Richard Toye’s Age of Hope is the first major study of the post war Attlee government to be published since 1997. It stands alongside the two much earlier classic overviews of this period, Kenneth Morgan’s Labour in Power (1984)and Peter Hennessy’s Never Again (1992), but benefits from a longer and equally significant perspective of time, of Labour’s thirteen years of power under Blair and Brown, and then the turbulent reaction to the New Labour period that has kept Labour out of power in the last three general elections. Toye’s book is a joy to read, thoroughly researched and intellectually stimulating, compelling analysis laced with amusing anecdote. Also, the book is fortunate in its timing, published at a moment when many of us dare to hope that 2024 will see Labour back in government. It may not even be sheer lunacy to fantasise about the potential for an electoral victory on the scale of 1945 or 1997.
The legacy of the Attlee government is still highly contested. In 1995, Tony Blair made one of his most important speeches to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Labour’s historic victory. It cast doubt on traditional interpretations of Labour’s success as a working-class socialist triumph. The striking feature of the 1945 result was how well Labour did in strengthening its appeal beyond its traditional support among the organised working class, by taking seats from the Conservatives in the London suburbs and onetime Tory strongholds in the southern counties such as Essex, Hertfordshire and Northamptonshire. Blair also argued that Labour’s agenda for government owed much to Liberal thinkers and policy makers such as Beveridge and Keynes, a form of progressive alliance that Labour should have sustained in succeeding years.
In the Corbyn era the 1945 victory was shown great reverence, but from a different angle: remember Ken Loach’s ‘Spirit of 45’. It was viewed as a record of historic socialist achievement against almost impossible odds. I occasionally heard comparisons being made between Jeremy and Clem as to how alike in character and conviction they were! In truth they were chalk and cheese. As John Bew’s Citizen Clem (2016) makes clear, Attlee was an upper middle-class product of the late Victorian era of socially conservative disposition. He married a Tory, was extremely proud of Haileybury, his public school, and initially trained as a solicitor. He stumbled into Labour politics due to his strong social commitment to charitable work among the desperately poor of London’s East End. He was a lifelong patriot who volunteered for service in the First World war, was twice severely injured but nonetheless returned to the front and was promoted Major, a rank which he rejoiced being called. All his life he believed in Britain, its Empire and Commonwealth and as Prime Minister fought to maintain our status as a great power: together with Ernest Bevin, he was responsible for one the most important post-war decisions that the UK would develop its own atomic bomb.
Attlee also believed that the British constitution with its Parliamentary tradition ought to be cherished and was a beacon of democracy to the rest of the world. He hated intellectuals like Harold Laski who favoured radical ways of democratising the British state. Personally, he was diminutive and shy, with great economy of speech, widely mocked as the “modest man who had a lot to be modest about.” He did however have a capacity to rise to the big occasion as in his famous radio broadcast in the 1945 election campaign where he destroyed Churchill’s disgraceful and idiotic claim that socialism would lead to a British Gestapo. His great personal achievement was to lead his government more or less successfully through a succession of grave domestic and international crises, the like of which we have not seen in modern times – with the possible exception of Covid – at a time when Britain still clung to its wartime position as one of the world’s Big Three. He held together a diverse cabinet of all the talents with strongly competing egos (with no political appointees in Downing St, other than Francis Williams who handled the press, to help him). As Toye points out, he was extremely confident in his own judgement, ran his governments with an extraordinarily strong and decisive hand (except in economics, which he never really understood). His luck only ran out with the Nye Bevan/ Harold Wilson cabinet resignations over health charges and the Korean rearmament programme in the spring of 1951 (where Attlee failed to give a strong personal lead and could have managed Gaitskell more effectively to avoid confrontation). Even then, in the general election six months later, Labour scored its highest ever vote in history, more than the Conservatives who nevertheless, despite having Winston Churchill as their Leader, scraped back into power in our first past the post system with an overall majority of 19.
