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International Socialism, Spring 1994


Adrian Budd

Nation and empire: Labour’s foreign policy 1945–51


From International Socialism 2:62, Spring 1994.
Copyright © International Socialism.
Copied with thanks from the International Socialism Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


John Saville
The Politics of Continuity: British Foreign Policy and the Labour Government, 1945–51
Verso 1993, £34.95

When Labour won the 1945 election with a 146 seat majority it was reaping the electoral benefit of a popular radicalism which had emerged during the war years. The experience of state intervention, full employment and the sense that the working class had made the major contribution to the defeat of fascism demanded that the horror of the 1930s should never be repeated. For the Labour leaders, however, ‘the impact of war upon them was very different from the impact it had on their supporters’. [1]

The Attlee government’s domestic programme went a little further than the Tories might have wished, but the differences were more quantitative than qualitative and Labour’s emphasis on efficiency rather than equality posed no threat to British capitalism. Indeed, alongside financial orthodoxy, Labour was prepared to use troops as strike breakers and to impose a wage freeze in its attempts to restore the health of British capitalism.

Continuity was also the theme in foreign policy. Attlee had written in 1937 that ‘there is no agreement on foreign policy between a Labour opposition and a capitalist government’ [2], but, as part of the wartime government, Labour had supported the traditional foreign policy objectives of the British state. Although, in the changed circumstances of the rise of the two superpowers, the 1945 manifesto suggested that co-operation with both the US and the USSR would be sought, the proposal to apply ‘socialist analysis to the world situation’ was mere rhetoric.

On the day of the election victory Bevin said that ‘British foreign policy will not be altered in any way under the Labour Government’ [3], and in his first Commons debate as Foreign Secretary he and his Tory predecessor, Eden, spoke in glowing terms of their mutual respect and fundamental agreement. This was later echoed in Eden’s memoirs. The Foreign Office view was summed up by a senior official, Oliver Harvey, who wrote that Bevin was ‘bent on a foreign policy we can only approve, much what Anthony’s policy would have been ...’ [4]

The result was that ‘for the first two years of the Labour government there was a highly vocal opposition to Ernest Bevin’s foreign policy from within the Parliamentary Labour Party’, as well as sections of the trade unions. [5] This opposition petered out in 1947 but, in any case, had no impact on the government’s policy. It did mean, however, that Bevin had to tread softly in public, particularly over relations with Russia, and this gave the false impression that he remained committed to the wartime alliance.

The conceptual framework of Attlee-Bevinite diplomacy revolved around the continuation of the empire and the view that Britain remained a great power. In October 1944 Labour had supported British intervention against the popular forces of the Greek Communist resistance, ELAS, in favour of the pro-monarchist right wing Voulgaris government. At the December 1944 party conference Bevin argued that ‘the British Empire cannot abandon its position in the Mediterranean’, [6] and, although Nye Bevan’s riposte won the loudest applause, Bevin won on the block vote. He was able to rely on this in coming years.

The Greek action was designed to head off threats to Britain’s interests in the Middle East, since, in an early version of the domino theory, it was assumed that the fall of Greece would cut the empire in half and allow the USSR to fill the vacuum with consequences which would reverberate around the eastern Mediterranean and beyond. The imperialist requirements of oil, export markets and trade routes outweighed any consideration of the degree of popular support for the resistance which had rapidly established its control over the majority of Greek territory.

Similarly, Britain was instrumental in restoring French imperialism in Indo-China, and, immediately afterwards, that of the Dutch in Indonesia. British intervention against the Viet Minh Provisional Government in September 1945 was a bloody and horrific affair, conducted despite the collaboration of the French colonial administration with Japan during the war and the fact that the August revolution against Japan won general support throughout the country. Indeed, limited resources meant that Japanese troops were used against the Vietnamese, under British direction, to defend imperialist interests at the same time as the horrors of life in Japanese prisoner of war camps were being revealed in the British media. In justification of these actions, and in an attempt to cover up the massacres perpetrated during the reimposition of a brutal and corrupt French administration, Bevin produced a ‘louche statement of lies’ [7], in a Commons written answer. That Britain bears a primary responsibility for the three decades of war in Vietnam is proven by the historical record which John Saville brings to light, a record too often overlooked by other historians of British foreign policy.

