Winston Churchill and Clement Attlee established a coherent political order in post-war British politics. Discuss.
The 3 main pillars of the post-war order were; a welfare state, a mixed economy and maintaining full employment. These three policies were introduced by Attlee’s Labour government between 1945 and 1950. They came about through a change in ideology in the electorate during the war. Although sometimes referred to as Butskellism because they were largely enacted by Hugh Gaitskell, Chancellor under Attlee and subsequently Rab Butler, Chancellor under Churchill, they only came to pass with the support and direction of Attlee and Churchill, reflecting their combined commitment to them.
The change in ideology occurred mainly in the electorate, who had lived through the Great Depression of the 1930s when government economic policy was classical and involved letting markets ‘clear’, and also through the war when they saw Keynesian demand management being enacted and how it successfully eliminated unemployment. This meant that the median voter (ignoring those on the cusps of the left and right wing extremes) had shifted leftwards and any party who wanted to be in power would need to shift their internal ideology accordingly. Some may argue from this point that it wasn’t Attlee and Churchill who devised the political order at all, but the electorate who elected representatives with similar ideologies to themselves, but as we are discussing who established this order it must be confined to the creators, i.e. the people who pulled the strings. Ergo we will ignore this argument, but accept that any government at the time would be influenced in their actions by the beliefs and wishes of the electorate.
The Welfare State
The Beveridge Report, published in 1942, devised the notion of the welfare state with “protection from the cradle to the grave” in order to protect against the five evils of squalor, want, idleness, ignorance and disease. The Report was accepted in full by the Labour party, and reluctantly by the Conservatives under Churchill. It was reported that Churchill once said of Beveridge that he was “an awful windbag and a dreamer”, but despite this he appointed Rab Butler, who was on the left of the Tory party and strongly believed in the welfare state, as his Chancellor in 1951. This goes to show that whilst appearing reluctant to enact a welfare state, veering away from domestic affairs in favour of international issues, and burying any mention of social reform deep within the 1945 manifesto, Churchill obviously supported it implicitly.
So the Beveridge Report led to the welfare state, where the NHS was created to provide free dental and healthcare for all, benefits were introduced for the unemployed, there was an increase in the school leaving age and increased social housing. This was implemented by the Attlee government and then retained by Churchill, largely because he accepted that it would be electoral suicide to try to revoke these policies given their widespread public appeal. Ergo the welfare state was a vital part of the post-war political order which is still in place, largely unchanged, today. This could be seen as providing evidence that this pillar of the post-war political order was a largely effective one, primarily because it resonates so well with the electorate, but this may also show that the Attlee and Churchill governments succeeded in creating a welfare state, which on the whole, worked well and only needed refining over the years.
However, it could also be argued that the opposite is true, that although the concept of the welfare state has been retained since it was established, it has changed enormously over its time. For example, when the NHS was first established patients could get all of their prescriptions, dental and optical treatment paid for by the government; however due to greater than expected demand for such services and the ballooning costs of providing it the Attlee government had to revoke some of these benefits such that some had to pay for certain treatments. Moreover, successive governments – particularly under Thatcher – revoked further access to the welfare state, making it less inclusive. The main argument for doing this was to reduce the high cost of maintaining the welfare state, something which the electorate began to agree on in the 1970s which made it possible to undo some of the foundations of the Attlee-Churchill order.
The Mixed Economy
Under the Labour government of 1945 two million employees and 10% of the total productive capacity in the economy was nationalised. This marked the creation of the mixed economy, where the previous ideology that free markets are best was dispelled in favour of greater government intervention. One way this manifested itself was through the nationalisation of gas, electricity, coal, railways, iron and steel, the Bank of England and long distance road haulage. Another way was through government intervention in the wage markets and the policy of corporatism.
Attlee nationalised the industries mentioned above because they were seen as natural monopolies and Labour’s manifesto encouraged the nationalisation of industries which had monopolies and thus the potential to extract rent from consumers and workers. He had the remit to do this as the median voter had shifted to the left after the war and because certain industries such as the railways were failing and needed massive investment (especially as they were so neglected during the war), it was widely seen at the time that the only entity which could afford the large-scale investment was the government.
