Tony Cliff & Donny Gluckstein

The Labour Party

11. The Attlee Government:
Zenith off Reformism

The apotheosis

THE ATTLEE ADMINISTRATION of 1945 was not only the first majority Labour government, it represented the high point of Labour Party history. From 1951 we are on the other side of the mountain.

The memory of this government has become sacrosanct for both the right and the left of the Labour Party. Thus Bevan’s political testament In Place of Fear, published in 1952, contains not a hint of criticism of the government in which he served for nearly six years. On 23 April 1951 Bevan declared:

Ever since 1945 we have been engaged in this country in the most remarkable feat of social reconstruction the world has ever seen. By the end of 1950 we had ... assumed the moral leadership of the world. There is only one hope for mankind, and that hope still remains in this little island. [1]

Similarly Tony Benn, in his book Arguments for Socialism makes numerous admiring references to the heritage of the Attlee government. The right-wing Labour leaders, from Morrison to Crosland, from Dalton to Hattersley, say the same.

Whatever the myths regarding the Labour government of 1945–51, there is no doubt that it was the most effective reformist Labour government of them all. The task of political analysis, however, is not simply to describe appearances, but to ask more fundamental questions. How much continuity was there with past Labour governments which had performed as the managers of capitalism? If Labour policies did develop in new directions, as it would appear, were these a vindication of the way gradualism and reformism were taking ‘practical steps towards socialism?’


The 1945–51 government is remembered for two positive policies: nationalisation and the welfare state.

In 1919 the miners’ demand for nationalisation had brought Britain closer to revolution than at any other time this century. The same demand in 1947 had no such implications. Why was this? Two things had changed and as a capitalist workers’ party Labour was deeply affected by both: first the attitude of the ruling class; second the logic of reformism, which had progressed to a new stage.

When Marx summarised the aim of capitalism he described it as ‘Accumulate, accumulate – that is Moses and the prophets’. Capitalism, therefore, is not a ‘juridical relationship’; it is not based on legal notions of ownership. Historically forms of ownership have been extremely flexible, ranging from the small individual entrepreneur through the joint stock company to giant multinationals; from almost 100 per cent private ownership on the American model to 100 per cent state ownership on Stalinist lines.

Therefore state ownership in no way implies socialism. Socialism means the economic and social liberation of the working class by subordinating the creation of wealth to the fulfilment of human needs. This can be achieved only when workers themselves take political power directly, through institutions such as soviets or workers councils.

Labour’s approach to nationalisation was set out in its 1945 Manifesto, Let us Face the Future. This argued for the state takeover of certain branches of the economy – the Bank of England, coal mines, electricity and gas, railways, and iron and steel. Nationalisation measures were justified on grounds of economic efficiency, not as a means of shifting the balance between labour and capital. Each case was argued empirically. Thus ‘public ownership of gas and electricity undertakings would lower charges, prevent competitive wastage, open the way for coordinated research and development.’ By arguing for piecemeal nationalisation Labour accepted the mixed economy; by no means a socialist society, but a variant of the consensus achieved in rough outline during the war.

Thus it was that when the election results became known, employers accepted the Labour programme of a mixed economy with good grace. They had reasons.

Given British capitalism’s previous history, one might have expected it to yearn for laissez-faire, as it did in 1919. However after the Second World War this option had grave drawbacks. In 1945 nobody could predict with certainty that a long boom lay ahead instead of a return to depression.

Secondly, modem capitalism required a well-developed infrastructure, including transport and power supplies, in order to function efficiently. Now this ‘social overhead capital’ tended to be costly, requiring long-term investment, and its benefits accrued to industry as a whole rather than to the individual entrepreneur. For these reasons the infrastructure in most countries was developed and controlled by governments. In 1945 British capital was ready to break with tradition. It was unwilling to tie up large sums in rebuilding necessary but largely unprofitable areas of industry after the ravages of war. So the bulk of Attlee’s nationalisation programme did not worry capital in the least.

The coal industry was a prime example. It suffered from obsolescence, which, unless remedied, would act as a brake on the rest of the economy.

The Mining Association now declared its willingness to withdraw its opposition to nationalisation of coalmining, ‘because of the result of the General Election’. This lamb-like utterance from the former lions of ‘excessively tenacious individualism’ was not unconnected with the fact that the antiquated equipment of industry had been worked to its limit during the war and now needed drastic renewal that manpower would soon be scarce enough to win concessions, and that oil looked like undercutting the monopoly value of coal. It was not a bad time to sell out. [2]

Thus it was that leading Tories did not oppose the nationalisation of the mines. Even Churchill, the uncompromising class warrior, did not resist. Nor did he fight nationalisation of the Bank of England, which in this era of Keynesian planning was a logical step. He said in parliament that the nationalisation of the Bank of England ‘does not, in my opinion, raise any issue of principle.’ [3] Both the retiring governor of the Bank, Lord Catto, the retiring deputy governor, Cameron Cobbold, were reappointed.

The actual process of takeover was easy. In the case of the Bank of England, coal, gas, electricity and transport, a close relationship with the government was already well established in 1945. Between October 1945 and January 1948 the government introduced legislation to nationalise all of these. The measures evoked little Commons opposition.

To sum up, nationalisation of these industries was vital for the expansion of the profitable industries that remained private. It strengthened the private sector by freeing it of the burden of industries which demanded heavy investment and were essential to the running of all industry.

So the employers cooperated. They readily continued to staff the system of wartime controls, which was operated largely by representatives of private industry and prolonged by the government. [4] In the words of Ralph Miliband, the government enjoyed the cooperation of private industry. Or more accurately, private industry enjoyed the cooperation of the Government.’ [5]

The government ensured that the management structure of nationalised industries served the general needs of capitalism and did not offer any element of workers’ control that others might want to emulate. There were joyful mass demonstrations on vesting day – 1 January 1947, when the coal mines were taken over and the ensign of the National Coal Board replaced that of the old discredited private owners. But the rejoicing soon stopped; for the NCB, like other nationalised industries, took the form of a public corporation, a copy of the structure of private industry with the same hierarchical relationship between managers and workers. Managers were recruited from former management. Thus the head of the National Coal Board had previously been involved with one of the largest private colliery companies. No wonder there were so many unofficial strikes in the mines.

Summing up the Attlee government, one historian wrote:

Whatever aspect of the Labour program one considers, one always returns to the same theme: a similar policy was advocated, perhaps even before Labour advocated it, by non-socialists. Central economic planning under the post-war Labour Governments ... involved little more than the application of Keynesian nostrums ... one of the most remarkable things about Labour’s nationalization measures is that most of them were enacted in response to the reports of Conservative-dominated investigating committees: the Bank of England measure as a result of the Macmillan Report, coal because of the Reid Report, gas because of the Hayworth Report, electricity because of the McGowan report. Moreover, nationalization, as carried out by Labour, made use of an administrative device first worked out by Liberal and Conservative governments – the ‘public corporation’. [6]

The nationalisation programme eventually affected between two and three million workers and involved roughly one-fifth of total economic activity. [7] But there it stopped.

This was of the greatest significance. All Labour leaders accepted the idea of the mixed economy, even Nye Bevan, who chaired the sub-committee of the Labour Party executive on privately-owned industry. He was anxious to reassure private capitalists that their interests were being looked after, so as to gain financial stability for the economy as a whole. Bevan made the mixed economy a question of principle – not a transition to the total nationalisation of the economy, but an aim in itself. To quote the words of Jennie Lee, his wife:

Hence Nye’s much quoted phrase, ‘the commanding heights of the economy’. Let the State bring order out of the anarchy of unrestrained private enterprise by taking over industries essential for a planned economy, such as coal, steel, transport and such like, but leave ample margins for private individuals and groups of individuals to make their contribution. Total nationalisation is not compatible with a democratic, constitutional, parliamentary system. [8]

This attitude represented a landmark in Labour’s history. True, the government’s nationalisation schemes surpassed all previous measures, but the voluntary acceptance of a mixed economy was a departure from previous beliefs. For all that the Fabians represented a ruling class current, their ‘state socialism’ had never intended to leave 80 per cent of the economy in the hands of private profit-makers. Clause Four’s ‘social ownership’ was clearly understood to apply to as much of industry as administratively possible. Of course the two previous minority Labour governments could plausibly argue they could do little to carry it out. In 1945 no such excuse existed, so the Labour leadership simply re-wrote the political textbook.

The synthesis of class and nation now meant a mixture nationalised and private enterprise. Capitalism would not be overthrown, but made more efficient and more humane by laying the foundations of a mixed economy and welfare state. The logic of reformism was on a new plane when Labour not only acted as manager of capitalism, but justified it without shame. To buy 20 per cent of the economy it sold its political soul.


If Labour’s policies were designed chiefly to benefit the ruling class, in conditions of boom crumbs could still be thrown to workers. Under Attlee, workers and their families fared much better than before the war. The government

kept up a high level of expenditure on the social services; while food subsidies were pegged in the April 1949 budget at £465 million, they still represented a formidable sum and did much to keep down the cost of living for working people ... And of course, full employment and relatively mild inflation were immeasurable boons to workers everywhere, for which much else would be forgiven. [9]

The flagship of the welfare state was the National Health Service, which seemed for once to rise above the sordid calculations of profit and loss that blight the industrial world, nationalised corporations included. Nye Bevan was the minister of health who introduced the scheme. He explained: ‘The field in which the claims of individual commercialism come into most immediate conflict with reputable notions of social value is that of health.’ [10]

However, the origins of the welfare state date as far back as the Workmen’s Compensation Act of 1893 and Liberal schemes of old age pensions, unemployment and health insurance, which were introduced after 1906. These were certainly not socialist in motivation. Nor could the shortlived Conservative caretaker administration which began family allowances in 1945 be described as socialist.

