The Road to 1989

Paul Addison

  • The People’s Peace: British History 1945-1989 by Kenneth O. Morgan
    Oxford, 558 pp, £17.95, October 1990, ISBN 0 19 822764 7

Kenneth Morgan’s history of our times is both rewarding and frustrating. It is rewarding on government and politics since 1945, and frustrating on social and economic structure. Between the two, at the point where government and society meet, Dr Morgan is at his most interesting and controversial. He develops a thesis about the decline of leaderships and authority in Britain which may or may not be right, but which lends the book a vision and a theme.

To write of post-war Britain is to enter a long-running debate over the state of the nation which began about 1960 and has continued ever since. Many conflicting views have been expressed, but strange to say there is one assumption on which almost all participants agree. They all conceive of British history since 1945 as a record of decline. It may be the decline of Britain as a great power, the decline of Scotland or Wales, the decline of the economy, the decline of socialism, the decline of the family, the decline of educational standards, the decline of the environment: but decline it must be. Nor is the word ‘decline’ ever employed in a purely quantitative sense, as in ‘the decline of the birth-rate’. A sense of failure and degeneration is invariably implied: decline and fall.

Contemporary historians, then, are under pressure to explain what went wrong and who or what was to blame. This is a heavily slanted agenda, no doubt, but a mighty stimulus for historians to dig deep into what Morgan calls the geology of post-war Britain. The frustrating thing about Morgan’s book is that he leaves so much of the geology unexplored.

Dr Morgan reports the debate, and the visions of decline which haunted the commentators. But he rarely pursues the problems himself. About three-quarters of the book are devoted to political history. Social, economic and cultural history are inevitably compressed within narrow confines. But the confines are narrowed still further by the decision to organise the whole book strictly around the chronology of Whitehall and Westminster. Forty-four years of history have been divided up into 12 periods of government with a chapter devoted to each. From the standpoint of political history, the periodisation works well. But the chopping up of social, economic and cultural history into 12 segments is a ruthless exercise. Whatever Dr Morgan’s intention, the effect is to smother the fundamentals of post-war history under a blanket of narrative detail.

Economic history figures mainly as a series of crises: balance of payments deficits and runs on the pound. Occasionally Dr Morgan pauses to identify underlying flaws in the economy, but readers will find no sustained analysis of the reasons for Britain’s relatively poor economic performance. Some statistics are given in the text, but there is not a single graph or table to illustrate the long-term economic trends. Much is said of the political history of Britain’s relations with the Common Market. But what were the effects of entry on the pattern of British trade or the competitiveness of British industry?

Social and cultural history are also much neglected. There is a running emphasis no reader could miss on the centrality of class and other social divisions, balanced by frequent reminders of the rising standard of living. Rapid impressions are given of changes in leisure, family life, the role of women, the universities and so on. Much-loved snapshots from the British family album are pressed into service to help create a period feel: Butlin’s camps, Teddy Boys, Angry Young Men, Carnaby Street, the Beatles. But if you are looking for an analysis of long-term changes in the occupational structure, or the income and employment of women, you will not find them.

The social history is sketchy. But it has to be said that having adopted his utterly wrongheaded method, Dr Morgan carries it off with great panache and ingenuity. Here he is in the middle of a discussion of Mrs Thatcher’s policies towards the Commonwealth. He is about to introduce an episode of cultural history before moving swiftly on to foreign affairs:

Perhaps the truth was that for Mrs Thatcher, the Commonwealth, like ‘Europe’, was relatively low in her priorities. She was no more a disciple of Churchill than she was of Heath. Meanwhile the media kept the imperial mystique well to the fore, especially India. Such notable films as Gandhi (a severe treatment of the Raj), A Passage to India, and Heat and Dust, even the James Bond spectacular Octopussy, kept the Indian sub-continent securely in the public’s imagination. One of the most triumphant television productions of the decade was ITV’s dramatisation of Paul Scott’s ‘Raj Quartet’ under the title The Jewel in the Crown, a testament to the uneasy. Forster-like imperial conscience of a pre-Thatcherite age.

In foreign affairs, Mrs Thatcher’s experience was slight ...

This is masterly. The introduction of Churchill in the second sentence prepares the reader for a reference back to the imperial past. After that it is but a short step through a bold non-sequitur (‘meanwhile’) to Gandhi and so to James Bond. Finally the phrase ‘pre-Thatcherite’ enables Dr Morgan to return to the lady in question. This is sleight-of-hand – but for a purpose. The mystique of empire is introduced as a preamble to the success of Mrs Thatcher, a page or two later, in mobilising the forces of popular patriotism.

What Dr Morgan has done, with great success, is to plunder the wider history of Britain for the enrichment of the political narrative. This is where the strength of his book lies. No one writes better than Dr Morgan of the rise and fall of governments, their personalities and policies, their fluid and shifting identities, their ultimate and inevitable exhaustion. He is particularly good at identifying the critical moments at which governments changed course, or lost a golden opportunity for doing so.