Accordingly, the Attlee government could have been interpreted (and was by some dismayed left-wingers in the party) as merely saving capitalism by nationalising failing industries and providing investment, rather than being motivated through an ideologically socialist perspective that the means of production should be in the hands of the collective. Perhaps this was why the succeeding Churchill government of 1951 only de-nationalised the rail and iron industries, but left all other nationalised industries under government ownership. In any event, it is clear to see that Attlee created a coherent political order on the issue of the mixed economy and government involvement which was largely accepted by Churchill, who believed that Attlee was doing the right thing. The majority of the industries nationalised in 1945 were kept in state ownership until Thatcher came to power in 1979, so the political order of the mixed economy lasted around 30 years. The fact that this policy endured for so long tends suggest that it was quite a coherent policy with widespread support from both the main parties and also the electorate.
Keynesian Demand Management
The third pillar of the post-war political order was the economic doctrine of Keynesian demand management. This entailed using government expenditure, taxation and borrowing to fine tune the economy so that whenever there was a fall in aggregate demand from an external shock, the government could intervene and either increase spending or reduce taxation in order to provide a boost to the economy and maintain full employment. Both parties were committed to this economic doctrine, largely as a result of the shifting of the median voter to the left as they had seen the depths of the 1930’s after the Great Depression under classical economics and also the booming economy of the war under Keynesian economics.
Keynesian demand management started to break down in the 1960s and 70s as unemployment crept up alongside high inflation; a phenomenon known as stagflation. This occurred because of the external shock of the increase in oil prices and more substantially due to the neglect of the supply-side of the economy, causing high inflation and high unemployment. This meant that the government wasn’t achieving full employment – something the Attlee-Churchill political order had established in the previous 20 years – and it instead resorted to other methods of government intervention such as corporatism whereby the government worked with trade unions and firms to limit wage increases or tie them to productivity increases to prevent inflation from rising further.
Keynesian doctrine really lost favour during the 1970s especially when Margaret Thatcher came to power bringing with her the belief in monetarism. This shows that Attlee and Churchill didn’t create an entirely coherent economic policy as it only lasted between 15-20 years after the war and even during this period the economy was lagging behind in comparison to foreign rivals.
To conclude I think that to a large degree there was a political order in Britain following the war, where government policy was generally to achieve full employment through Keynesian demand management, government intervention to create a mixed economy along with a social policy of developing the welfare state. However, although the order was founded on these three principles, there was lots of disagreement between different governments about the extent to which the pillars should be followed. This can be seen by the fact that successive governments tweaked the policy in many different ways – sometimes increasing government intervention in the economy, and the size of the welfare state (e.g. Wilson, 1964) and sometimes reducing state involvement (e.g. Macmillan in 1970 and Thatcher in 1979).
It could be argued that this divergence in emphasis explains why the manifestos of the two parties after 1955 were quite different, and later election campaigns were fought fiercely between Labour and the Conservatives. Voters remaining rigidly loyal to the same party and neither party straying out of the range of 43-49% of votes could be explained by the two parties’ different interpretations of the Attlee-Churchill political order, mainly with regards to how large each pillar should be: very few governments campaigned on the complete retraction of a pillar, at least not in the first 30 years after the War.
Finally, although a political order can be seen for almost two decades after the Attlee and Churchill governments, the extent to which this order remained politically viable beyond then is open to debate. The three pillars were largely in force until Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister, albeit in different shapes and sizes, but she began to break down the political order, eradicating the belief in Keynesian economics and instilling monetarist doctrine into government policy. It therefore can’t be said that the political order of Churchill and Attlee is still effective today, even if certain components (i.e. the welfare state) do remain. This may bring in to question how coherent the order was –because if it was completely coherent (i.e. logically consistent) then we might expect the three pillars to be in effect today – accordingly I would sum up by stating that although a political order based on the three pillars was established during Attlee’s government and retained by Churchill, it later varied through successive governments and was completely over by the time of Thatcher meaning that it can’t have been entirely coherent.