As Marx and Engels showed, there is a basic contradiction within capitalism: ‘The essential condition for the existence, and for the sway of the bourgeois class, is the formation and augmentation of capital; the condition for capital is wage labour.’ [11] Labour power is the most important productive force in capitalism.

The ruling class regards workers not as human beings, but as providers of labour power, a simple factor of production. Just as efficient transport and energy supplies are vital, so a productive, educated and healthy workforce is necessary. This is particularly true in periods of expansion when bosses require new skills and are unable to pick the ‘best’ workers from a pool of unemployed. Therefore welfare provision fully accorded with a planned Keynesian economy. The state would help sustain the physical and human infrastructure. Thus the head of Courtaulds, the textile giant, predicted Beveridge’s plans would ‘be about the most profitable long-term investment the country could make.’ [12]

Expansion of the welfare state was based on three Acts in 1946 (the National Health Service Act and two National Insurance Acts) and the National Assistance Act of 1948. They were effective. Take the NHS. It tackled an appalling situation. Of two and a half million men surveyed during the First World War, only three in every nine were fully ‘fit and healthy’, three were in reasonable condition, two were ‘incapable of undergoing more than a very moderate degree of physical exertion’ and one was ‘a chronic invalid with a precarious hold on life.’ In the 1930s 83 per cent of Durham children were found to be suffering from rickets. [13] Today, partly as a result of the NHS, formerly common diseases such as tuberculosis and rickets are a rarity and general health is greatly improved.

In introducing the NHS Bevan met bitter opposition from the British Medical Association (BMA), the main doctors’ pressure group, which was supported by the Tory Party and their press run rampant. Bevan made a whole series of concessions to them, which left the door ajar for the future erosion of the service. Hospital consultants could retain private beds as well as receiving a salary for cooperating with the state scheme. As John Campbell, Bevan’s biographer, rightly says:

Bevan arguably paid too high a price for the consultants’ support ... Since they were now to be paid for the work they had previously done (in the voluntary hospitals) for nothing, they achieved the best of both worlds – the regular pay of the municipal hospitals with the prestige of the voluntary, plus private fees. No wonder Bevan was reported to have said ‘I stuffed their mouths with gold.’ And as well as gold he gave them power, the predominant power to shape the new service. [14]

The medical journal The Lancet said in November 1946 that the NHS was ‘much less socialistic than was predicted a year ago.’ [15]

The Socialist Medical Association and Labour backbenchers were disappointed to find the 1945 manifesto promise of a national, full-time salaried service had been lost through concessions to the BMA. Bevan knew how much had been conceded: as he told MPs in 1948, private patients, private beds and private fees put the ideal of a free and equal health service for all in ‘a very grave danger and it was a very serious and substantial concession made to the medical profession ... that was repugnant to many of my hon. Friends.’ [16]

The net result, in Campbell’s words, was:

to contrive the appearance of a political triumph for his party when in fact he had enacted virtually none of the cherished nostrums of those in the Labour Party who had cared about health. ‘His outstanding success’, one of his critics wryly noted, ‘was the way he applied the anaesthetic to supporters on his own side, making them believe in things they had opposed almost all their lives.’ [17]

Just as with nationalisation, employers and the working class had different reasons for welcoming the welfare state. From the workers’ point of view, they and their families do not exist merely to reproduce and sell labour power. Good health, decent education and housing are valued for improving the quality of life, not the employer’s bank balance.

A capitalist workers’ party tries to get the best of both worlds, but in a clash has to choose sides. The meaning of nationalisation was exposed by the struggle over profitable industries like road haulage and steel. Was welfare there to make British industry more productive, or did social spending (financed largely through direct taxes on income), represent the thin end of a wedge which would ultimately bring the redistribution of wealth from rich to poor?

The issue became a live one at the end of Labour’s term of office. The deteriorating balance of payments, higher taxation and cuts in the already meagre food rations had already disillusioned many socialists. The question then arose: was it more important to sustain the Health Service or back American imperialism in Korea, where war broke out in 1950? The defence budget, much expanded during the Korean war, led to Bevan’s resignation from the government in April 1951. When Gaitskell, chancellor of the exchequer after Cripps fell critically ill, imposed prescription, denture and spectacle charges, Bevan had had enough.

The Health Service was mauled, but it survived. How exceptional was it? In Britain modem health provision was introduced by a reformist government. Yet in countries without social democratic governments the proportion of social product going to health has been far higher. Until 1969 NHS spending never exceeded 4.5 per cent of Britain’s GNP, whereas in that year the Netherlands spent 5.9 per cent, the US 6.8 per cent and Canada 7.3 per cent. [18] However it would be a mistake to assume that Britain’s low proportion of GNP going to health meant the NHS lagged behind other countries: the universal and free nature of the NHS meant that low income groups benefitted greatly. Also in places like the US, doctors take a far greater proportion of the money spent on health than they do in Britain.

Nevertheless social spending is not a peculiarly Labour policy. Between 1945 and the election of Tory prime minister Margaret Thatcher in 1979 the Labour Party was in government roughly half the time. But spending on welfare benefits in Britain compared unfavourably with other European countries which have not had social democratic rule. West Germany, France, and even Spain, offered in a number of fields welfare benefits more generous than those in Britain. ‘Among the eighteen advanced industrial democracies included in the OECD sample, Britain devotes 12.6 per cent of the gross domestic product to [welfare], but is surpassed by ten countries in this group, and is below the average (13.25).’ [19]

To conclude, Labour supporters often presume that major reforms must have originated from their party. This is too simplistic. Historically there are two types of legislative reform, that wrested from below, and that handed down from above.

Lenin described the situation in Tsarist Russia in which reforms were ‘merely a by-product of revolutionary class struggle’ and ‘possible only as a by-product of a movement that is completely free of all narrowness of reformism ...’ [20] Labour can certainly never be accused of fighting for reforms by such revolutionary methods.

The question arising about Attlee’s reforms is whether they were achieved because Labour was in office, or would the capitalist class have conceded them anyway, whatever party was in government? The welfare state is a case in point.

The Labour government did not transform the state from ‘the executive committee of the ruling class’ into some classless benefactor. It brought in a set of changes that the employing class intended to be a ‘profitable long-term investment’. They were not and never could be, a serious inroad to the power of the system itself. The Labour Party, depending on reforms from above, and discouraging mass movements from below, can do exceedingly little to shape what happens. By holding back the working class – the real force for socialist change – they are left in a situation in which their ability to improve the lives of their working-class supporters depends almost entirely on the vigour of the national capitalism.

The Tories would not necessarily have acted in precisely the same fashion. A reformist party in government may achieve changes that are different in form from those of a reactionary party, but only within strict limits determined by the system. The NHS could not rise above these constraints. From the point of view of capitalism the NHS was an efficient method of maintaining a fit and able workforce at minimum cost, so the principle behind the system was not seriously attacked until the 1980s, even by the Tories. Nevertheless, even before this the health of workers was subordinated to the health of capitalism. Whenever things became tight the NHS was attacked. And the first cuts came from Attlee’s Labour government; later, as the sickness of British capitalism grew, both Labour and Tory governments would attack the NHS with increasing ferocity.

The turning point: 1947, ‘Annus Horrendus

Until the start of 1947, the Labour government’s reforming programme seemed to advance without a hitch. It had established an impressive record of legislative achievement, with more than seventy Bills carried through parliament in the 1945–6 session, including the introduction of widespread public ownership, the National Health and National Insurance Bills and the reform of the law on trade unions. Within the Labour Party itself there was immense enthusiasm. Outside, popular support for the government was solid.

One factor ensuring mass support for the government was full employment. Throughout Labour’s tenure of office, unemployment was extremely low (except during the fuel crisis of winter 1947 when it reached 3 per cent). There were three and a half million more workers employed in June 1951 than six years previously. In labour Party mythology this was entirely due to government policy. However, Sir Alec Cairncross, an economic adviser to the Attlee government, saw behind the appearances:

The maintenance of a high level of employment was only to a limited extent the government’s doing. It was made easy because world markets remained in a state of boom ... What can be claimed for the Labour government is that the one thing that it had to plan, and did plan – the balance of payments – was effectively planned. [21]

The dominant figure in the first period of Labour policy was the chancellor of the exchequer, Hugh Dalton. Dalton’s policy of ‘cheap money’ symbolised the new era, in total contrast to the deflation and retrenchment that had dominated the policy of the Treasury after 1918. Dalton’s financial policy underlay the social reforms, the industrial reconstruction, and the public investment projects of the first two years.

However, social reforms financed by expansionist policies were only part, and a lesser part, of the government’s aims. It was also the manager of capitalism, both at home, and defending Britain’s imperial role. Until 1947 reforms and the needs of capitalism did not conflict. But the foundations of British capitalism, upon which the reforms depended, were shaky.

During the war the British ruling class lost a massive portion of its foreign assets. Income from these was now no longer available to pay for imports of food and raw materials. Additionally the war itself had given Britain accumulated debts of £2,723 million around the world. In 1945 estimates held that exports would have to increase by between 50 and 70 per cent just to finance imports on the same scale as before the war. [22] Furthermore, Britain’s imperialist commitments added to the burden on its economy. In March 1948 there were still 937,000 in the armed forces.