As might be expected of the author of a major book on the subject, he is excellent on the Attlee governments and writes of them with renewed clarity and vigour. The conservatism of Labour’s ‘revolution’, and the retreat from collectivism after 1948, are underlined more sharply than before, and help to explain the reluctance of the Conservatives to contemplate a counter-revolution after 1951. The middle classes might grumble, but patrician England was safe, and that was all that really mattered to Churchill and Eden.

There is a flickering debate among historians about the concept of a ‘post-war consensus’ in British politics. Was there such a thing and if so when did it appear? Dr Morgan argues that a framework of consensus was created in the late Forties and early Fifties. I think he is right and proves his case in the chapters devoted to the Conservative governments of 1951-64. Basing himself on the files released under the Thirty Year Rule, he shows how Conservative Cabinets twice faced a moment of truth when they were invited by the Treasury to abandon the consensus, and decided against. The first occasion, the ‘Robot’ affair of 1952, is already quite well-known. But the second has been something of a mystery until now. In January 1958 the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Peter Thorneycroft, resigned in protest at the growth of public expenditure. In a successful disinformation campaign it was put about that he had resigned in dispute over some relatively trifling sum. But as the files reveal, Thorneycroft had been raising fundamental questions about the direction the Conservative Party should take. He had espoused a proto-Thatcherite position in favour of strong action to control the money supply and cut the cost of the social services. As Morgan explains, Macmillan was determined to maintain one-nation Toryism, and vetoed the Thorneycroft strategy.

Beyond the detail is an evaluation of post-war history grounded in straightforward convictions. Dr Morgan is a Labour revisionist and patriotic Welshman. If Neil Kinnock could write history, this is the point of view from which he would write. There is indeed too much in the book of Lloyd George and the Welsh hall of fame, though it is broad-minded of Dr Morgan to embrace Mandy Rice-Davies, and a nice touch to describe Sir Anthony Meyer, who challenged Mrs Thatcher for the party leadership in 1989, as ‘an obscure Welsh member’. On Kinnock himself, Morgan is prudent and restrained.

In his general view of British history, Morgan is a moderate but unrepentant progressive. At one level his book is an audit of the nation’s progress since 1945, with the debit and credit items plainly marked. Peace, prosperity and the welfare state are celebrated as blessings which the majority of British people have enjoyed since 1945: hence the title of the book. Where others write with melancholy of the end of empire, Morgan writes with pride of the British achievement of decolonisation without social trauma. (The often ghastly consequences for subject peoples are hardly mentioned.) In the debit column, a sluggish economy and the failure of economic planning are items you would expect to find. The most pessimistic entry derives from Morgan’s sense, about which he reflects at length, of the dissolution of a civic culture: a decline in the unity and purpose of the political nation.

This is a highly subjective area in which statistics are ultimately overborne by value-judgments. Dr Morgan’s version is important as a contribution to the subterranean battle of feeling over the history of post-war Britain. Invariably the battle begins with the war. The war has come to be regarded as a golden age of collective purpose and civic virtue, from which we have subsequently declined into a snake-pit of individualism and greed.

As Dr Morgan recognises, the elevation of the war into a golden age has to be questioned if we are ever to set the post-war record straight. He chips away at the myth with the argument that the war was never all it was cracked up to be: behind the façade of national unity lay class divisions, party conflict and so on. This is fair enough but does not lay the axe to the root of the problem. You may dig up a lot of dirt about the home front but it is mainly predictable stuff. It is pretty obvious that in economic, social and political terms the wartime achievement was vast, and measurably so.

The important point is that as a norm by which to assess the civic culture of post-war Britain, the war is all but irrelevant. Of course it did not necessarily appear so to people at the time. Many discovered in wartime a collective ideal which to carry forward into peace. To some extent they succeeded in doing so. But the solidarities of war were born of fear and catastrophe. The home front of 1940-45 was a consequence of Hitler and the most destructive war in history. To lament the decline of wartime solidarity is to regret the passing of an evil world. In a history of contemporary Britain, 1945 is the wrong place from which to begin. If we were to start from the ‘low, dishonest decade’ of the Thirties we should see the war more accurately as a huge and heroic blip.

Dr Morgan emphasises that from the very beginning of the period, Britain was a divided and increasingly sectional society. The post-war consensus was a compromise worked out at the top: society itself consisted of a number of different tribes, each one jealously guarding its patch. In spite of this, Dr Morgan classifies the period from 1945 to 1961 as an ‘era of advance’. Full employment, the welfare state and the consumer society created a general sense, illusory perhaps, that government and society were working well. But in 1961 or thereabouts something happened, and Britain entered an ‘era of retreat’ that lasted until 1979. As Morgan sees it, the most disturbing feature of the period was the disintegration of the hitherto orderly relationship between government and people: ‘From striking trade-unionists and mass pickets to nationalists in Ireland, Scotland and Wales, there was a mounting pattern of sectional disarray amounting to lawlessness.’