This commitment to empire was not without its anomalies. Bevin’s talk of ‘peasants not pashas’ may merely have been designed to add a veneer of legitimacy to British power in the Middle East, but for two years Attlee held a position on the Middle East at odds with that of the Foreign Office and which appeared to entail, at least partially, a retreat from empire. He did not advocate independence for Britain’s possessions but international control via the UN. This would mean a sharing of British defence costs which, so rotten and vulnerable to revolt were the reactionary governments Britain supported, could be expected to escalate further. Thus, in practice, Attlee was a pragmatist and had begun to understand earlier than most the extent of Britain’s relative decline and diminishing status in the new conditions of superpower politics. Indeed, in March 1946 he suggested that henceforth Britain might best be seen ‘as an easterly extension of a strategic area the centre of which is the American continent rather than as a power looking eastwards through the Mediterranean to India and the East’. [8]

Attlee further argued that strategic discussions on the Middle East presupposed a naval defence of empire which had been rendered obsolete by the revolution in air warfare. It was only on the basis of this belief that sea power alone could no longer protect British imperial interests that Attlee committed the gravest of crimes in the eyes of the Foreign Office, a willingness to conciliate the USSR by granting it reasonable access to the world’s oceans via the Mediterranean.

None of these disagreements were ever made public, even to the majority of the cabinet, indicating that on the one occasion on which he dissented from the Foreign Office line he was not prepared to rock the boat. In any case, while arguments flowed to and fro, ‘diplomats and service chiefs pressed ahead with the maintenance of British political and military influence in the Middle East, and in general were able to limit the influence of those ministers who questioned the ability of Britain to support so expensive a commitment.’ [9] By mid-1947 Attlee was supporting Bevin against critics of the British presence in the region despite Treasury protests at the scale of British defence spending.

Attlee’s capitulation has been explained by the very real onslaught on his views from Bevin, the chiefs of staff and Foreign Office officials who all shared the assumption of Soviet hostility towards British interests in the region and resisted any diminution of the UK’s world role. Saville argues that Attlee’s leadership had never been universally popular within the Labour Party and he faced periodic, if not always intense, intrigues against it. Bevin, as the strongest personality in the cabinet, was crucial to the protection of his leader to the extent that Attlee ultimately deferred to Bevin and his officials, rather than risk disunity and a possible threat to his leadership.

Both explanations are inadequate and cannot account for Attlee’s obstinacy over two years and why his resistance faded when it did. Saville’s research shows that Attlee rehearsed his position for the last time in a paper dated 5 January 1947 and thereafter acknowledged defeat. Thus, on 13 January he endorsed the chiefs of staff view and its defence requirements. What is missing from his account is an event of cardinal importance from the intervening period, namely the decision taken on 8 January by the secret cabinet committee Gen 75, that the nuclear reactor programme was now sufficiently advanced to allow Britain to proceed with the production of its own atomic bomb. Indeed, to put Attlee’s new strategic thinking on international co-operation in perspective, he had earlier argued against the sharing of atomic information with the USSR, that Britain should be the world’s second atomic power and that the scale of the reactor programme would depend on ‘the output of bombs which the Government thought necessary’. [10]

In the years before reliable and accurate missile technology these bombs could only reach the strategically important south of the USSR from bases in the Middle East. This explains why, from late 1946, the US encouraged Britain to stay in a region that would also, within a few years, become the chief source of America’s predicted oil import requirements.

