From Socialist Review, No. 173, March 1994.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
The Road to 1945
This book touches on two British myths. First, that the Second World War united the nation from top to bottom in the fight against the evil of fascism. Second, that the 1945 Labour government, whose reforms are still cited as one of the main reasons for electing Labour, shows the way to achieve effective change.
The Road to 1945 casts some light on both these propositions. But the light is concentrated on the ‘development of politics at the top’. This is largely an account of parliamentary manoeuvres and government committees. The important strikes that took place during the war are not mentioned. Nor is there any real description of the depth of admiration for the Nazis that existed in conservative circles, although Addison does quote Lord Bocket’s letter to Chamberlain in January 1940 urging peace because a long war would mean ‘appalling taxation’ for the middle and upper classes.
Our rulers were extremely reluctant to fight Hitler, partly out of ideological sympathy but mainly because they feared the cost and disruption of an all out conflict. It took the military disasters of 1940 to shock a majority of them into a realisation that unless they mobilised seriously they risked losing the empire. Hence the switch to Churchill.
How little this had to do with ‘defending democracy’ is shown by Churchill’s response to Dunkirk. Arguing that a revolutionary situation was developing in the country he advocated the suspension of parliament, the introduction of martial law and the formation of a committee of public safety armed with dictatorial powers.
As a plan of action this would not do. If workers were to be pulled behind the war effort the Labour Party and trade union leaderships had to be brought into government, serious state control of the economy introduced and the population – with bitter memories of the aftermath of the First World War – given some expectation that life would be better after this one. Hence the move to coalition government and the formation of a series of committees, usually chaired by a Tory or Liberal, charged with producing blueprints for a ‘new Britain’. Butler laid down the basis of state education and Beveridge the welfare state.
Addison’s principal argument is that by 1945 there was already a broad consensus on social and economic issues between Tory and Labour.
Certainly the Tories accepted most of the welfare reforms with as much good grace as they could muster. The postwar nationalisations went through with only token opposition. Wartime radicalisation across Britain and Europe forced them to make concessions. There was also a growing feeling in sections of the Tory Party that the war had shown that greater state intervention was necessary if British capitalism was to compete successfully.
This broad agreement allowed Labour to run a relatively moderate campaign in 1945 presenting themselves as the most consistent supporters of the new consensus. Cripps urged the party to aim for the middle ground, Morrison recommended appealing to the ‘small man’ and the self employed, and Attlee worried that, ‘A silly speech by Aneurin Bevan might easily be used to stampede the electors away from Labour.’
In fact the stampede was the other way. The shift to the left by millions delivered victory to Labour.
What emerges from Addison’s account is that given the situation of a discredited ruling class, a massive Labour majority, overwhelming support in the armed forces and laws controlling much of industry already in place, how much the reforms introduced were near the minimum the situation allowed for. But gains such as the NHS were real and helped bring Labour to a peak individual membership of 1 million by the time they lost office in 1951.
With D-Day commemorations around the corner and a VE-Day bank holiday next year these particular myths are about to get another outing.
Last updated: 8 March 2017