When Neil Kinnock was in his pram

Paul Addison

  • Labour in Power 1945-1951 by Kenneth Morgan
    Oxford, 546 pp, £15.00, March 1984, ISBN 0 19 215865 1

To people over a certain age, the politics of the 1940s are still a burning issue. Talk to them of Attlee, and the sparks of old controversies fly up as though Neil Kinnock were still in his celebrated pram. But to the present generation of students, Attlee might as well be Campbell-Bannerman, or Dr Mussadiq the Akond of Swat. To them, such matters are all a part of grandad’s world, a mysterious place where there was bread rationing, and patriotism was mixed up with pride in the welfare state.

A historian writing on the Attlee governments has, therefore, to address two audiences, each liable to be difficult in its own way. The old have to be persuaded of the fact that reminiscences are no longer a substitute for scholarship. The passage of time requires greater detachment and the professional skills of the historian. But it must be disturbing when academics in white coats come to take you away for intense observation in the oral history ward. If the old identify too closely with the ideas and emotions of the past, the young have difficulty in understanding them at all. If their politics descend from the radicalism of the 1970s, they find the assumptions of someone like Attlee or Bevin antiquated and hard to explain historically. How could a left-wing government have invested in a British atom bomb? But for blank incomprehension of the Attlee years, your Sloane Ranger with a smattering of Roger Scruton must be hard to beat. There is a liberal academic’s mission impossible. Why didn’t the Free World use its nuclear monopoly to roll back the Russians from Eastern Europe? Well now ...

If anyone in these sectarian times can still convey a true appreciation of Labour’s finest hour, it is surely Kenneth Morgan. He writes for the wide spectrum of readers who still talk the language of common-sense democratic debate. Of course this is rather a deceptive language. It is actually the old Whig ideology, broad and flexible, on which the British have got by for so long. Certainly Morgan’s book has a Whiggish flavour, with the Attlee governments taking their place among the great reforming administrations of the British tradition. The New Left, like the New Right, argues that such a framework is now absurdly out of date. But this has yet to be demonstrated, for the old whale is quite content to absorb a little Marxism or a little Thatcherism into his giant belly. So long as Whiggery – or social democracy, as we now call it – remains the working language of British politics, it will also remain the most viable language for political historians.

Morgan, then, writes with sympathy. Sympathy for Cabinet Ministers pushing through great schemes of public enterprise; sympathy, too, for the Labour movement, rejoicing in its achievements after nearly half a century on the road. But a historian’s sympathies are the least interesting aspect of the exercise. Detachment is the exciting thing, and this depends first of all upon a mastery of the sources. Morgan’s research is very impressive: not the last word, but such a comprehensive sweep through different types of source as to maintain an overall perspective at a deeper level than before. He has dug below the Cabinet into the Cabinet committees and the departmental files: but keeps in view the public face of politics in the press. Most refreshing, because least familiar, is a chapter of stimulating judgments on social and cultural change. One reads so often of the gloom and despondency of the British after the war that it is heartening to be told that they were probably enjoying themselves as never before.

Detachment leads on to revisions. Morgan is a revisionist in several directions, not least in reshuffling the well-thumbed pack of ministerial reputations. In recent years a sentimental regard for Attlee as the soul of moderation has led to a great exaggeration of his contribution. The genial Hattersley has credited him with the invention of the NHS, and his biographer Kenneth Harris marks him up as a crafty operator with complete authority over the Cabinet. But on Morgan’s evidence much of Attlee’s craft lay in the concealment of deficiencies behind a bluff exterior. Having lost his nerve entirely in the financial crisis of 1947, Attlee withdrew into passivity: ‘He exemplified in his own meekly ambitious person the old Roman tag that if you remained silent you were believed to be a philosopher.’ Legend has it that at the end of 1950 Attlee prevented the outbreak of a third world war by restraining Truman from using the atom bomb against China. Morgan turns the story around. Truman had no intention of dropping the bomb. But in return for vague assurances to Attlee about joint consultation over its use, he obtained a pound of flesh – forcing on the Cabinet an impossible rearmament programme that split the Labour Party.