Britain’s global role had thus become dependent on her position as loyal junior partner of the US. This was not simply the result of a shared strategic outlook but also of an increasing economic dependence which was already evident at the end of the war, with Britain reliant on US goodwill to protect her own global trading routes, and was further illustrated by the anxiety created by the early cancellation of Lend-Lease two days after the surrender of Japan. Later in 1945 came disappointment at the size of the US loan. But empire remained sacrosanct: Keynes, who negotiated the loan, argued that it ‘is primarily required to meet the political and military expenditure overseas’, and not social reform at home. [11]

Defence spending remained at a high level in the post-war period, falling from 20 percent of national income in 1946 but rising again to ten percent in 1951 under the impact of NATO and the Korean War [12], higher than any other European country except the USSR. Meanwhile workers’ living standards were squeezed: the continuation of wartime controls held imports and consumption levels down while exports were massively increased. Bread rationing was introduced in 1946 while wheat was exported to the British zone of occupied Germany. When the winter of 1946–47 saw Britain’s financial position reach crisis point, the only way out, short of a fundamental restructuring of priorities, was a further turn to the US. Without this, ‘... our financial nakedness [would] be fully apparent to the world,’ as a Foreign Office memorandum put it in February 1947. [13]

The logic of a foreign policy cast within a traditional framework lead inexorably to Bevin’s positive reaction to the enunciation of the Truman Doctrine in March 1947, despite the intensification and globalisation of the Cold War that it entailed. Similarly, when Marshall outlined his plan for the recovery of Europe in June, the prospect of further US subsidy for Britain’s global commitments was gleefully accepted. Labour even ran an international conference in March 1948 in order to sell support for the Marshall Plan to other European socialist parties.

British European policy had traditionally aimed to maintain a continental balance of power which would allow Britain a free hand to pursue its global interests. Labour now followed a variation on this theme. The March 1947 Dunkirk Treaty with France was seen as security against any possible revival of German power but the USSR was now the major concern of the Foreign Office and the Labour leadership. By late 1947 Labour left opposition to Bevin’s foreign policy had collapsed as he was putting in place the stepping stones towards NATO, a signal of resolve designed to encourage further US support for a West European bulwark against the USSR. Meanwhile, with a supercilious, patronising and even racist attitude towards Europe, Labour carefully avoided becoming embroiled in any of the integrationist schemes favoured by some of Europe’s rulers, ensuring that co-operation remained strictly inter-governmental. With the European balance stabilised by the superpowers, and with its expenditure subsidised by the US, Labour hoped to retain a free hand for the perpetuation of Britain’s global operations. [14]

Churchill’s view of Britain sitting at the centre of three interlocking circles, the Atlantic, empire and Europe, a position which guaranteed great power status, was thus shared by Labour. This was despite the constraints on Britain’s freedom for manoeuvre posed by relative economic decline, growing dependence on the US and, increasingly, superpower rivalry. Set against this ‘imperial overstretch’ [15] Labour’s acceptance of Indian independence in 1947 was less the act of principle that historians sympathetic to Labour have claimed it to be than an unavoidable retreat. Even old imperialists like Mountbatten and his lieutenants felt by 1947 that there was no alternative to withdrawal given the scale of opposition to British rule, as illustrated by the Bombay Mutiny of February 1946.

The continuity in foreign policy had two further noteworthy consequences. Firstly, there was the ‘incompatibility between Labour’s virtuous principles and the government’s obnoxious practices’ [16] as far as the exploitation of dependent colonies was concerned. In order to secure vital dollars for the empire, raw materials were pumped into world export markets while the industrial imports that might have eased the colonies onto the path of development in the post-war boom conditions, but which would have had to come from the US, were denied them. Under Labour a new twist was added to imperialist exploitation. Secondly, despite the 1945 manifesto’s insistence on state economic planning, ‘there never emerged any critical understanding of the role and place of the manufacturing sector in an advanced society or of the long-term consequences of the relative economic decline of the previous half century.’ [17] This was impossible without a fundamental overhaul of foreign policy and global commitments. Thus, although US dollars and the long boom hid the full effects of relative decline for at least another decade, even on a capitalist basis the Attlee government was a failure on a long term perspective.

The commitment to the alliance with the US was in the era of superpower bipolarity inevitably accompanied by hostility to the USSR. A great deal of ink has been spilt trying to show that Bevin was committed to continuing the wartime alliance and that he only abandoned it as a result of Stalin’s growing hard line in Eastern Europe and under pressure from his ministry officials. Not surprisingly, state officials were committed to capitalism and empire and thought the USSR, which they equated with socialism, the greatest threat to both. Their anti-Sovietism, which had been kept on hold by the balance of forces in the Second World War, was a constant theme in notes and memoranda. There is also little doubt that state officials influence foreign policy and Saville has unearthed a wealth of material which exposes the peculiarly reactionary nature of Bevin’s officials.