The reverence shown to the Attlee government today was not how people reacted to its record after Labour lost power in the 1950s. There was criticism from the Left of the party that Labour had failed to pose any challenge to the capitalist system. There is some truth in the critique that the government started off with strong but vague beliefs in ‘planning’ that implied some state purchase over private sector decisions. However, by 1949 ‘planning’ had morphed into a well-developed schema of Keynesian macro- economic management. Of course, there had been the major nationalisations, but these were quickly written off as commercial basket cases. With the experience of forty years of privatisation behind us, this critique ignores how big a part the nationalised industries played in the modernisation of Britain – for example in transforming the coal industry, developing Inter City on the railways, converting the country from coke to natural gas, building the National Grid and a programme of modern power stations, including the development of nuclear power. We may now look wistfully at those capacities for delivering substantial change in a ‘mixed economy’ that the state now lacks.
In the 1950s the Labour Left’s critique was that Labour should have taken public ownership much further, and perhaps done it in a different way to the Morrisonian corporation. In their view the 1945 government had in large measure picked up the failures of the capitalist system, not challenged its enduring power and strengths. At the end of the 1940s, with its manifesto programme nearing completion, the Labour leadership rightly hesitated because it sensed that the case-by-case arguments for public ownership were weak and the electorate unconvinced. Also it rightly sensed that voters were fed up with post-war austerity and controls which they increasingly associated with excessive statism. In the run up to the 1950 general election Herbert Morrison defined Labour’s message as ‘consolidation’. The state would only intervene where industries were “failing the nation,” with the implication that Labour would leave the profitable private sector to get on with its job. The 1950 and 51 manifestos failed to give a compelling message about where Labour was going next. This intellectual vacuum heralded Crosland’s 1950s revisionism.
Today many see the main achievement of the 1945 government as the foundation of the NHS, with Aneurin Bevan the principal hero. That was not how the leaders of the government ranked the priorities of their government either in 1945 or even 1950, including Bevan himself. The 1950 Labour candidates’ handbook devotes five pages to the NHS in a document of several hundred. What made the NHS loom so large was its instant popularity with the public, shown in the quite unexpected demand for dentures and spectacles which stretched the NHS budget and led to the Treasury demand for the introduction of charges which became imperative owing to the costs of Korean rearmament. The belief that the NHS would reduce health spending by intervening early and preventing the root causes ill-health proved overly optimistic!
A common criticism of the Attlee government is that it too readily accepted the US- inspired narrative of the Cold War and devoted too many resources to the illusions of maintaining Britain’s great power role. As Correlli Barnett provocatively argued (The Audit of War and The Lost Victory, 1986 and 1995) , too much resource was spent on defence, too little on education, research and creating new industry. These arguments have superficial attractions but, in my view, they are misguided. An impoverished Britain did execute messy but inevitable strategic withdrawals from India, Palestine, and Greece. Yet the threat from Stalin was real as evidenced by his determination to install puppet regimes across Eastern Europe, as in the Czechoslovak coup of 1948. Post war Western Europe was in a pathetic and dangerous state, with the possibility of mass starvation in Germany and strong Communist parties challenging for power in France and Italy. Bevin was right to prioritise keeping the Americans engaged in Europe’s security, first by creating a European mutual defence pact with France, Benelux, and Italy; and then in his triumphant success in backing the creation of the Marshall Plan and NATO. A ‘Third Way for Europe’ was a dangerous delusion. Democratic socialists had first and foremost to prioritise the defence of democracy against Soviet communism – and that was impossible without the consolidation of the transatlantic relationship that Bevin achieved. But relations with the United States were never easy. Bevin and Attlee had to contend with the American refusal to extend lend-lease in 1945 followed by Congress’ abrupt decision to exclude the UK from the US nuclear weapons programme. As a strong pro-European I have always believed that Attlee and Bevin’s decision not to participate in the Schuman Plan was a historic mistake. However, the proposition that Britain’s newly nationalised coal and steel industries should be put under the control of some new European authority – what became eventually the European Commission – was a French big ask. As Herbert Morrison, who was by instinct a much stronger pro-European than Attlee, put it famously in 1950 “the Durham miners would never wear it”. Labour, especially Hugh Dalton, was also hesitant about loss of parliamentary sovereignty which meant Labour spent a lot of the post-war decades as a Euro-ambivalent party (until the late 1980s effectively): arguably that is one of the main reasons why Labour never transitioned to become a fully-fledged European-style social democratic party.