The underlying weaknesses were suddenly brought to the surface in 1947. The previous year had been a very successful one for the government. According to a leading article in the News Chronicle:

Industrially the year has been marked by steady progress. Unemployment (apart from a few areas in Scotland and Wales) has been almost negligible. Britain, too, is almost the only democratic country in the world which has survived 1946 without a major industrial dispute. [23]

In total contrast, 1947 was a year of almost unmitigated disaster. It began with terrible weather. The winter of early 1947 was, as the Annual Register recorded, the ‘most severe since 1880–1.’

The result was calamitous. Coal stocks, already failing, slumped to below the four million tons level, which was regarded as the minimum for national survival. Coal could not be transported by rail or road; collier vessels from Newcastle, bringing coal to power stations in London and the south-east, could not put to sea. Shinwell told a stunned House of Commons on 7 February that many power stations had run out of coal, that much of industry would therefore have to close down, and that many domestic consumers would have to do without electricity for large parts of the day ... Factories were closed down; villages were cut off; livestock died in thousands; people froze in their homes without even the radio as a solace since that, too, was a victim of the power crisis. Unemployment reached over two millions by the start of February. Not until March was there any visible improvement in fuel supplies; in the end, the government was rescued only by an improvement in the climate in late March. [24]

Dalton described 1947 as the ‘annus horrendus[25], and the laying off of more than two million workers certainly did not assist the financial crisis that followed. In the first quarter of 1947 Britain’s reserves of dollars were heavily depleted as a result of a world-wide shortage of food and raw materials which left the USA as virtually the sole supplier. The ‘dollar drain’ was associated with very negative terms of trade for Britain. The British fuel crisis of January-February 1947 made things even worse.

Indeed, the dollar drain in the first six months of 1947 swept away some $1,890 million, more than half the original US loan of $3,750 million. At that rate, the loan, intended to last Britain until 1951, would run out by 1948, or even earlier. [26]

Since Britain was committed, by the terms of the July 1946 American loan, to allow the pound to be freely convertible into dollars on the foreign exchanges by July 1947, the country faced financial catastrophe.

The government was not responsible for the weather. But this natural event had uncovered what was to become the perennial problem of the postwar British economy – the tendency for rising domestic demand to encourage imports as much as home production. Moreover this became progressively worse as time went on. There were sterling crises in 1947, 1949, 1951, 1955, 1957, 1961, and between 1963 and 1967. Hence the ‘stop-go’ cycle: the chancellor stimulated demand, which led to increased imports and caused a balance of payments deficit, and hence a speculative attack on the pound. Restoring confidence was achieved by raising the interest rate, imposing cuts and increasing taxes in order to lower the level of demand in the economy. In the short run this deflation worked, but in the long run it delayed investment, slowed technical change, caused low productivity and weakened Britain’s competitive position in the world. The periods of ‘go’ got shorter, while the periods of ‘stop’ got longer.

The first postwar financial crisis, of August 1947, was the gravest Britain had experienced since August 1931. The Attlee government panicked. A new financial policy was put forward, with dire implications for the entire thrust of Labour’s reforming strategy. Deflation, cuts in basic rations of meat, fat, sugar and other foodstuffs – these were the essential ingredients of Dalton’s November 1947 budget. On 13 November Dalton resigned the chancellorship (having carelessly leaked some items of his budget to a newspaper reporter). Cripps took his place, to continue the austerity programme with a vengeance.

The entire direction of government had been dramatically altered, and the limits of reformism revealed with startling clarity. While socialists would have hoped Labour would thrust the burden of the crisis on to those most capable of bearing it, the opposite was true. The man in charge of government economic policy from August 1947 until 1950 was Stafford Cripps, the enfant terrible of the 1930s. His first move was to reassure business and the city.

Cripps’ penchant for draconian measures found a new target. He began with the imposition of a series of austerity measures: a sharp reduction of consumer purchasing power, new indirect purchase taxes and heavy cuts in imports which had to be paid for in dollars. Consumers faced reductions in living standards after the cabinet decision to cut food imports by £66m and basic rations. This would cut the average calorie intake per person per day to between 2,650 and 2,725 in the first half of 1948, compared with 3,000 in the last year of the war. [27] When Cripps announced these measures in the Commons, he was highly praised by The Times ‘before he had ended his 100-minute speech Sir Stafford Cripps had sounded a note which stirred the pulses of the House.’ [28]

Plans were made to increase exports further, to restrict consumer spending and to cut public investment, especially the housing programme. While the capitalists got financial inducements from the Treasury, the workers had to pay higher taxes, with a shift in the balance from direct to indirect taxes.

One of the key elements in Cripps’ policy was the encouragement of an export drive by diverting manpower to the export trade as never before. From the summer of 1948 further help came with the injection of dollars through Marshall Aid, the US postwar aid programme for Western Europe.

The obverse of this concentration on exports was the remorseless cutting down of resources for the consumer at home. Rationing of food, clothing, petrol, and other commodities had continued since the end of the war. In the Cripps era, the system reached new extremes of severity. By 1948, the average citizen had to make do with a weekly ration of thirteen ounces of meat, one and a half ounces of cheese, six ounces of butter and margarine, one ounce of cooking fat, eight ounces of sugar, two pints of milk, and a solitary egg. [29]

Side by side with this rationing there was the ‘black market’, which would supply all the luxuries you required – as long, of course, as you could afford to pay the price.

Wage restraint

The corollary of control of consumption through rationing and other austerity measures was the attempt to control wages. In a munition of full employment, with a confident working class, it would take more than political wiles to pull this off. Above all, Labour’s trump card – the loyalty of the trade unions – would have to be played.

On 4 February 1948 Attlee announced a White Paper titled Statement on Personal Incomes, Costs and Prices. It demanded that there should be no increase in wages, salaries or dividends, save in exceptional circumstances. Trade union leaders at once went to Downing Street in a body and demanded the withdrawal of this ‘unacceptable attempt to interfere with free collective bargaining’. They had, after all, created the Labour Representation Committee in 1900 with the express intention of removing such government interference after Taff Vale.

The TUC’s Economic Committee expressed concern at the While Paper and especially at Cripps’ call for a wage freeze. Cripps’ negotiations with the TUC did not go well, especially since he was unwilling to tax profits or dividends any further. But the all-too-familiar spell of ‘don’t rock the boat’ wrought its magic for the Labour government. A conference of trade union executive delegates on 24 March voted by the comfortable majority of 5,421,000 to 2,012,000 to accept the policy of wage freeze for the foreseeable future. The opposition was made up of the engineers’, electricians’, shopworkers’ and other unions, especially those representing the low-paid. The same policy was endorsed by the TUC Congress later in the year.

The call for working-class sacrifice rang hollow against the impressive achievements of British industry at the time. The volume of industrial production in the first half of 1949 was 30 per cent above that of 1938; exports had risen from 50 per cent below pre-war level to nearly 55 per cent above; and earnings from exports covered 85 per cent of the cost of imports – the best performance in Europe. But financial pressures still forced the government to devalue the pound in September 1949. This led to a significant rise in the cost of living, as the prices of imported goods soared.

Cripps was also demanding a reduction in public expenditure of some £700 million. The foreign secretary, Ernest Bevin, and the minister of defence, Albert Alexander, were threatening to resign if the full weight of the cuts fell on defence; Nye Bevan was threatening to resign if social expenditure suffered unduly; Cripps was threatening to resign unless all agreed with him.

Finally, on 21 October 1949, the cabinet put forward a package of cuts with a total deflationary effect of £280 million. Attlee announced these measures to a completely silent House of Commons, and sat down in front of benches of openly dispirited supporters. [30]

After the devaluation of the pound, it became far more difficult for the union leaders to hold the line for the government on the wages front. A special conference of trade union executives in January 1950 endorsed the policy of wage restraint by only a very narrow margin – 4,263,000 votes to 3,606,000. When the Korean war pushed the rate of inflation even higher, the 1950 TUC Congress voted down the wage freeze by 3,949,000 to 3,727,000. Both the Confederation of Shipbuilding and Engineering Unions and the rail unions took tentative steps which might have led w official national strikes. [31]

Nonetheless the government wages policy had been successful. As Cairncross explains:

The White Paper policy undoubtedly slowed down the rise in wages and prices. In the first two post-war years from June 1945 to June 1947 hourly wage rates had increased, first by 9 per cent, then by 8.5 per cent. In the next nine months to March 1948 the rise continued at nearly 9 per cent per annum. From then until the devaluation eighteen months later, the annual rate of increase fell to 2.8 per cent ... [After inflation was accounted for] real wages were stationary or falling ... That money wages rose so little when real wages were stationary or falling and unemployment was down to 300,000 is striking testimony to the influence of the trade-union leaders. Hourly wage rates after March 1948 rose no faster than in the mid-1930s, between 1934 and 1938, when unemployment was around two million. [32]

As a reward for sacrificing their members’ living standards, union officials were welcomed on to an increasing number of government committees: in 1931 there had been union representatives on only one such committee; by 1939 they had been on twelve, and by 1948–49 they were on sixty. [33]

The strike-breaking government

One sign of how the union bureaucracy successfully imposed Labour’s wage restraint was the lack of industrial resistance. Compare this to the level after the First World War when Labour was in opposition. During 1945–50 fewer than ten million man-days were lost through strikes, compared with 170 million in the five years 1918–1923, an average of less than two million days per year as against more than 35 million.