It was Gaitskell who shouldered the burden in his Budget of 1951, thereby provoking the resignation of Bevan. The quarrel between these two has echoed down the years, perpetuated by disciples and biographers. Bevan’s detractors alleged that he resigned in a brainstorm of vanity over the imposition of health charges, then trumped up the issue of rearmament as an afterthought. Morgan demonstrates that Bevan’s dissent over rearmament was reasoned and consistent. He feared the effects on the economy and mistrusted the advice of the Chiefs of Staff over the Soviet threat. I suspect that Gaitskell, a fanatic for collective security since Munich, actually framed the Budget as a test of ministerial loyalty to the American alliance. Be that as it may, Morgan is right to conclude that Gaitskell’s Budget ‘may fairly be considered a political and economic disaster’.

Labour’s first two Chancellors, Dalton and Cripps, rate more favourably. Hugh Dalton, with his mastery of finance and social policy, was cruelly repaid by fate for calling himself an economist. Blithely ignoring the economic indicators, he plunged the Government into the convertibility crisis of 1947. Rescue was at hand in the person of Sir Stafford Cripps, whose mix of deflation and income restraint restored the confidence of business and the City. Cripps stands very high in Morgan’s estimate, the saviour in 1947 and again in 1949 when devaluation extricated the Government from another balance of payments crisis. Up at four each morning for three hours’ work, followed by a cold bath to brace himself for the rest of the day, Cripps exemplified the heroic aspect of the Labour Government, many of whose leaders were old men determined to die in harness rather than sacrifice their one opportunity of power.

It is a familiar paradox of 1945 that a government elected on socialist rhetoric should have proved so old-fashioned in much of its practice. Many writers have expressed a belief that ‘reactionaries’ like Morrison and Bevin led a retreat from the New Jerusalem into the sterile wastes of the mixed economy and the Cold War. The alignment of Britain with the United States against Russia is represented as the final stage in the demoralisation of the socialist ranks. As we all know that governments tend to run out of steam, the story has a certain plausibility. But in this case the difficulty is to prove that the ideological momentum was there in the first place.

Take the central issue of economic planning. The Labour Manifesto promised that Britain would be planned ‘from the ground up’. Herbert Morrison, the Lord High Planner-in-Chief, talked of planning as a distinctly British contribution to civilisation. But a cloud of semantic confusion has concealed the fact that there never was a plan. There were controls inherited from the war years and committees for administering them. Controls were pressed into service to ensure the allocation of bricks for council housing or steel for the export trades. But of a long-term plan for the economy as a whole, with manpower, investment and production targets determined in advance, there was no sign. Even the nationalised industries were managed in water-tight compartments. The illusion of planning was exposed for all to see in the great freeze-up of 1947 when Shinwell had to inform the House that coal stocks were running out at the power stations and much of industry would have to close down. Where previous historians have tended to fudge the problem, or write of a retreat from planning to Keynesianism, Morgan is incisive. If anything, there was more planning in the revivalist phase of Cripps than under the auspices of Morrison, whose plans were mainly for next week.

Socialist planning would have required the nationalisation of all major industries and services. Whether Labour ever intended this is doubtful, but there are mysteries here that Morgan cannot quite dispel. The incoming Attlee government was pledged by the Manifesto to a specific programme of nationalisation, all of which was carried through by 1951. But the programme was inherently ambiguous. Was it a frontier marking the limits of state control, or a bridgehead from which further advances were to be made? In a party of doctrinal rigour the problem would have been sorted out in advance. But the Labour Government had to determine its strategy half-way through. In 1947 Attlee’s troops halted beneath the mighty walls of the steel industry and a debate broke out over whether they dare storm the citadel. In effect, a show was made of taking over steel while the underlying decision was to veer away from further nationalisation.

Was this the point at which the Government lost its socialist faith and the high expectations vested in it began to dissolve? Sifting the evidence of the debate within the party, Morgan never directly poses the question, and his narrative leaves the door open to a variety of interpretations. But his book as a whole implies an answer to be inferred from the character of the Labour Party, built up over so many years from such insular materials. Political history, after all, is only partly about the intentions of politicians. Sometimes they have no intentions and are simply in a fix, wondering how to bluff their way through the next twenty-four hours. Sometimes they suffer delusions of grandeur, like the fly on the wheel of the coach. The Attlee governments made several appalling mistakes, and these no doubt could have been avoided. But no decision of Attlee or Bevin could have changed the structure and character of the Labour Party.

