Sunny Days

Michael Howard

  • Never Again: Britain 1945-51 by Peter Hennessy
    Cape, 544 pp, £20.00, September 1992, ISBN 0 224 02768 9
  • Churchill on the Home Front 1900-1955 by Paul Addison
    Cape, 493 pp, £20.00, November 1992, ISBN 0 224 01428 5

Peter Hennessy has chosen for the dust jacket of Never Again a picture that exactly captures the mood of 1945. A returning British serviceman is being welcomed home by his wife and small son. ‘Home’ is a pre-fab, decked for the occasion with Union Jacks. The wife is wearing a neat, knee-length utility-model dress. The little boy, in shorts, pullover and tie, looks healthy and well-fed. All three are ecstatic with the happiness of finding each other alive again after a war in which the family at home had been as likely to be killed as the soldier at the front. The war was over, the valleys would bloom again, and Johnny would go to sleep in his own little room again.

It was a good moment to be alive, and as Peter Hennessy constantly insists in his entertaining but none the less thorough survey, a good time to grow up. For people of his generation who had known nothing except wartime deprivation there seemed no way to go but up, and up they went for the next five years – indeed, for the next twenty-five years. The wartime coalition government had promised a home fit for heroes, and this time Labour delivered. Five years later, Sam Watson, leader of the Durham miners, was able to claim, not inaccurately:

Poverty has been abolished. Hunger is unknown. The sick are tended. The old folks are cherished, our children are growing up in a land of opportunity.

Further, this miracle (for so it seemed to those who, a little older than Peter Hennessy, had grown up in the Thirties) had been accomplished with a remarkable absence of friction. Grumbling, yes: as someone from an upper middle-class background, I could have added a few darker tones to his generally sunny picture. In the circles frequented by my own parents, resentment at loss of privileges, especially – a point rather overlooked by Hennessy – the virtual disappearance of domestic servants, was compounded by a suspicion that the Attlee Government was, economically speaking, flying blind without a compass. The suspicion was well founded, as Hennessy’s book shows. But six years’ experience of a wartime siege economy and residual guilt about the misery of the Thirties had softened up all but the most bloody-minded of the upper classes; and although the Labour Government can take proper credit for creating the Welfare State, it did so with a wide popular consensus, and was building on the achievements of the first Churchill Government. When the Conservatives returned to power in 1951, so far from dismantling the Welfare State, they increased welfare spending from 39.2 per cent of government expenditure in 1951 to 43 per cent in 1955. The second Churchill Administration, in Paul Addison’s words, was one of ‘Tory wets, for whom social harmony was a higher priority than economic sufficiency. The Prime Minister himself was soaking wet.’

Yet the very breadth of the consensus indicated the limited nature of the social transformation: something that doctrinaire socialists like Tony Benn constantly and rightly emphasise. ‘The commanding heights of the economy’ – gas, railways, coal, steel – were handed over to the civil servants, a measure of doubtful benefit to anyone, but nobody was going to the guillotine to protest about that. A system of national insurance had been created that benefited all classes, not simply the poor and unemployed. A National Health Service had been set up which Hennessy defiantly describes as ‘one of the finest institutions ever built by anyone anywhere’ (and after living in the United States for three years, I can say amen to that). The doctors grumbled, as did their better-heeled private patients, but no-one else. A national education system had been instituted, at least a century later than in any other European country, which the upper classes tolerated so long as their own schools (which were for the most part very good) remained intact. The slums were cleared and public housing became a priority for both parties. The grinding poverty of the Thirties – and indeed of every decade before that – had been abolished by free education, free health provision, family allowances, universal insurance and full employment.

The same people remained in charge, however, governing the country through the same institutions. The only serious systemic change was the elevation of the trade unions to the status of a virtual estate of the realm. That had already been achieved in the Coalition Government thanks to the dominating personality of Ernest Bevin, acting with Churchill’s benevolent approval. Churchill, as Paul Addison shows in his excellent study, had seen the unions as a potential bulwark of the social order ever since the disturbed years before the First World War. Apart from that, the government of the country, like the Bar, the professions in general, the Foreign Office and the world of finance, remained in the hands of a largely Oxbridge-educated Civil Service, whose members, in spite of the influx of new blood which had so ably handled the wartime economy, retained the mind-set of the inter-war years and saw no need for radical change.