Nevertheless those few workers who did strike were not treated with kid gloves. Order 1305, which had made wartime strikes illegal and had been justified as necessary to defeat fascism, was continued. In 1950 and 1951 the government used the order to prosecute ten gas workers and seven dockers. These decisions enraged the whole trade union movement, and the order had to be terminated in August 1951. The minister of labour regularly attributed strikes to Communist agitation. An enormous weight of vilification was heaped on the heads of shop stewards who during the war had been described as loyal patriots, but were now ‘extremists’ and ‘subversives’. Labour set the tone for what was to be a long-running media witch-hunt of industrial militants.

Throughout the lifetime of the Attlee government the military were used again and again to break strikes. Thus, cabinet minutes of 5 July 1950 included the following:

List of recent industrial disputes involving the Services [34]

April 1949


London dock strike
All preparations including assembly of troops, for use of 6,100 troops and 1,200 vehicles in all three Services, but not actually used.


Avonmouth dock strike
800 Army, 100 RN and 400 RAF employed for nearly three weeks


Liverpool dock strike
All preparations including assembly of troops, for use of 700 Army, 120 RN and 800 RAF but not actually used


Newport dock strike
All preparations for 2,100 Army, 1,400 RAF and 500 vehicles but not used
No movement of troops


Threatened railway strike
Preparations did not go further than preliminary planning


Threatened London electricity strike
Preparatory action but no actual movement of troops


London dock strike
Services worked docks for just under three weeks. Total numbers employed 17,000 men and 1,200 vehicles


Belfast electricity power strike
Services operated power stations for a week. About 250 men


Smithfield strike
Preparatory action only for use of 600 vehicles


Threatened Belfast electricity strike
Preparatory action only


London power strike
Four power stations operated for just under a week. 420 men in all three services employed

April 1950

London dock strike
Services worked docks for just under three weeks. 20,000 men and 645 vehicles


Smithfield drivers’ strike
1,500 men and 660 vehicles of Army and RAF at work. Expected to build-up to 5,000 men and 1,000 vehicles

Historians report that when the government used troops to break strikes ‘there was no hesitation about it and no reservation around the cabinet table.’ [35] Nye Bevan concurred!

The Attlee government evoked the Emergency Powers Act of 1920 – the first time it had been used since the general strike of 1926. The government revived the Supply and Transport Organisation, which had been used to help crush the general strike, and it did so with the complete agreement of Nye Bevan and Stafford Cripps. ‘It would be prudent to have wide powers in order to deal with any trouble that might arise’, Bevan told the cabinet’s industrial emergency committee on 28 June 1948. [36]

In May 1947 Bevan urged the use of legal steps by the attorney-general against dockworkers responsible for ‘the instigation of illegal strikes.’ [37] When busmen in the Midlands and the North went on strike, Bevan argued for the use of military vehicles to transport miners. Miners, of all people!

The Minister of Health felt that there would be great advantage in stating publicly that in view of the overriding importance of maintaining coal production the Government had decided to make military vehicles available for carrying miners to and from their work. [38]

When workers in the power stations in London went on strike, it was Bevan, as minister responsible for labour, who, on 24 January 1950, argued for civil proceedings as these had ‘worked as an effective deterrent in the mining industry.’ [39] Bevan was minister of labour during January–April 1951 when seven London dockers were prosecuted under Order 1305. He rounded on a group of heckling dockers at Bermondsey: ‘Shut up ... Do you think the government should do nothing about it?’ There was more shouting and Bevan declared: ‘You are a lot of skulking cowards hiding behind your own anonymity ...’ [40]

Bevan’s old comrade from the Socialist League, Cripps, was still more original. At a meeting of the cabinet’s industrial emergency committee on 15 January 1947, when 20,000 London dockers were on strike, he suggested that the large number of Polish ex-servicemen in the country might be used as blacklegs for the maintenance of essential supplies. [41]

The cabinet’s discussion in 1947 of equal pay for women, which had been unequivocally adopted as policy by party conference, was one of the most nauseating performances. The quibbling went on and on. Eventually ‘The Cabinet accepted the principle but not the implementation.’ [42] Three years later George Isaacs, then minister of labour, still argued in a memorandum to the cabinet that equal pay should not be introduced in government employment. [43]

Geoff Ellen summed up the Labour government’s strike-breaking activity thus:

Striking dockers, gas workers, miners and lorry drivers were denounced, spied upon and prosecuted. Two States of Emergency were proclaimed against them and two more were narrowly averted. Above all, the government used blacklegs against these strikes, often with the connivance of the strikers’ own trade union leaders. On 18 different occasions between 1945 and 1951, the government sent troops, sometimes 20,000 of them, across picket lines to take over strikers’ jobs. By 1948, it has been argued, ‘strike-breaking had become almost second nature to the Cabinet’. [44]

Reforming zeal gives way to the consensus of ‘Butskellism’

In the 1950s The Economist introduced a new term to the English language – Butskellism. This was the name given to the growing similarity between Labour and Conservative Party practices. Butskellism was a legacy of the postwar Labour government and its policies.

In December 1946 an unofficial Industrial Policy Committee was formed, made up of a number of Tory MPs and chaired by R.A. Butler, the author of the 1944 Education Act. It produced an Industrial Charter, which was enthusiastically received by a Tory conference in October 1947. The charter accepted state intervention to ensure full employment. Although nationalisation was forsworn as a principle of government, the cases of coal, the railways and the Bank of England were accepted in practice. Labour’s welfare legislation was also accepted. Above all Butler described the charter as ‘an assurance that, in the interests of efficiency, full employment and social security, modern Conservatism would maintain strong central guidance over the operation of the economy.’ [45]

Of course not all Conservatives welcomed the Industrial Charter. Thus Sir Waldron Smithers called it ‘milk and water’ socialism. [46] On the other hand, Harold Macmillan later said that the Industrial Charter ‘proclaimed the theme which inspired thirteen years of Conservative government which followed the final overthrow of the Socialists in 1951.’ [47]

When the Conservatives won the general election of October 1951, Churchill appointed Butler chancellor of the exchequer in succession to Hugh Gaitskell. The break between the policies of the two was so minuscule that The Economist invented this new word, Butskellism, to describe it. [48] Richard Crossman, an MP and supporter of Nye Bevan, saw the new Conservative cabinet as ‘only very slightly to the right of the most recent Attlee Cabinet’, and commented that ‘just as Attlee was running what was virtually a coalition policy on a Party basis, so Churchill may well do the same.’ [49]

A consensus on economic and social policy had been forged.

However the Tories accepted only those measures which were unequivocally of benefit to their class. Nationalisation could be tolerated where the infrastructure was run-down and unprofitable. But even here there were pockets of industry where money could be made. Real resistance developed as soon as it looked as though going concerns such as road haulage and electricity, but above all during 1950–1 the steel industry, were to be nationalised.

One of the sticks used to beat supporters of further nationalisation was the inevitably low profitability of the dilapidated industries that were taken over. The fact was that coal was sold to private industry with a hidden subsidy. This helped make the NCB unprofitable, but it was a godsend for anti-nationalisation propaganda. A Gallup poll in November 1948 found only 24 per cent of the population supported the proposed nationalisation of steel while 44 per cent opposed it. [50] In the altered political climate that prevailed after 1947 this mild not but influence the more hesitant reformists, whose confidence was already dented. The effect on Labour was double-edged. On the right there were those who were satisfied that Nationalisation had completed its job of assisting private profit-making. They therefore opposed its extension to steel. However some on the left still saw the programme so far as merely the first step towards socialism.

A long period of dispute was beginning for Labour. Even in the conditions of economic expansion following the war, the consensus, the compromise achieved, was bound to be pulled in different directions. Mixed economy? All right. But what exact mixture between nationalised and private industry? A welfare state – But at what level should welfare benefits be pitched? And if there was a worsening in the economic situation and cuts became the order of the day, how much to cut and in what areas? In foreign policy NATO, the Atlantic alliance set up after the end of the war, was accepted as written on tablets of stone. But how far should Britain go in supporting the United States?

In move of the Tories towards Butskellism also affected the discussion. Right-wing Labour leaders argued that electoral success d on winning the voters in the middle by having moderate policies. The left argued that Labour had to sharpen its differentiation from the Tories by adopting more distinct socialist policies.

With the economic crisis of 1947 as its background, a bitter argument took place in the cabinet between April and July over steel nationalisation. This was the first time that clear differences of opinion appeared in the cabinet. On the one side Herbert Morrison and John Wilmot, minister of supply, opposed steel nationalisation; on the other were Nye Bevan and Hugh Dalton. Although the cabinet did go ahead with legislation in 1948, the conflict over the issue continued right down to the end of 1949.

In 1947 the Labour Party adopted a document, Industry and Society, which in practice froze the borders of the public sector. The time had arrived for ‘consolidation’, it said, going on to praise private industry: ‘under increasingly professional management, large firms are, on the whole, serving the nation well.’ Both the left and right in the leadership supported this document although it did raise some resentment in the party.