The Foreign Office also worked to shape domestic and global opinion against the USSR via a propaganda campaign in both domestic and overseas media, and via ‘foreign trade union leaders, politicians and publicists who could be relied on to take the opportunity of disseminating British propaganda on their return’. [18] But Bevin was never ensnared in this official policy against his will and it is quite wrong to assume that British Soviet policy might have been different had Bevin confronted his officials. Labour’s foreign policy did not result from any intellectual colonialism by the Foreign Office, but was rooted in the nationalism which is an inevitable part of Labour’s adherence to the parliamentary road, that is to the institutions of the British state.

Nevertheless, the leadership had to bide its time. Domestic opinion was not yet prepared to accept the state’s anti-Sovietism so soon after the war, while the left of the Labour Party and trade unions had yet to be brought into line behind Bevin’s foreign policy. The Foreign Office was well aware of this and, sympathetic towards Attlee and Bevin’s dilemma, argued that they ‘may find it undesirable to discuss too openly with certain of their colleagues this aspect of our official policy’. [19] The superficial notion of Bevin’s equivocation over relations with the USSR is blown apart by a detailed study of the sources which shows that his real motives, and those of the state, could not be fully expressed until the backbench and extra parliamentary opposition had collapsed.

Meanwhile, glimpses of the official policy which continued in practice were evident in, for example, the response to Churchill’s Iron Curtain speech of February 1946 in Fulton, Missouri. Officially it was felt to upset relations with the USSR, ‘but in private, Bevin viewed Churchill’s speech (of which he had been fully briefed in advance) with grim satisfaction, and never disavowed its tone’. [20] Similarly, Attlee refused to condemn the speech in the Commons. But it was only from mid-1947 that the government felt confident enough to echo Churchill’s anti-Sovietism in public.

In November 1946 the government had faced a backbench revolt over its conduct of foreign policy and at that year’s conference one resolution attacked the ‘apparent continuance of a traditionally Conservative Party policy of power politics abroad’. That the resolution was withdrawn when Bevin said that he regarded it as a measure of censure against him revealed the timidity of the left and heralded a further retreat later. But for now opposition continued in the shape of the Keep Left grouping, formed in April 1947.

The Labour left, prepared to comment but seldom to organise, and then often only under duress, has frequently reserved its major criticism for foreign policy where it can safely rehearse principled arguments long abandoned in practice. Keep Left thus argued for a foreign policy independent of the US and for a ‘third force’ of European social democracy, perhaps built around the Dunkirk Treaty of the previous month, that could halt the division of the world into antagonistic blocs. These aspirations were not rooted in any conception of socialism but were rather a left inflection of Labour’s patriotic reformism. Keep Left supported the continuance of the British Commonwealth and Chancellor Cripps’ austerity measures, seemingly equating virtually any state economic measures with socialism. Of course, Keep Left also supported Labour’s domestic reforms, but with state finances under pressure there was increasingly only one source of funds to finance them, that being the world’s most powerful capitalist state. With the announcement of the Marshall Plan the Keep Left rebellion began to peter out. The 1947 Party Conference saw the last opposition to Bevin’s foreign policy from the floor. Tribune encapsulated the hopeless dilemma of a parliamentary left which has discounted independent working class activity in the pursuit of socialism. Forced to choose between rival states’ claims to embody progress, Washington or Moscow, it welcomed Marshall Aid in an editorial under the absurd headline, ‘Dollars from Heaven’, and by January 1948 was arguing that the British left should support the progressive Truman against the isolationists in the US.

Henceforth, the government was free to pursue a traditional foreign policy unencumbered by any left opposition which had, in any case, been an inconvenience but never a determinant of policy. Indeed, even the bulk of the leadership was excluded from foreign policy formulation. To an expressed concern of Churchill’s that Labour Party foreign policy might be unduly influenced by the NEC, Attlee replied that Labour’s National Executive Committee might be consulted but had no power to challenge a Labour prime minister’s conduct.