The reason Labour won in 1945, Toye argues, is that the Labour message fundamentally chimed with the times. The problems of post war Britain required a government that believed in the power of the state to be part of the solution. The electorate recognised the need for more public control. This was necessary if the failures of the interwar years were not to be repeated where the Conservatives had disqualified themselves by being the party of mass unemployment and appeasement. The wartime Churchill Coalition had to a considerable extent accepted this view in recognising a significantly greater role for the state in the reforms of Beveridge and Keynes that they had sponsored, though Churchill’s refusal to offer full endorsement of the phenomenally popular Beveridge report may have reinforced the view that the ‘bad old Tories’ hadn’t really changed since the 1930s. The creation of the wartime coalition confirmed the criticism of the Conservatives as the “guilty men” while legitimising the role that Labour could play in implementing these reforms. And it also meant Labour had a phalanx of experienced Ministers and civil service advisers ready to exercise the responsibilities of power.
What are lessons for Labour today? Like 1945 and unlike 1997, the economic challenges facing the country in 2024 are much deeper: by 2024 we will have lived through fourteen wasted years of crude austerity followed by destructive populism. Labour will face very tough choices in putting right a chronically failing economy and the question is whether Labour ministers face up to them or collapse in front of them. In every sphere, one sees the state under stress. Today Britain requires a new government that can make the state work once again. Yet there are risks for Labour here. The electorate responded to the Labour message in 1945 of the need for greater public control. But Labour’s rhetoric dressed up this need as the creation of a socialist commonwealth which Christian socialists like Stafford Cripps believed would lead to a transformation in human relationships. “Austerity” became a moral virtue. But as the 1940s advanced and the acceptance of continued rationing and austerity became more wearing, Labour put itself on the wrong side of a public, particularly the modestly better off, who wanted to enjoy the fruits of consumption. Yet despite losing power in 1951, Labour’s greatest achievement in the second half of the 1940s was to persuade the Conservatives that Labour’s achievements were so popular that they should not roll back most of them. Indeed, on housing, and especially council housing, Harold Macmillan was determined to outbid what Labour had delivered and show that the Conservatives could do better. He succeeded. Labour spent thirteen years in the wilderness after 1951, not because of what it did in government, but because it failed to adjust to the new age of consumer affluence and was bitterly divided by the Left’s obsession with nationalisation and unilateralism.
Many Labour activists who are by instinct idealists and might see themselves on the ‘soft left’ of the party would probably wish that Starmer in office will prove to be more Attlee than Blair. Blair however managed three clear victories by comparison with Attlee’s one and a half (the majority of six won in February 1950 was insufficient to see the party through a full term of office). It is often forgotten that the last of those victories in 2005 came after the divisions in Blair’s New Labour ‘big tent’ that the controversies over the Iraq war created. The cumulative effect of thirteen years of Labour government in gradual progressive change felt big in 2010, but so has the scale of the unwinding since. We now live in a country where nothing seems to work anymore. The New Labour years have acquired something of the status of a secular paradise by comparison. Yet the guilt that all of us who worked for New Labour must feel is why we failed to embed New Labour values – the attack on poverty, pro reformed public services, a social liberal world view and pro-European internationalist values – more solidly in British society. New Labour failed to alter the structures and institutions of politics sufficiently so as to do away with over-centralisation and ‘winner takes all’ majoritarianism. By doing so we failed to embed values of pluralism, tolerance and moderation within our political culture. Let us not deride the consensus that the 1945 government managed to consolidate for more than a generation. Labour must do better next time.
To read more from Lord Roger Liddle, see Prospects for a Keir Starmer premiership: what he can achieve and what stands in his way.