost 14 million votes, more than the Tories, but still lost because of the electoral system. In the boom years of the 1950s and 1960s the Tories left the reforms in place, for example continuing the programme of mass council house building. The end of that boom in the late 1960s saw Labour and Tory governments turn to measures that hit workers.

Capitalist policies

Troops turned on strikers here…

Blair’s assault on the firefighters is not the first time a Labour government has turned on strikers. The Attlee government repeatedly intervened in strikes on the side of the bosses and the wealthy.

Between 1945 and 1951 the cabinet ordered troops across picket lines 18 times. It retained Order 1305, wartime legislation that could be used to make strikes illegal. It invoked the Emergency Powers Act of 1920 twice. The government revived the secret Supply and Transport Organisation, which the Tory government had used to help break the General Strike of 1926.

Within a week of coming to office, Labour sent troops into London’s Surrey Commercial Docks, where dockers, many of them Attlee’s own constituents, were striking. The dockers were defeated two weeks later and 900 of them suspended.

…and on radical revolts abroad

‘British foreign policy will not be altered in any way under the Labour government,’ the Labour foreign secretary Ernest Bevin (above) said when the 1945 election results were announced. His promise was kept. Attlee’s government continued to implement policies that it hoped would lead to Britain retaining its imperialist role in the world. It retained massive levels of arms expenditure. The linchpin of the policy was the development of the ‘special relationship’ with the US.

By subordinating itself to the new superpower Britain preserved a role in the world. Bevin created NATO, an anti-Communist organisation of Western states, in 1949 to back up the US. When the Korean War broke out in 1950 Britain immediately sent troops to support the US intervention. To help pay for this Labour imposed prescription, dental and spectacle charges.

Labour crushed popular risings in Greece, Malaya and Vietnam. A massive movement for independence forced the Labour government to relinquish India, the ‘jewel in the crown’ of the British Empire. But it did so in a way that guaranteed partition into two states. The resulting transfer of populations and communal bloodbaths led to the deaths of up to a million people.

Attlee secretly built a British atomic bomb without even telling most of the cabinet.

Blair is the end product of this flawed tradition

Many people look to the policies of Attlee’s government as an alternative to Blair’s. Where New Labour is committed to the free market, Old Labour was committed to using the state to improve working people’s lives. When New Labour’s ministers talk about ‘reforms’ they mean something that will make workers’ lives and public services worse. At least Attlee’s ministers meant reforms as something to make society better.

Under Attlee the membership of the Labour Party was almost 900,000. Today it is down to 250,000. Attlee received the biggest popular vote ever in the 1951 election. Fewer and fewer people are voting today because of disillusionment with New Labour.

The Labour Party has changed since Attlee’s time, but its nature is not fundamentally different. The Labour Party has always based itself on winning change through parliament within the capitalist system. But real power does not lie in parliament. It lies in the boardrooms with top businessmen and with top civil servants, judges and generals. They all apply pressure to ensure governments do not rock their boat.

So even the most radical Labour government did not set out to end capitalism-as so many of its leaders, including Attlee himself, had stated in the 1930s. Instead it tried to manage capitalism.

This led it to limit reforms when the capitalists had to make concessions, and to begin the long process of undermining them when the bosses refused to give more. There was a political and economic consensus among almost all the ruling elite about some form of state intervention in the economy.

Today the consensus among the ruling elite is the free market. Capitalism wants the borders of the state rolled back. The space capitalism allows for progressive reforms has closed. Labour leaders have accepted this and moved the party to the right.

Sign up for our daily email update ‘Breakfast in Red’

Latest News

Make a donation to Socialist Worker

Help fund the resistance