Morrison told the 1948 Labour conference:

do not ignore the need, not merely for considering further public ownership, but for allowing Ministers adequate time to consolidate, to develop, to make efficient the industries which have been socialized in the present Parliament ... We must make the programme as attractive as we can to ourselves, but we must make it attractive also to public opinion ... [51]

The constituency delegate who followed Morrison clearly expressed the unhappiness of the rank and file:

the programme will be attractive to the public, not if it is something very wishy-washy and watered down but if it is bold and challenging I want to see in the forefront of our General Election programme a declaration of faith in Socialism – not the approach the Liberal has to nationalization, that when two or three Royal Commissions have decided that in a particular case, for empirical reasons, an industry ought to be nationalized, then we will nationalize it. I want us to say we believe, as economic scientists and on the grounds of social justice, that the large resources of production in this country ought to belong to the common people ... When the present programme of the Labour Government has been completed some twenty per cent of the industrial and economic life of this country will be publicly owned. At this speed it will take us 25 years to get to the stage when Socialism predominates ... we are going too slow ...

The delegate went on to reject the mixed economy:

I do not believe that it is feasible, as a permanent basis, for a Socialist Government to control privately-owned industry. Ownership gives control. The only way in which we can get control is by getting ownership. [52]

He was to be disappointed. In April 1949 the party executive published a draft programme for the next election, Labour Believes in Britain. It was accepted by conference the same year. The list of industries proposed for nationalisation was water, cement, sugar, meat-wholesale and Industrial Assurance. This last proposal was later watered down under pressure from Morrison and Cripps. One delegate in the 1949 conference could rightly say: ‘Labour Believes in Britain reads like a White Paper ... It is certainly not a Red Paper ... ’ [53]

Bevan did his best in his summing-up to reassure the doubters.

In the name of party unity he was quite ecstatic about the ‘wonderful opening speech of Herbert Morrison’. [54]

Many on the left did not follow Bevan’s support for Labour Believes in Britain. Ian Mikardo, in a pamphlet titled The Second Five Years, urged the need to nationalise the joint stock banks and industrial assurance companies, shipbuilding, aircraft, construction, aero-engines, machine tools, and the assembly branch of mass produced motor vehicles. Then in January 1950 twelve MPs published a pamphlet entitled Keeping Left, in which they advocated the public ownership of road haulage, steel, insurance, cement, sugar and cotton.

Labour won the general election of 1950, but with a very small majority. None of the measures outlined in Labour Believes in Britain were implemented, save for the commitment to nationalise steel. Otherwise the whole issue of public ownership was shelved. In the run-up to the general election of October 1951, the new party manifesto, Labour and the New Society, for the first time since the war included no candidates for nationalisation save for steel, as Morrison wanted. The manifesto acceded to Bevan’s wish, however, that the possibility of further takeovers be left open, calling in vague terms for new public enterprises when this would ‘serve the national interest’. Morrison’s opposition to further Nationalisation had won the day. When Bevan spoke in favour of Labour and the New Society at the 1950 annual conference the left was mute.

Morrison was strongly influenced by his estimate that nationalisation was an electoral albatross for the Labour Party. From 1948 onwards, and especially after the 1950 general election, he argued that future Labour victories depended on an appeal to moderate voters who opposed nationalisation. Even the language of the first three years of government, itself a retreat from long-held Labour beliefs, was being abandoned.

A reactionary foreign and defence policy

Before coming to office, Labour leaders spoke of a foreign policy which was radically different to that of the Tories. As Attlee put it in 1937: ‘there is no agreement on foreign policy between a Labour Opposition and a capitalist government.’ [55]

The most extreme expression of the need for a real socialist foreign policy was the speech by Denis Healey, then a delegate at the May 1945 Labour Party Conference, in which he called on Labour to support the socialist revolution in Western and Central Europe:

the Labour Party should have a clear foreign policy of its own, which is completely distinct from that of the Tory Party.

The socialist revolution had already begun in Europe and was already firmly established in many countries in Eastern and Southern Europe. The crucial principle of our foreign policy should be to protect, assist, encourage and aid in every way the Socialist revolution wherever it appears ... The upper class in every country are selfish, depraved, dissolute and decadent. These upper classes look to the British Army and the British people to protect them against the just wrath of the people who have been fighting underground against them for the first four years. We must see that that does not happen. The penalty for entertaining any hesitation about the support for the revolution would be that Labour would wake one day to find itself ‘running with the Red Flag in front of the armoured car of Tory imperialism and counter-revolution.’ [56]

Once Labour took office, socialist euphoria evaporated. On the day the election results were received, Ernest Bevin announced: ‘British foreign policy will not be altered in any way under the Labour Government.’ [57] On becoming foreign secretary he told the House of Commons: ‘The basis of our policy is in keeping with that worked out by the Coalition Government, in which I worked in close collaboration with the Right Hon Member for Warwick and Leamington [Anthony Eden].’ Eden reciprocated: ‘“I cannot recall one single occasion when there was a difference between us. I hope I do not embarrass the Foreign Secretary by saying that” ... Mr Bevin: “No”.’ [58]

Eden’s memoirs note:

I was in agreement with the aims of [Bevin’s] foreign policy and with most that he did, and we met quite frequently. He would invite me to his room in the House of Commons where we discussed events informally. In Parliament I usually followed him in debate and I would have agreed with him more, if I had not been anxious to embarrass him less. [59]

James F. Byrnes, the US secretary of state, wrote that ‘Britain’s stand ... was not altered in the slightest.’ [60]

Notwithstanding the economic plight of Britain, Attlee’s government devoted a greater proportion of the GNP to defence than any other non-Communist nation in the period before the Korean war.

In 1947 British defense expenditures amounted to 9.5 per cent of GNP, and American expenditures to 6.5 per cent; in 1950 they amounted to 7.7 per cent, American to 5.9 per cent, and French to 5.0 per cent. Where defense manpower was concerned, it was the same story: in 1948 Britain had double the percentage of men under arms as the United States, and in 1950 still more than 50 per cent as much. [61]

The Attlee government tried to salvage Britain’s dwindling world imperialist role, notwithstanding its decline during the Second World War. Imperialism had bolstered British capitalism during the latter decades of the nineteenth century and during the 1930s, but history could not be repeated. Massive spending on armaments, started by Attlee and continued by the Tories during the 1950s, only accelerated the relative decline of British capitalism compared to other countries. Germany spent very little on armaments, and Japan even today spends only about 1 per cent of it GNP. While both these countries were engaged in a high level productive investment in new factories and new technology, British capitalism wasted resources.

The linchpin of Labour’s policy was the ‘special relationship’ with the USA. This was the means by which Britain’s world role was preserved – by accepting the position of junior partner to the Americans in the new world economic and political order. Britain ceded the job of world policeman to the US, but still maintained extensive military commitments in certain areas – including Greece, Palestine, the Middle East, Singapore and Malaysia. The new relationship was cemented by Bevin’s creation of NATO, which was established in April 1949.

Britain also accepted a subordinate position to the USA in the world financial field. Sterling was restored as an international currency – not, however, as powerful as the dollar.

In March 1946 Attlee became the first prime minister in British history to implement military conscription in peacetime with the setting up of National Service. Pressure from the PLP at first reduced the period of service from the intended eighteen months to twelve. The brass hats did not like it. As Lord Montgomery, Chief of the Imperial General Staff, recalled:

In October 1948, we assembled the Military Members of the Army Council ... and asked them if they were all prepared to resign in a body, led by me, if anything less than eighteen months National Service with the Colours was decided upon by the Government. They all agreed. [62]

The government capitulated. Like the Curragh mutiny this was a demonstration that the state machine was not neutral, to be used by any party that happened to be in office, but was an instrument of the ruling class.

When the Korean War broke out conscription was increased to two years. Korea had been partitioned at the end of the Second World War. The war between north and south began on 25 June 1950. Two days later the cabinet agreed unanimously to endorse US intervention in support of the south. [63] British troops were immediately sent to assist. When the issue eventually reached the House of Commons on 5 July, only three Labour MPs voted against the government action.

The Labour Government also helped to crush risings in Greece, Malaya and Vietnam.

Indian independence: A shining exception?

The granting of independence to India seems to run the right-wing trend of Attlee’s foreign policy. Labour leader depicted it as a magnanimous gesture. In fact it was brought about by the revolt of the Indian navy in February 1946, alongside movements in the military and air services and massive civil disturbances which led to the deaths of 223 people in Bombay. [64] This made nonsense of what one historian calls ‘the legend of magnanimity’:

[In February 1946] the whole of the Navy in India was immobilized for five days ... In Bombay and Karachi British forces actually engaged in battle with Indian sailors. It is hardly conceivable that such a crisis did not have a direct impact on the attitude of the Labour Party towards independence ... Nehru’s biographer ... notes that ‘it seems more than a mere coincidence that the announcement about the British Cabinet Mission was made one day after the outbreak of the Bombay mutiny’. [65]

It was the threat of a revolution that forced the hands of the government. In the words of P.J. Griffiths, leader of the European Group in the Indian Central Legislative Assembly during 1946: ‘India in the opinion of many was on the verge of a revolution before the British Cabinet Mission arrived. The Cabinet Mission has at least postponed if not eliminated the danger.’ [66] The respite was brief. Lord Ismay, chief of staff to Mountbatten, the Viceroy charged with the transfer of power, described the situation a year later:

India in March, 1947, was a ship on fire in mid-ocean with ammunition in the hold. By then it was a question of putting out the fire before it reached the ammunition. There was, in fact, no option before us but to do what we did. [67]

Even the editor of the Daily Mail admitted that to stay in India ‘it would have needed an occupation force of 500,000 men’ – and no such force was could have been made available given Britain’s other commitments. [68]

Forced out unwillingly from India, Attlee nevertheless made sure that British capital would not suffer unduly. The 1947 settlement negotiated by Lord Mountbatten with the leaders of the Indian Congress Party and the Moslem League was both a retreat for Britain and a compromise for British imperialism with the capitalists and landlords of the sub-continent. This included the partition of India into two states, India and Pakistan, with extremely artificial boundaries, leading to mass shifts of population, communal bloodbaths and the wholesale flight of refugees. There many massacres, especially in the Punjab, with Sikhs and Moslems primarily involved. Perhaps half a million lost their lives. [69]

Despite the massive human suffering not a penny of British investment had been sacrificed. Thus the Attlee government was far more effective in defending British interests in India than the French were with their prolonged colonial struggle in Indochina and Algeria, the Dutch in Indonesia, the Belgians in the Congo, or the Portuguese in Angola and Mozambique.