Labour’s foreign policy, which also backed the Shah of Iran, the far right in Greece and countless other reactionaries across the globe, endorsed the national interest as defined by the ruling class but with a mild social democratic inflection. Working class prosperity was to be sought but would only be achieved via an economically efficient capitalism. Domestically, this required attacks on the working class in a negation of the very objective which Labour claimed to be seeking. At the international level it required support for the empire, which was justified, in essentially ruling class terms, as a civilising mission beneficial to those under its sway. But, however right wing its foreign policy, and whatever its contradictions, the Labour leadership could rely on the support of the trade union leaders.

John Saville’s book is not a complete history of this foreign policy, as he himself acknowledges, but an introduction to a number of key, and often neglected, issues of the period. It has its omissions, as noted above, the chief one being the atomic programme and its impact on strategic thinking. But it is a magnificent achievement nonetheless. It is a work of immense scholarship which ought to recast mainstream and academic thinking on the period and which reduces many of the previous books covering the same ground to the status of rattling good yarns. For readers of this journal it will confirm our long held view that nationalism is the unavoidable counterpart of reformism and that, particularly when in office, Labour subordinates working class interests to a national interest conceived in terms that differ only marginally from those of the Tories. The weight of evidence that Saville places at our disposal makes our arguments against this tradition all the more forceful.


1. R. Miliband, Parliamentary Socialism. A Study in the Politics of Labour, 2nd edition (London 1972), pp. 274–275.

2. Quoted in T. Cliff and D. Gluckstein, The Labour Party – A Marxist History (London 1988), p. 240.

3. Ibid., p. 240.

4. Quoted in R. Smith, Ernest Bevin, British Officials and British Soviet Policy, 1945–47, in A. Deighton (ed.), Britain and the First Cold War (Basingstoke 1990), p. 36.

5. J. Saville, The Politics of Continuity. British Foreign Policy and the Labour Government 1945–51 (London 1993), p. 2.

6. Labour Party Annual Conference Report 1944, p. 147 quoted in R. Miliband, op. cit., p. 282.

7. J. Saville, op. cit., p. 202.

8. Quoted in J. Saville, op. cit., p. l36.

9. C. Bartlett, British Foreign Policy in the Twentieth Century (Basingstoke 1989), p. 71.

10. Gen 75 18 December 1945, quoted in N. Wheeler, The Attlee Government’s Nuclear Strategy 1945–51 in A Deighton (ed.), op. cit., p. 133. In atomic policy, as elsewhere, Labour had the support of the Tories, to the extent that a member of the Tory front-bench, Sir John Anderson, played a more important role in this area than the majority of ministers.

11. Quoted in J. Saville, op. cit., p. 152.

12. Figures in K. Morgan, Labour in Power 1945–51 (Oxford 1984), p. 279.

13. Quoted in J. Saville, op. cit., p. 80.

14. See M. Newman, Socialism and European Unity. The Dilemma of the Left in Britain and France (London 1983) ch. 4 for a discussion of Labour’s European policy.

15. A key concept in P. Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of Great Powers (London 1989).

16. D. Fieldhouse, The Labour Governments and Empire-Commonwealth, 1945–51 in R. Ovendale (ed.), The Foreign Policy of the British Labour Governments, 1945–51 (Leicester 1984), p. 95.

17. J. Saville, op. cit., p. 169.

18. Foreign Office memorandum quoted in R. Smith, op. cit., p. 42. The TUC leader at the time, Walter Citrine, was bitterly anti-communist and a willing agent of the Foreign Office. For example, he helped restructure the unions in Greece and West Germany and shunt them into safe right wing social democratic sidings. Earlier the TUC had forged a ‘working partnership with the British Colonial Office to help guide the rising nationalist sentiment into safe paths, and in particular to ensure that moderate counsels prevailed among the emerging trade unions’ (J. Saville, op. cit., p. 96). For a full treatment of the role of the unions in British Cold War policy see P. Weiler, British Labour and the Cold War (Stanford 1988).

19. Quoted in J. Saville, op. cit., p. 54.

20. K. Morgan, op. cit., p245.

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