Here I part company with Dr Morgan’s language. It seems to me that what occurred, if we leave Ulster aside, was a healthy outbreak of dissent and diversity, most of it quite law-abiding, and none of it unprecedented or unmanageable. Of course this meant that in a sense the old civic culture was in decline. But was it not a culture of fatalism and resignation? Was it not high time to inject a little popular ambition, a little democratic pressure from below, into the passively centralised politics of the United Kingdom?

Morgan sees remarkably little virtue in the populist revolt, but writes with great perception of the causes. It is no exaggeration to say that about 1960 the intelligentsia discovered that Britain was an obsolescent society doomed to decline unless institutions like the Trade Unions and the Civil Service were brought up to date. The politicians took up the cry and promised to deliver a new, dynamic Britain of rapid economic growth. The Wilson Government of 1964, and the Heath Government of 1970, both succeeded in raising expectations, but failed ignominiously to deliver. This double-barrelled, bipartisan disaster blew a vast hole in the centre of British politics. Suddenly the door was open to populist polities of many kinds: right-wing, left-wing, nationalist, racialist. The Labour governments of 1974-9 struggled hard to restore a sense of normality, but the centre could not hold, and Mrs Thatcher was elected with a mandate to restore the smack of firm government.

Various explanations can be given of the failure of reform. Wilson was a politician with little capacity for statesmanship, and Heath a statesman with little capacity for politics. Both governments made important mistakes in economic policy. But Morgan accepts that both were misled by the belief that the Trade Unions could and would co-operate in the maintenance of full employment. It was assumed that a corporate trade-union leadership would act in the collective interest of the working class. But the Unions and indeed the working class were disintegrating into the sectionalism Dr Morgan so deplores, and could not bear the burden of responsibility placed upon them.

Dr Morgan is in two minds about the role of class in post-war Britain. He interprets the entrenched class divisions of the Forties, and the ingrained conservatism of the period, as major flaws in British society. But at the same time he regards the traditional working class as the backbone of a cohesive social order of neighbourhood, family and respect for authority. The erosion of this world and its values he contemplates with mixed feelings. By the time he reaches the Sixties he is beginning to write with considerable nostalgia for the old social order. This leads him to lash out, unjustly I think, against the student radicals of the Sixties: ‘The student revolt was testimony to a wider dissolution. The civic culture of Britain had rested, even in the economic troubles of post-1945, on the strength of certain bases, the nuclear family, the cohesive neighbourhood, the benevolent virtues of professional advancement, respect for the law. The existence of so strident a rejection among significant elements in teenage groups or young people in their twenties weakened all of these, without necessarily providing any alternative view of society.’

This reads well enough, but the rhetoric is stronger than the analysis. The weakening of the cohesive working-class neighbourhood, and the problems of the nuclear family, were due to long-term social and economic factors and had little or nothing to do with student radicalism. Perhaps Dr Morgan is reflecting on the impact later on of militant gays and lesbians on the working class of Ken Living-stone’s London: but that is a different story.

And so to Mrs Thatcher. Readers may detect in Dr Morgan’s account of her the mood of the late Eighties when the Thatcherite revolution quite suddenly lost its incendiary quality, and boredom began to set in. He writes informatively enough, but is obviously not consumed by curiosity. Was her think tank the Centre for Policy Studies of the Policy Studies Committee? I assume they are one and the same but Dr Morgan refers to both and they appear separately in the index, where the latter turns up as the Police Studies Committee. Did Ian Gow resign as her ‘personal secretary’ over the Anglo-Irish Agreement? Surely not. The writing is a little slack towards the end and what is this we read about a divorce rate of ‘12.9 per cent of 1000 existing marriages’? Some confusion somewhere.

How do the Thatcher governments affect Dr Morgan’s analysis of the decline of civic culture? One of the achievements of Mrs Thatcher was to suppress the militant Left in the trade unions and local government. This was of great assistance to Neil Kinnock, whose interests converged with hers to that extent, in establishing his control over the Labour Party. Dr Morgan is relieved that Mrs Thatcher has turned Britain into a more governable country, and the Labour Party – ironically enough – into a more viable party of government. In this way some of the authority of the old civic culture has been restored, including, for example, a greater respect on the left for the Police. But while he is ready to admit some therapeutic side-effects of Thatcherism, he still sees the main thrust as divisive, with a growing chasm between rich and poor, North and South.

Finishing his book in December 1989, Dr Morgan was not convinced that Thatcherism would last. In a prophetic summing-up he wrote: ‘The nation had not formally rejected either her or her policies by the end of 1989. But, below the surface, it may have been defeating her all the same.’ The book ends with the hopeful prospect of Labour inheriting the authority of a Thatcher government, but employing it to restore the morale of the public sector and expand the role of the state. It could just happen, a modest revival of collectivism in an increasingly middle-class society. The problem is that whether you have a free market society or a collectivist state, the middle classes and the more powerful trade unions will redistribute wealth in their own favour. Potentially they form, under any government, an effective coalition against the poor. Dr Morgan is a fine political historian: but perhaps he overestimates the power of politicians to reverse the social divisions which Mrs Thatcher so shamelessly exploited.