And what, it may be asked, was wrong with that? These people (few of whom in fact had ‘upper class’ backgrounds) were impregnated with the kind of social conscience that had become commonplace among the professional classes since the days of ‘New Liberals’ like J.A. Hobson and soft socialists like R.H. Tawney. They may not all have willed the means proposed by Beveridge and Keynes (though an increasing number of them did) but most of them willed the end. They implemented the plans of their Labour masters not only dutifully but often with enthusiasm. It is most improbable, to put it no more strongly, that any social irruption could have produced any better or more effective public servants than Oliver Franks, Edwin Plowden, Robert Hall, Edward Bridges, Alec Cairncross, Edward Hall-Patch, Richard Hopkins and Roger Makins, to name only a few of the ‘mandarins’ who served the Labour Government so loyally.

Therein lay the problem, however. They did what their Labour masters wanted, and did it very well. Nationalisation apart (and few of them objected to the extension of the power of Whitehall that this involved) they accepted, in Hennessy’s words, ‘the Government’s responsibility for maintaining a high and stable level of employment, and its achievement through the management of demand within the economy’. But like their Labour masters – and like the country as a whole – they saw the tasks before them simply as achieving economic recovery, and redistributing resources to ensure social justice; not as planning for the long-term regeneration of the wealth on which the Welfare State and Britain’s position in the world ultimately depended.

Hennessy shows how one or two of the mandarins – primarily the excellent Otto Clarke – identified the problem from the beginning. The Labour leadership – Bevin, Dalton, Attlee and Cripps – came to realise it too late, without having any idea how to solve it. Hennessy contrasts the short-sighted pragmatism of the British civil servants with the bold imaginativeness of their French opposite numbers of the Commissariat du Plan and the recruits from the grandes écoles; a myopia that made them dismiss the Schumann Plan and the whole idea of Europe as airy-fairy nonsense. But would new blood from outside Whitehall, whether recruited from the ‘workers’ or from industry, have done any better? The view in Whitehall was that shared by virtually the entire country, irrespective of class. Britain, so it was thought, had ‘won the war’. Her victory vindicated the institutions which had achieved it. There were short-term problems arising from Britain’s wartime indebtedness, but if those could be solved Britain would be Great again, and maintain her status as one of the Big Three to which her wartime sacrifices entitled her. The Labour Party itself took this for granted, and ignored Ernest Bevin’s lament: ‘I can offer nothing to any foreign country, neither credit nor coal nor goods – I am expected to make bricks without straw.’ Even the continued existence of the Empire – minus India – was taken for granted. Not until Suez did the penny drop.

It was of course thanks only to the support of the United States that the illusion was allowed to persist. In 1945 the Americans made clear their unwillingness to underwrite either the Welfare State or the British Empire, and they renewed their wartime loans only on condition that sterling should become freely convertible by 1947. But by that year the loan was almost exhausted and reserves were haemorrhaging at a terrifying rate. Shivering in the cold of that horrible winter, the economists faced a prospect that belied the assumptions of the young Hennessys, that there was nowhere to go but up. If American support really came to an end, there would be no alternative but the virtual abandonment of all overseas expenditure, and austerity on a scale far worse than that of the war.

When it came to the point, the Americans did come to the rescue again; but they did so not because they believed in any ‘special relationship’, but because we were able to convince them, with plentiful help from Stalin, of the reality of a ‘Soviet threat’. We were then subsidised as a necessary ally. But as a loyal ally we had to assume military obligations – especially in the shadow of the Korean War – which further blighted our hopes of economic growth, and set us on the path to being a second-rate political and third-rate economic power.

Was this the fault of the Labour Government? Would all this have happened if Labour had not come back into power and established a Welfare State? What if the electorate had hearkened to the voice of Conservative propaganda in 1945 and given Winston Churchill the tools so that he could finish the job?

The image of Churchill as a great war leader has become so fixed in the public mind that his defeat in 1945 is generally seen as the wise decision of a politically sophisticated electorate: Churchill had been the right man to run the war, but had no serious qualifications as an architect of domestic peace. But as Paul Addison rightly suggests in Churchill on the Home Front, Churchill has been ‘generally overestimated as a military leader and underestimated in civilian affairs’. It is true that Churchill was fascinated by military matters: as fascinated, to use Professor Addison’s happy analogy, as Mr Toad was by motor cars (and he conducted them with a comparable bravura). But between 1908 and 1912, he had been an active member of one of the most radical reforming administrations in British history, and for another five, from 1924 to 1929, he was a key figure in an administration whose interest was focused almost entirely on domestic affairs. The record indicates that he would have made his name as a protagonist of domestic reform even if the two world wars had not provided him with a more dramatic role to play on the national stage.

