Issue 186 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published May 1995 Copyright © Socialist Review
'The revolution without a single cracked skull... nothing to stand in the way of laying the socialist foundation of the new social order.'
This was how Labour's surprise victory in the 1945 general election was hailed. Under the leadership of Clement Attlee, Labour had its greatest ever number of MPs--393 of them.
The official programme of the party matched the general enthusiasm for change after six years of war, and the hardships of the 1930s depression. Denis Healey told the 1945 conference:
Many Labour supporters remember this as the golden age. This impression is based on more than the rhetoric of those such as Healey--this was the era of large scale nationalisation (about a fifth of all industry), the foundation of the National Health Service, gains in education and a break with mass unemployment.
However, this was very far from a socialist government. Alongside the progressive reforms, Labour often attacked workers. The overall effect of the six years of Labour rule, far from tearing down British capitalism, was to reset it on a sound basis in a changed world.
The changes of 1945-51 were driven by two factors. The first of these was the balance of class forces. The British ruling class was well aware that with the end of the Second World War, they could well face the same emergency that hit them after the First World War. In 1919 the frustrations of war and the expectations of peace led to a massive wave of strikes, including police strikes in London and Liverpool, which had taken the ruling class to the brink of defeat. A senior Tory, the future Lord Hailsham, had warned in 1943, 'If you don't give the people social reform, they will give you social revolution.'
The second impetus for change was the new reality in which British capitalism found itself at the end of the war. As an international power, Britain was now struggling at the bottom of the first division. Means would have to be found to extricate Britain from large sections of its empire--although this was always done to ensure the best possible deal for the departing colonialists. On a world scale bosses were well aware that economic recovery had only been possible in the late 1930s and during the war through massive state intervention in industry.
In fact Labour carried out many of the policies started by ruling class parties during the course of the war. Education reforms had already been mapped out by a Tory, RA Butler, and the welfare state was planned by a Liberal, Lord Beveridge. Nationalisation of coal, gas, electricity and the Bank of England had been recommended by Tory dominated committees.
Industries were nationalised either because they were in a state of collapse, or because their continued health with state support was in the interests of big business as a whole.
Improvements in public housing, education and health were great gains for the working class, of course, but they were not necessarily a threat to the bosses. Indeed, in the relative stability of world economic expansion that eventually followed the war, a healthy, skilled workforce was a vital asset.
Moreover Labour made concessions at every stage which both set back the working class interests and ensured the reforms were tailored to the needs of capitalism. So Labour's commitment to comprehensive education was abandoned in favour of the two tier secondary modern and grammar school system. Senior consultants secured massive concessions within the new NHS, being allowed to maintain private beds.
Internationally the Labour government helped crush risings in Vietnam, Malaya and Greece. It took the initiative in establishing NATO. As early as 1946 a resolution to the Labour conference spoke of the 'apparent continuance of a traditionally Conservative Party policy of power politics abroad'. The government spent £100 million developing a nuclear programme without the knowledge even of most of the cabinet.
Labour presided over the first ever introduction of peacetime conscription. National Service was introduced in March 1946 in an attempt to sweeten the military wing of the establishment. Yet even here the ruling class managed to get more from Labour. At a later stage Labour MPs recommended that National Service be reduced from 18 to 12 months. Lord Montgomery, Chief of the Imperial General Staff, recorded:
Labour promptly abandoned the 12 month plan, and later increased National Service to two years at the outbreak of the Korean War.
Labour also carried through a broader offensive against the working class to make sure that it was not the main beneficiary of the reforms. The first economic crisis in the postwar era, in 1947, was met with a policy of wage restraint and welfare cuts.
Above all else, economic policy was driven by the idea, 'Export or die'. Anything which stood in the way of this was to be dealt with ruthlessly. In July 1945 troops were sent to break a strike in the London docks. By November of that year there were 21,000 troops working in eight different ports. Attlee's government introduced two States of Emergency and threatened two others.
The government worked with the TUC to reduce food rations. Government direction of labour was brought back in certain industries.
When, in 1950, the government was faced with the choice of allocating resources to the health service or to help US imperialism in Korea, it chose the latter. Eventually, health minister Nye Bevan resigned in protest at the imposition of charges for prescriptions, false teeth and glasses.
Neil Kinnock once claimed the 1945-51 Labour government established for ordinary people 'the chance of a comfortable home with a working father and mother. The chance of education that took me as far as I wanted to go. The chance of work.' This was indeed the promise of the postwar settlement established by the 1945 government. But because the rule of capital was never effectively challenged by Labour, these very basic rights are once again under attack.