South Africa

Until this point India had been the touchstone for Labour’s attitude to imperialism. Since 1947, however, South Africa has taken its place. Attlee set the tone for what has been one of the ugliest features of Labour’s foreign policy in government.

Richard Ovendale has described Labour’s reaction to the Nationalist Party election victory and establishment of apartheid in 1948. In the growing atmosphere of Cold War elsewhere in the world, the Nationalists in South Africa could be useful allies, being ‘terrified of communism’ and ‘in “complete sympathy” with the aims of British foreign policy.’ Admiration was mutual. A cabinet paper of September 1950 wished to cultivate South Africa’s goodwill ‘from the general strategic and defence points of view’ In addition uranium for the nuclear programme, gold for the sterling area and the hundreds of millions of pounds worth of British investments in South Africa were powerful inducements towards friendship.

In 1951 Patrick Gordon Walker, Labour secretary of state for Commonwealth relations reported on South Africa:

Those who argue that because we dislike the Union’s Native policy we should ostracise her and have nothing to do with her completely fail to understand the realities of the situation. Such a policy would not only gravely harm us in the defence and economic fields it would also weaken our power to deter South Africa from foolhardy acts from fear of breaking with us.

Ovendale concludes:

it was Attlee’s Labour governments that perceived South Africa’s strategic and economic importance for Britain, and the need to maintain contact to ameliorate the policy of apartheid. They laid down the fundamentals of British policy towards South Africa that were, with fluctuations, pursued for the following 30 years. [70]

Labour and the bomb

One of the most remarkable events in the 1945–51 period must be the production of the atom bomb. Not only did Attlee introduce the nuclear arms programme, but he kept it secret from the public, the trade unions, the party executive, the Parliamentary Labour Party and most of the cabinet! It seems that only those cabinet ministers on the secret committee Gen 75, which since 1945 had dealt with decision-making on atomic energy, had any inkling of the existence of Britain’s atomic bomb. [1*] [71]

During the whole period of the 1945–51 Labour government there was not a single Commons debate devoted to atomic energy. In the same six years the subject figured less than ten times on the cabinet agenda and seven of these were concerned with the two visits Attlee made to US President Harry Truman in November 1945 and December 1950. Apart from these:

the Cabinet as a body was completely excluded from all the major decisions on atomic policy in these years. It took no part in the decisions to establish a research establishment, to build piles to produce plutonium, or, later, to build gaseous diffusion plants to separate uranium 235; no part in the decisions to make and then test in atomic bomb ... and about the planned place of atomic bombs in British strategy. [72]

Not until October 1952, when Britain first publicly tested her own atomic weapons on the Montebello Islands off the North West Australian coast, did the decision of the Attlee government become general knowledge.

Remarkable complacency in the ranks

By and large Labour MPs were very placid. In very few cases did a number of MPs vote against the government. The opposition of the left inside the Parliamentary Labour Party was sporadic and dominated by issues of foreign policy and defence. [2*] This passivity extended to the party outside parliament.

Throughout the six years of the Attlee government the Labour Party executive was completely tame. In the words of Bob McKenzie:

not once in the lifetime of the Labour Government of 1945 and 1950 did the NEC give any public indication that it disagreed with any item of Government ... At each of the conferences during the period 1946 to 1951 the NEC invariably acted as a watchdog for the Government; they never once advocated, or were even prepared to tolerate, a proposal which differed in any significant particular from the policies of the Labour Government.

One reason for this was that:

The Executive of the Party ... is impotent during a Labour Government, since constitutionally Cabinet Ministers, although themselves members of the Executive, must not discuss in their secondary capacity details of what they have done as Privy Councillors. [73]

The party executive actually withered through disuse. Whereas in the 1930s it met on average thirty-five times a year, after 1945 it managed fewer than twelve meetings a year. [74] The idea that the national Labour Party can really control the parliamentary leaders has always been a nonsense. It is doubly so when they are in government.

Critics of government policies on the executive probably never numbered more than four or five of its twenty-seven members. Its docility led Harold Laski to refuse further membership in 1948, on the ground that he could operate more effectively as an individual party member. [75]

The executive was matched by conferences. In Tribune Ian Mikardo pronounced them to be ‘as dead as the dodo’. [76] McKenzie furnishes the proof: ‘On a total of only nine occasions during the six party conferences (1946–51) was the advice of the NEC rejected by the conference ... [3*] [77] On the whole, the Attlee Governments were as nearly immune as any Conservative Govern­ment can expect to be from outright condemnation by its annual conference.’ [78]

Strains did eventually appear over foreign policy and the dislocation caused by the Korean War. Nonetheless the 1950 conference endorsed Britain’s involvement in Korea by a huge majority. The star of the conference was Nye Bevan, who made a passionate plea for the conference to rally behind the government. Bevan said that that conference showed a ‘greater degree of unity than I have ever known before in my experience in the Labour Party.’ [79]

This was remarkable in view of the constant skirmishing during the first MacDonald government and the deep split of the second. Later Harold Wilson’s administration would experience great turbulence at conferences between 1964 and 1970, and there was to be a yawning gulf between left and right under the Labour governments of 1974–9.

Because Labour combines class and nation, it is inevitable that individuals should synthesise them in different ways. Usually the left emphasises the immediate aspirations of workers, while the right stresses that a healthy national system is necessary before workers’ demands can be attended to. There is an in-built tension. The 1945–51 government showed that despite this habitual animosity between left and right, together they form a fundamental unity. Since Keynesian economics appeared to gratify the claims of the left, Attlee and the cabinet were able to pursue a very right-wing reformism without opposition. This was shown by the fate of the Keep Left manifesto and Tribune.

A feeble opposition: Keep Left

In May 1947 Keep Left was published by Richard Crossman, Michael Foot and Ian Mikardo. Another twelve MPs put their names to this manifesto. Though covering domestic policy, its sharpest criticism was directed at foreign and defence policy. As always, reformists are far more radical on issues far from home since these relate less directly to real domestic class struggle.

The core of the pamphlet was that ‘Britain has been driven into a dangerous dependence on the United States.’ It called for the abandonment of the ‘Tory idea of bolstering up the British Empire with American dollars and fighting America’s battle with British soldiers.’ Britain should ‘regain her independence.’ Not strong enough to do this on her own, she should create a ‘third force’ in the shape of a European Socialist alliance based on Britain and France. More socialism was needed at home to assist the economy and avoid dependence on the United States. This demanded more planning to cut costs of production and thus encourage the export drive. A synthesis of the national interest and socialism were at the heart of Keep Left.

At little over a year, Keep Left holds the record as the shortest lived left rebellion in the history of Labour: Marshall Aid from America killed it stone dead. This aid, designed to restore stable capitalism to war-tom Western Europe, was very popular indeed Cripps described is as ‘an act of grand immediate generosity and enlightenment.’ [80] He later stated: ‘Without Marshall Aid something like one and a half million men might have been thrown out of work for lack of raw materials.’ [81]

Reformists dare not bite the hand that pays for reforms, whatever its source. The American cash injections of 1946 and 1948 helped pay for the welfare state and tied Labour Britain firmly to US imperialist objectives. The price of Labour’s reformism was an alliance with international capitalism, and the cold war.

Crossman, one of the authors of Keep Left, explained the impact of the Marshall Plan on his thinking:

I will be frank. My own views about America have changed a great deal in the last six months. Many members have had a similar experience. I could not have believed six months ago that a plan of this sort would have been worked out in detail with as few conditions. [82]

Thus an amendment to the Marshall Plan got short shrift at the 1948 Labour Party conference. [83]

Crossman now wrote Keep Left’s obituary. He put its demise down to two factors: first the economic austerity policy of Cripps with which Keep Left agreed; second, the announcement of Marshall Aid. ‘Once Cripps took over the economic front and began serious Socialist planning, and once Ernest Bevin adopted Western Union [NATO] and began to make it work, it was my view that the Keep Left group had fulfilled its purpose.’ [84]

Tribune, loyal guard of the government

Tribune was for many years the mouthpiece of the Labour left, or more precisely, of the left in the Parliamentary Labour Party. Let us see what its attitude was to various planks of the government’s policy.

Tribune was enthusiastic about Stafford Cripps’ austerity policy and his wage freeze. If anything the measures did not go far enough. An editorial on the 1948 budget stated: ‘So far both the Government and the TUC have failed to make an adequately bold approach towards a wages policy ... Sir Stafford Cripps should have done more.’ [85]

When in October 1949 the government announced massive spending cuts, Tribune asked in an editorial ‘Do the Cuts Make Sense? answered unequivocally, ‘Yes’: ‘They have one immediate aim, and one only – to enable the country to get the central advantage of devaluation’. The government was however criticised’ for not presenting the cuts in a more understandable and stimulating way.’ [86]

Strikes did not find favour with Tribune. An editorial in June 1948 declared:

Tribune believes that the dock strike is an unmitigated calamity. We think that the dockers were wrong to strike and that they could only do injury to themselves by persistence in this course. We dearly hope that by the time we go to press the men will have returned to work’. [87]

When a State of Emergency was declared in July 1949 with the aim of breaking a national dock strike, Tribune had this to say:

the Government has now staked its authority on the success of the emergency powers, and we must hope that the dockers will quickly accept the verdict and return to work ... We hope they will quickly realise that it is only the Communist and Tory enemies of trade union rights who stand to profit by their action. [88]

Many other examples could be cited.