Addison shows how Churchill’s political and social philosophy was formed in the years before 1924, and changed little thereafter. He was, he always proclaimed, a ‘Tory democrat’ on the model of his father: that is, he believed in preserving the stability of society as a whole, by ensuring the security and prosperity of its poorest members. Like Bismarck, he believed that state-provided social security was the best way to inoculate the masses against the virus of socialism. But unlike Bismarck he was a democratic politician who had regularly to contest elections, and so saw at first hand the conditions that had to be ameliorated. Compassion played as large a part as calculation in determining his policies. Michael Foot stated disdainfully that Churchill ‘never had the foggiest idea of how the British people lived, how they earned their bread, how society functioned’; but it is questionable whether Mr Foot was any better qualified to empathise with the British working man than was Churchill, who also earned his living by his pen.

Addison does not endorse Michael Foot’s dismissive judgment, but he quotes with evident approval another Labour politician, Herbert Morrison, who described Churchill as ‘the old benevolent Tory squire who does all he can for the people – provided always that they are good, obedient people and loyally recognise his position – and theirs’. But ‘Tory squire’ was exactly what Churchill was not. Whatever his parental lineage, he was thoroughly déraciné, and half-American into the bargain. He had no time for the stick-in-the-mud landed classes, whose privileged position he had gladly helped to demolish before 1914 – even if, as a historian, he rather lamented their passing. He was, as Addison constantly emphasises, an adventurer, who enjoyed the company of other adventurers: an outsider, and one whose advent to power was viewed on all sides with deep apprehension. The nearest analogy in British political history, as Rab Butler shrewdly remarked in 1940, was not the ultra-respectable William Pitt – a pilot who in fact failed to weather the storm – but the raffish, unreliable Charles James Fox, another politician with no deep attachment to the social order.

Certainly Churchill wanted to preserve ‘order’ – that is, the basic structure of government. When he believed that order was threatened by militant working-class leaders, he squared up to them both in 1911 and in 1926 with a belligerence that made him a devil-figure in socialist mythology. Certainly he detested socialist egalitarianism, especially the revolutionary destructiveness of inter-war Bolshevism. But as a libertarian he detested dirigisme in all its forms – even the benevolent dirigisme he found himself compelled to preside over in wartime. He spent an astonishing amount of his time between 1940 and 1945 exploring ways and means by which it could be mitigated. But he never had the slightest trouble in accepting the working classes as partners in running the country, from his co-option of David Kirkwood to help organise Labour in the First World War to his virtual delegation of labour relations to Ernest Bevin in the Second. His birth, background and personality made him far less sensitive to social nuances than most of his political associates. He did indeed want to keep ‘the workers’ in their place, but their place was as partners in running the country through well-organised unions: not as subordinates, and certainly not, if he could avoid it, as antagonists.

Churchill’s sympathies, as Addison points out in one of the many perceptive passages of his book, extended not only to the ‘working classes’ but to ‘all those for whom life was a material struggle for existence ... the shopkeeper, the tradesman and the clerk. It was the upper middle-classes, secure in the leafy suburbs who puzzled him: the business leaders, professionals and Hampstead intellectuals.’ People, in fact, like Michael Foot. Nor did he have much sympathy for the projects of social engineering that emerged from the leafy suburbs, whether of Hampstead or North Oxford. Ensuring the welfare of the underprivileged was one thing; tinkering with the structure of society so as to implement a-prioristic intellectual concepts was quite another. (There was one significant exception. As Home Secretary he became fascinated by the contemporary fad for eugenics and seriously urged the sterilisation of the ‘unfit’. Fortunately his officials persuaded him that this would not be wise.) He gave the Beveridge plan a cool welcome: it could be seen as the logical conclusion of the reforms he had sponsored at the behest of the New Liberals before 1914, but it verged dangerously on the kind of dirigisme that he so much disliked. None the less, given the support the plan enjoyed among all parties, he would probably have implemented it, and had he done so the Welfare State whose foundations he had helped lay a generation earlier would have been consummated under his auspices. Whether he would have liked it is another matter.

Whatever his policies and his sympathies, however, Churchill would have been far too old and out of touch to be an effective prime minister after 1945. He could have succeeded as a peace-time leader only if he had held the wartime coalition together – that ‘government of the Middle’ to which he had aspired throughout his career and whose construction in 1940 had been one of his greatest achievements. Once that collapsed, he was left as leader of a party with which he had little sympathy and which would have caused him nothing but trouble, and with an opposition that would have mistrusted every move, however well-intentioned, that he made. In dealing with Britain’s post-war trauma he would have been as out of his depth as anyone else, and even more obsessed by illusions of grandeur. Clementine Churchill was absolutely right: his defeat was a blessing, however harshly disguised, for himself and for the entire country. By the time he returned to power the spadework in building the Welfare State had been done, and he could enjoy the fruits of it in peace.