Some Labour governments have disappointed their supporters. But it is a myth that the Cabinets of 1945 to 1951 sold out either the party or the industrial working class on which it was based. On the contrary, the Attlee governments were deeply representative of the movement from which they sprang. They nationalised the industries which the trade unions wished to nationalise. They left alone the industries which trade unions were content to leave in private hands. If they sought security rather than equality for the working classes, this was because working-class communities had been scarred for generations by the effects of sickness and unemployment on the family. In allowing the grammar schools to continue, Labour ministers were recognising the contribution they had made to the emancipation of working-class politicians. As for the public schools – whisper it softly – where would Labour be without all the Orwellian rebels in the House of Commons? In the 1940s Labour was soundly élitist.

The analysis can be extended to external affairs. E.P. Thompson and others have explained that in the 1890s the British working classes became deeply implicated in imperialism. Indeed, one need look no further than Bevin, or (if he counts as working-class) Morrison, for confirmation. Bevin grew very attached to the ‘jewel in the crown’ and Morrison was the Cockney Palmerston. The philanthropic traditions of empire were also well represented. Morgan does belated justice to Labour’s Colonial Secretary, Arthur Creech-Jones, dismissed by Attlee as a failure, but rehabilitated now as the most significant holder of the office since Joseph Chamberlain. The comparison is apt, for, like Chamberlain, Creech-Jones discovered Africa. When the British abandoned India in 1947 they transferred their ambitions to the Dark Continent, where the philanthropist could do good, and the skilled working man or white-collar worker could make good.

All this emerges from a reading of Morgan’s book. But now for a factor missing from his account. The Attlee governments drifted steadily into rigid Cold War attitudes contested only towards the very end by the Bevanites, and even their criticisms were relatively marginal. Why was this? Morgan underlines the uncomfortable fact that Labour’s social reform programme could never have been undertaken without financial aid from Washington. No wonder, then, that Tribune and the New Statesman were to the fore in praising Marshall Aid. At the same time he argues that the Soviet Union brought the Cold War on itself. Whatever the true intentions of the Kremlin, Soviet behaviour could only be perceived as terrifying. But the most radical defence of Labour’s attitude would be to assert a continuity with the anti-Fascism of the 1930s. The entire foreign policy analysis of the late 1930s, with its belief in the necessity of collective security against a totalitarian aggressor, was transferred, plausibly enough in the circumstances, from Hitler to Stalin. The atom bomb was manufactured in the belief that Stalin was a reincarnation of Hitler, and that, as in the 1930s, Britain might not be able to rely upon the support of the United States when the crunch came.

The 1940s were the last decade in which Britain was powerful enough to shape the course of international relations. At home they presented an unrepeatable opportunity for collectivists to demonstrate the virtues of the interventionist state. As the first major scholarly assessment of the successes and failures of the period, Labour in Power is to be welcomed as both a landmark and a signpost. Its author has once more proved himself to be a political historian of unrivalled skill, with just enough bias in his work to reveal the partialities of a normal human being, but never enough to distort the character of the evidence. He has worked scrupulously through the record, searching for the opportunities that were missed as well as the ones that were taken, and pausing now and then to salute the efforts of a Labour stalwart or a fellow Welshman. In the end he places the accent firmly and persuasively on the lasting practical achievements of Nato, the welfare state and the new Commonwealth.

The years to come will bring additions to the evidence. More important will be arguments to the effect that post-war reconstruction evaded the deeper structural problems of 20th-century Britain. But I believe that Morgan’s thesis holds good. Each generation has to be judged in its own terms and cannot be held responsible for the tribulations of its successors. The reforms and innovations of the 1940s worked remarkably well in their time, establishing a stable and enduring peace in which the politics of hope were uppermost. The nature of that equilibrium, stretching through the tranquil era of the 1950s, has yet to be investigated. Instead of concentrating on the Left, historians would now be well advised to investigate the impact of the 1940s on the middle classes and the Tories. Why was there no Thatcherite backlash in 1951? Why did the Conservatives so readily assimilate patterns of change they are now so determined to reverse? Did the rich and the professional classes do well enough out of the Attlee period to stifle the resentments of the shopkeeper and the small businessman? The sociology of working-class politics has gone about as far as it will go: the sociology of the middle classes is a surprise package yet to be opened.