If once you mistake economic planning under capitalism for socialism, such confusion is inevitable. As Tribune showed, ultimately such reformist delusions lead those who hold them to turn against the workers.

Tribune again and again commended union leaders for supporting wage restraint, complaining only that the policy was too loose. What was necessary was a legally binding incomes policy. Writing on the White Paper on Personal Incomes it stated: ‘ ... the White Paper sits precariously on the fence between free wage bargaining and Government intervention in wage regulations.’ [89] The latter should be imposed against what Mikardo called the prevailing ‘wage anarchy’ [90]: ‘It really is idle to talk about planned economy with an unplanned wages sector ... That revolution won’t be easy to accomplish, but without it we have no real hope of Socialism in our time.’ [91]

Together with government ministers and trade union bureaucrats, Tribune indulged in the witch-hunting of Communists for ‘inciting’ strikes. Attlee’s decision to remove Communists (and fascists) from certain civil service posts in the spring of 1948 was endorsed:

[Communists] owe allegiance to another State ... They do not accept the premises of democracy ... To ask that Ministers should be prepared to trust Communist Party members with security secrets seems absurd. [92]

In similar vein Tribune supported the ban on Communist holding office in the TGWU in 1949.

Tribune could stand reality on its head to defend the government. When Ernest Bevin’s maiden speech as foreign secretary emphasised the continuity of his policy with that of the war time coalition, Tribune wrote: ‘Ernest Bevin’s speech in the Commons last week marked a turning point which future historians might well describe as the moment at which Britain broke the continuity of her foreign policy.’ [93]

Tribune criticised only details. On the main issues – NATO, Marshall Aid, National Service, the response to the Russian blockade of Berlin, the Korean war – it was in complete agreement with the government.

On NATO, for example, Tribune said: ‘it certainly improves the chance [of peace] because it makes aggression against any of the member states more dangerous for the aggressor.’ [94] This was too much for Ian Mikardo, who resigned from the editorial board. He could not stand the transformation of the paper from a fellow-travelling broadsheet of Moscow in the 1930s to being a shadow of Washington. In contrast Nye Bevan backed NATO fully: ‘I never have had any doubt – that Western Europe is perfectly entitled to form whatever alignments and coalitions, and take whatever measures it wishes for its own defence.’ [95]

When the House of Commons voted on the establishment of NATO on 12 May 1949, Churchill had a field day. Not one Tribune stalwart had voted against. He recalled that immediately after his famous cold war speech, in which he had coined the phrase ‘iron curtain’, 105 MPs moved a motion of censure against him. Where were they now? ‘I do not see them all here today ... we have got about a hundred [converts] in a bunch, so far as I can make out.’ [96]

Tribune not only supported the introduction of National Service but with little disagreement wanted its selective extension to two and a half years. [97] When it came to the Berlin blockade, Bevan urged the cabinet to send tanks across the Russian zone of Germany to back up the Western airlift. [98] When Harry Truman, who had ordered the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, was re-elected president of the USA at the end of 1948, Tribune was ecstatic ‘Salute to America! ... We have no hesitation in hailing the sensational Democratic triumph at the polls as a victory for the common people all over the world. [99]

At the outbreak of the Korean War, Tribune came out firmly on the side of the United States, whose action:

demonstrated that there is no possibility of Communist aggression succeeding by reason of Western appeasement. The West has shown that it has preferred to fight, if need be, and that is a lesson that will not be lost on the Russians. [100]

When the American army was doing well in the field, Tribune argued that it should not stop at the 38th Parallel, the border of North and South Korea, but should go on to unite the whole country. [101]

At the same time Tribune waxed enthusiastic about the British Empire:

We want to stay in Africa both for our own purposes and in the interests of the African peoples ... Africa offers huge natural resources which can be exploited for the benefit of Britain and the world ... We do not need to apologize for our mission in Africa. Whatever the reason which took our forebears there, we must stay. [102]

In fact one of the charges Tribune laid at the door of the Tories was that they ‘neglected the Empire.’ [103] Nationalism was the paper’s dominant obsession.

Michael Foot chooses as Bevan’s outstanding feature that he spoke about Great Britain: ‘he always used the “Great” long after most others had abandoned it.’ [104] For example, in a speech on 4 July 1948 Bevan said:

The eyes of the world are turning to Great Britain. We now have the moral leadership of the world, and before many years we shall have people coming here as to a modem Mecca, learning from us in the twentieth century as they learnt from us in the seventeenth century. [105]

In his speech of resignation from the government Bevan stated: ‘There is only one hope for mankind, and that hope remains in this little island.’ [106] Foot, quoting these words, adds: ‘He would never allow the Tories to purloin the patriotic argument.’ [107] Marx’s words that ‘workers have no country’ were a sealed book for Bevan and Foot.


History has been kind to Attlee. In the midst of today’s mass unemployment, privatisation and welfare cuts, his tenure in office seems a paradise by comparison. [4*]

Yet the real legacy of 1945–51, like so much in Labour’s history, is deeply paradoxical. After only twenty months in office, the weakness of British capitalism, its dependence on the US and the massive burden of imperialism put an end to the government aggressive reformism. Its final collapse in 1951 was rooted in the same causes, this time sharpened by the impact of the Korean War On foreign affairs, nuclear issues, and the suppression of strikes Labour had behaved like its capitalist rivals, and sometimes with more effect.

On the other hand the party kept its popularity with workers high. In forty-three by-elections it lost only one seat! Furthermore the October 1951 general election gave Labour the highest poll ever achieved by one party – 13,948,605 votes – 48.8 per cent of the total votes cast. Only the vagaries of the electoral system gave the Tories a majority in parliament. Notwithstanding austerity and rationing at home, and wars overseas, Labour kept its support. How can we explain this?

First of all the economic difficulties were viewed by the mass of the people as a consequence of war rather than government mismanagement. Secondly, the existence of full employment, contrasting so strongly with the 1930s, served as proof that the government kept its promises. Finally, as the level of industrial militancy was low compared with the period after the First World War, the Labour government demonstrated success in making the transition from war to peace. And to many, the reforms granted to workers were the main reason for the social peace.

Another striking feature of the time was that although Labour had acted as it always does in government – as the manager of capitalism – the left were applauding this loudly. Again, how was this done?

MacDonald had had the excuse that he led only minority governments to explain his behaviour as prime minister. Attlee had no such alibi. Instead he grasped the nettle, and dispensed with even a verbal commitment to the ending of capitalism. He got away without trouble because of the world boom. This was one of those increasingly rare moments during which British capitalism was not in crisis. So Attlee could perform what is usually an impossible feat of magic – to satisfy the ruling class without alienating working-class supporters. For once the reformist project worked. So great was expansion that the bosses’ desire to accumulate could be satisfied while something was left over to sweeten the system for the workers. This was not a situation likely to be repeated. Attlee’s government is likely to remain the highest pinnacle of reformist practice.

This brings us to the question of how many reforms were gained by having Labour rather than the Tories in office.

The Tories would not have nationalised steel. But in any case, Labour ignored its 1945 manifesto commitment to do so until January 1951, and steel was returned to private hands after the Tory election victory in October. Apart from this, as later developments showed, the Tories understood the need to maintain an infrastructure and a productive, well-educated workforce. If we give Labour the benefit of the doubt we can say that their reforms went a bit further. But that is all. As comparisons with countries without reformist governments show, not too much can be made of the difference between Labour and Tory welfare.

Indeed, it can be argued that in many ways the Labour government of 1945–51 was an obstacle to any but the most limited reforms. Under Attlee capitalists conceded as much and no more than they felt like. We know that they were not afraid of Labour’s parliamentary majority. Neither 600 people sitting on benches and emitting hot air, nor ‘popular opinion’ has ever prevented capitalists from fighting tooth and nail to defend their interests. Bosses are, however, afraid of the power of the working class. By 1944 workers had been showing a capacity for action and self-activity not seen since before the General Strike. Yet it was precisely this force that Labour successfully shackled through the union bureaucracy and, where that failed, by using troops as strikebreakers.

The political results of Attlee’s government lasted beyond 1951. The Labour leadership had tied itself more closely to the ruling class than ever before. Worse still, it had led many of its most active supporters more or less to renounce the idea of overcoming capitalism (even by gradual stages) and to accept not only that the system was here to stay, but that it should be consciously nurtured. For the minority who considered themselves socialists, the result was disastrous. The Labour left was reduced to a pathetic rump and the space for revolutionary socialist ideas was cut to a minimum. Looked at in this way, the ruling class got the best of the deal

However the picture was not so simple.

Because Labour was in office, the language of consensus came to be expressed in reformist terms. This was of long-term importance. Many of the gains of 1945–51 were not especially due to Labours efforts, yet the period planted the idea in the working class that workers had a right to a job, a right to decent housing, and a right to health. It was society’s duty to provide them. Other countries, such as Germany and the US, may have delivered a similar level of reforms since 1945, but, because they lacked the veneer of reformist ideology provided by a Labour Party, they were not seen as a social duty in the same way. British workers gained only the crumbs from the rich pickings of the booming world economy, but they did not see them as crumbs, but as theirs as of right – and this stored up a potential for resistance when those crumbs were withdrawn. Even today this potential, around issues such as the health service, is a long way from being exhausted.

