home | history

Britain and Democracy to 1954

In 1945, Britain's Labour Party won 393 seats in the House of Commons compared to 210 for Churchill's Conservative Party. On the first day of the new parliament, Labour Party members sang the socialist Anthem, the Red Flag, and (according to the British journal The Guardian) "Tories everywhere were scandalised."

Churchill called the Labour Party's leader, and the new Prime Minister, Clement Attlee, a "sheep in sheep's clothing." Attlee adopted measures that had been proposed by moderate socialists. This was a socialism mixed with capitalism rather than Lenin's either-or dichotomy that continued to dominate the Soviet Union's politics and economy under Stalin.

Attlee's government was committed to the nationalization of basic industries and public utilities. In 1946 the Bank of England and civil aviation were nationalized. In 1947 came the nationalization of coal mining, railways, road haulage, canals, and Cable and Wireless communications. In 1948, electricity and gas were nationalized. In 1951 so too was the steel industry. By 1951 about 20 percent of the British economy was publicly owned, the nation had "cradle to grave" health coverage, and there were investments in public housing.

There had been the poor performance by Britain's free-enterprise industrialists, who were slow in investing in new machinery and raising productivity during rising competition from German and Japanese manufacturers. For British society it was an "age of austerity. The war had devastated Britain's their economy. Britain's national debt at the end of the war was 230 percent of GDP, about twice that of the United States, but the debt was declining. Loans from the US and Marshall Plan assistance helped, while Labour was demanding something less than austerity for themselves, creating strikes similar to what the Truman administration had to face. Coal miners were especially unenthusiastic about making sacrifices — and not very concerned about the Labour government's prestige. Some among them looked upon the Labour Party's intellectual sympathizers with easier jobs as dandies.

The Attlee government, meanwhile, remained united with the United States regarding Stalin and his Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). Britain was with the US on the Berlin Airlift. In 1949, Britain helped found the mutual defense alliance called NATO in 1949. Britain was with the US and against the Soviet Union regarding Korea. Attlee was to be described as Cold Warrior. He was opposed to Stalinism and Soviet policies in East Europe. And, in the USSR, Britain was being described as belonging to "monopoly capitalism."

There were elections in 1950, with conservatives campaigning for more free enterprise, the freedom to build houses, freedom of doctors to practice where they liked and an end to rationing. Labour didn't win the support of white collar workers and the middle class as they had in 1945, and it held on to its majority in parliament but only by 5 seats. But there were elections again in 1951. The Conservative Party won more seats, and Winston Churchill formed a coalition government with the conservative National Liberal Party.

Churchill became prime minister in October 1951. Things were on the upswing in Britain. In 1953 the British were delighted by the coronation of Elizabeth II (who knighted Churchill). Churchill appointed a cabinet that he described as having the widest representation possible. Restrictions on the economy were eased slightly and the trucking, iron and steel industries were privatized. But Churchill's government largely maintained the Labour Party's welfare state, including the nation's comprehensive system of "cradle to grave" social insurance and health care. There were two changes in health care in 1952 with the prescription charge of one shilling and a £1 flat rate fee for ordinary dental treatment.

In 1954, food rationing ended in 1954. Also in 1954, the Churchill government introduced the Mines and Quarries Act, which improved working conditions in mines. There was the Housing Repairs and Rent Act of 1955, which established standards for housing. Unemployment averaged only 2 percent. Under Churchill, prosperity returned. Leisure activities became accessible to more people. Holiday camps had become popular destinations, and people had more money with which to pursue personal hobbies.

There were new housing units. Shopping centers and chain stores were starting to replace small neighborhood shops. Owning a car was becoming a significant part of British life, with the appearance of road congestion.

Between 1950 and 1965 there was to be a 40 percent rise in average real wages, including the wages for the semi-skilled and unskilled occupation. Economic growth averaged around 3 percent per year. Inflation remained low.

In the first half of the 1950s in Western Europe a move was underway to integrate the steel and coal production of different countries — the beginning of what would eventually become the European Union — but Britain wasn't interested.

There was in Britain a lively and articulate discourse regarding political opinion, a part of which is the weekly Prime Minister's Questions in the House of Commons — a give and take unimaginable in the Soviet Union in Stalin's time.

And Britain was benefitting from its publicly financed commercial-free broadcasting system, the BBC (formed way back in 1922). It operated under royal charter. Britain's monarch appointed the members of the BBC Trust, an independent 12-member panel, governed by a chairman, that oversaw day-to-day operations. The BBC was ultimately answerable to Parliament but had had virtually complete independence in the conduct of its activities, which cannot be said regarding state-owned broadcasting in some other societies. Without commercials there was more time for good entertainment (or sports coverage during the Olympics) and good discussion, which advanced the public's pleasure and its thinking skills (especially compared to what was available in the Soviet Union's media).

CONTINUE READING: Stalin down, Khrushchev up

comment | to the top | home

Copyright © 2018 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.