Sometimes described as the ‘Thatcher of the Left’, Prime Minister Attlee is often showered with praised as the man who created a modern and progressive Britain. His 11.7% swing against Winston Churchill in the 1945 General Election signaled a new era in British politics characterised by social reform that ushered in the postwar consensus. However, does Attlee really deserve such epic praise?
The victorious Labour manifesto of 1945 was entitled, ‘Let Us Face The Future’. However, Attlee’s reforms ricocheted off into the distant future, and not for the better. The iron, steel and coal industries were the key bodies to be nationalised under Attlee. Government reform did introduce greater safety standards for workers, but that did not come hand in hand with nationalisation. Workers hoped that public ownership would allow them to have a bigger say in industry matters, but the government bureaucracy did not listen which encouraged militancy. Fundamentally, this laid the seeds for Britain to become ‘the sick man of Europe’ in the 1970s. These industries trundled on for decades, working at a heavy loss. It was the Attlee government that shut down any economic alternative when James Callaghan announced, ‘I tell you in all candour that that option no longer exists’ after Britain borrowed £2.3 billion from the IMF in 1976.
“There is not enough money”
Welfare as a key government institution was certainly desired by the public after the war, and Attlee made it happen. However, did he ride the wave of popular expectation to deliver too much, too soon? Cabinet papers reveal that Chancellor Hugh Gaitskell warned Attlee that, “There is not enough money to take away from England’s rich to raise the standard of living any further”. However, the greatest problem with welfare was how Attlee had prioritised it over economic recovery. Instead of rejuvenating the market, which could partly fund programs such as the NHS, Attlee resorted to further borrowing. Countries like West Germany, ravaged by war more than any other nation, focused on economics and succeeded. Britain on the other hand, receiving more money from the USA than West Germany, grinded to a halt and progressed down a road of unsustainability.
Dig On For Victory! (Even After the War)
In the 1945 manifesto, Labour promised fair rationing but instead it was continued until 1951. Food rationing was not relaxed, and in mid 1946 bread rations came into effect- the first time since the First World War. For shoppers, products appeared to be in greater demand than when German U-Boats roamed the Atlantic for merchant shipping. Of course, some may argue that in the shadow of the war, rationing may just had to continue. However, Attlee’s lack of focus on economic progress shunned chances of expanding food production and increasing overseas imports. On the continent, war torn France, with the possibility of having a Civil War between the ex-Vichy areas and the newly liberated north immediately ended rationing. De Gaulle and his provisional government understood that rationed food was the biggest war burden on the people and removed it as soon as possible. Attlee on the other hand did not, something that cost him seventy-eight seats in the 1950 General Election.
“The Twelve Year Failure”
In 1945, echoing the words of previous Prime Minister Lloyd-George, Attlee declared that Britain would not enter another war for the next twelve years. Whilst the Soviet Union developed MiG-15 fighters and the USA perfected their F-86 transonic jets, Britain stood idly by- for the first time in a decade, Britain’s air force was manifestly inferior to the rest of the world. And Britain aided the enemy. In 1946, as a good will gesture, Attlee approved a shipment of Rolls Royce engines to be sent to the USSR. For the Soviet Air Force, who was in desperate need of jet engine technology, this was a godsend and one that helped their MiGs down numerous aircraft over Korea. Despite Attlee’s promise of no war, the UK entered Korea underequipped, underprepared and undermanned. Despite heroic bravery, troops were not given winter coats or sleeping bags (unlike their American counterparts) simply down to a lack of preparation in the corridors of Whitehall.
Finding it very hard to decide what his ideology actually is, Calum is an odd mix of Libertarianism and constitutional conservatism. Think of William Buckley Jr and Milton Friedman happily chatting away with a strange hereditary peer hiding in the corner. Follow him on twitter @_LibertyPen.
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