Therefore the assault on the post-war consensus mounted since the mid-1970s (first by Wilson and Callaghan and more radically by Thatcher) is a reactionary attack on reformist consciousness, which, because it partially represents working-class aspirations, must be resisted.

Even during the Attlee government, the reformist consensus was shown to be built on unstable foundations. The reforming zeal of the government had more or less run out by 1948, and still the mole of history went on working. The increasing suppression of unofficial strikes, the bouts of inflation especially following the devaluation of the pound in 1949, the outbreak of the Korean War, the cuts, all caused a degree of disaffection among politically advanced workers that was reflected in the Labour Party.

The growing threat that the Korean War could escalate into a far wider conflict, and rising witch-hunts against Communists, jolted the constituency parties to revolt against the national executive from 1952 onwards, and spurred wide rank and file support for Bevan in the unions.

Attlee’s government had not ushered in socialism. Its real triumph lay in its steering of British capitalism through a period of stress in the aftermath of the Second World War, and in assisting the USA to stabilise capitalism the world over.


1*. A key role in Gen 75 was played by Sir John Anderson, an Independent Conservative sitting on the opposition front bench. In January 1947 Gen 75 was converted into Gen 163, a secret cabinet committee consisting of Attlee, Bevin, Morrison, A.V. Alexander (minister of defence), J. Wilmot (minister of supply, later replaced by Strauss), and Lord Addison, the Dominions secretary. It was this committee that decided, in the month it was established, to make the bomb. Expenditure on atomic research and development was concealed under other items.

2*. Here some of the few examples in which this occurred:

3*. McKenzie records:

‘in 1946 the conference passed four resolutions which were opposed by the NEC ... The 1947 conference overrode the advice of Aneurin Bevan, the Minister of Health and a member of the NEC, by passing a resolution favouring the abolition of tied cottages. The same conference overwhelmingly insisted on adopting a resolution favouring equal pay for equal work for women despite a plea from the NEC that the resolution should be withdrawn. The 1948 conference renewed the demand for the abolition of tied cottages, again overriding Aneurin Bevan and the NEC; and the same conference passed a resolution opposing “any reduction or withdrawal of food or clothing subsidies ...” During the conferences held in the three year 1949–51 inclusive, the Executive’s advice was rejected on only one issue involving ... food distribution ... This ... apart, the NEC had not the slightest difficulty in restraining the conference from taking action which would in any way embarrass the Labour Government.’ [77]

4*. It has not always been the case. When memories were still fresh, both right and left found things they objected to, although this never amounted to a full-scale attack. The right blamed the government for its cloth-cap image and too close identification with obsolete shibboleths such as nationalisation. The left pointed to its failure to capture the commanding heights of the economy, and its capitulation to big business and the cold war.


1. Hansard, 23 April 1951.

2. E.E. Barry, Nationalisation in British Politics (London 1965), p. 375.

3. Hansard, 16 August 1945.

4. See R. Eatwell, The 1945–51 Labour Governments (London 1978), p. 68.

5. Miliband, p. 290.

6. H. Eckstein, The English National Health Service (Cambridge, Massachusetts 1960), pp. ix–x.

7. D.N. Chester, Nationalisation of British Industry 1945-51 (London 1975) pp. 38 and following.

8. J. Lee, My Life with Nye (London 1980), pp. 180–1.

9. K.O. Morgan, Labour in Power 1945-51 (London 1984), p. 371.

10. Bevan, In Place of Fear, p. 98.

11. K. Marx and F. Engels, The Communist Manifesto, in The Revolutions of 1848 (Harmondsworth 1973) p. 79.

12. Manchester Guardian, 19 February 1943, quoted in I. Birchall, Bailing out the System (London 1986), p. 51.

13. Quoted in D. Widgery, Health in Danger (London 1979) p. 24.

14. J. Campbell, Nye Bevan and the Mirage of British Socialism (London 1987), p. 168.

15. Quoted in Morgan, p. 156.

16. Hansard, 9 February 1948, quoted in Foot, Bevan, Volume 2, p. 186.

17. Campbell, p. 178.

18. Widgery, pp. 40–41.

19. D.E. Ashford, Policy and Politics in Britain (Oxford 1981) p. 200.

20. Lenin, Collected Works, [What to Fight For], vol. 26 [actually vol. 16 – MIA], p. 170 and [The Russian Bourgeoisie and Russian Reformism], vol. 19, p. 327.

21. A. Cairncross, Years of Recovery: British Economic Policy 1945–51 (London 1985), p. 500.

22. R. Ovendale (ed.), The Foreign Policy of the British Labour Government 1945–51 (Leicester 1984), p. 3.

23. News Chronicle, 31 December 1946, quoted in H. Pelling, The Labour Government 1945–1 (London 1984), p. 165.

24. Morgan, p. 332.

25. H. Dalton, High Tide and After (London 1962), p. 187.

26. Morgan, p. 340.

27. Morgan, p. 347.

28. The Times, 24 October 1947, quoted in Pelling, p. 184.

29. Morgan, p. 369.

30. Hansard, 24 October 1949.

31. Allen, p. 290.

32. Cairncross, pp. 405–6.

33. Allen, pp. 32–4.

34. PRO Cab 129/41 CP(50) 158, 5 July 1950.

35. Jeffery and Hennessy, p. 160.

36. PRO Cab 134/175.

37. PRO Cab 134/175, 1 May 1947.

38. PRO Cab 134/175, 23 June 1947.

39. PRO FREM 8/1290, 24 January 1950.

40. W. Brome, Aneurin Bevan (London 1953), p. 194.

41. PRO FREM 8/673, 15 May 1947.

42. PRO Cab 128/10 CM 51 (47), 3 June 1947.

43. PRO Cab CP(50) 117, 26 May 1950.

44. G. Ellen, Labour and strike-breaking 1945–1951, in International Socialism 2 : 24 (Summer 1984), p. 45.

45. R.A. Butler, The Art of the Possible (London 1971) ,p. 146.

46. A. Gamble, The Conservative Nation (London 1974), p. 44.

47. H. Macmillan, Tides of Fortune (London 1969), p. 302.

48. Economist, 13 February 1954.

49. J. Morgan (ed.), The Backbench Diaries of Richard Crossman (London 1981), p. 30.

50. Eatwell, p. 116.

51. Labour Conference 1948, p. 122.

52. Labour Conference 1948,pp. 122–3.

53. Labour Conference 1949, p. 159.

54. Labour Conference 1949, p. 169.

55. Attlee, pp. 226–7.

56. Labour Conference 1945, p. 114.

57. Evening News, 26 July 1945.

58. Hansard, 20 August 1945.

59. A. Eden, Memoirs: Full Circle (London 1960), p. 5.

60. J.F. Byrnes, Speaking Frankly (London 1947), p. 79.

61. R.N. Rosencrance, British Defense Strategy, 1945-1952, in R.N. Rosencrance (ed.), The Dispersion of Nuclear Weapons (New York 1964), p. 69.

62. Field Marshal Viscount Montgomery of Alamein, Memoirs (London 1958).

63. PRO Cab 128/18, Cabinet conclusions 27 June 1950.

64. Pelling, p. 65.

65. I. Davies, The Labour Commonwealth, in New Left Review, December 1963.

66. R. Palme Dutt, The Crisis of Britain and the British Empire (London 1957), p. 199.

67. Quoted in A. Campbell-Johnson, Mission with Mountbatten (London 1951).

68. Campbell-Johnson, pp. 199–200.

69. Morgan, p. 226.

70. Ovendale (ed.), pp. 14–16.

71. M. Gowing, Independence and Deterrence, vol. 1 (London 1974), p. 21.

72. Gowing, pp. 19–20.

73. Martin, p. 218.

74. McKenzie, p. 525.

75. Martin, p. 218.

76. Tribune, 28 May 1948.

77. McKenzie, p. 512.

78. McKenzie, pp. 511–2.

79. Labour Conference 1950, p. 130.

80. Hansard, 5 July 1948.

81. Daily Telegraph, 15 July 1948, quoted in Gordon, p. 167.

82. Hansard, 23 January 1948.

83. Labour Conference 1948, p. 200.

84. Tribune, 26 November 1948.

85. Tribune, 9 April 1948.

86. Tribune, 28 October 1949.

87. Tribune, 25 June 1948.

88. Tribune, 15 July 1949.

89. Tribune, 13 February 1948.

90. Tribune, 1 June 1951.

91. Tribune, 6 January 1950.

92. Tribune, 19 March 1948.

93. Tribune, 30 November 1945.

94. Tribune, 18 March 1949.

95. Hansard, 14 May 1952.

96. Hansard, 12 May 1949.

97. Tribune, 28 October 1949.

98. Foot, Bevan, vol. 2, pp. 227–8.

99. Tribune, 5 November 1948.

100. Tribune, 30 June 1950.

101. Tribune, 6 October 1950.

102. Tribune, 20 August 1948.

103. Tribune, 1 April 1949.

104. Foot, Bevan, vol. 2, p. 299.

105. Foot, Bevan, vol. 2, p. 234.

106. Hansard, 23 April 1951.

107. Foot, Bevan, vol. 2, p. 332.

Last updated on 14 August 2017