July 7, 2007


Britain in the age of patience: a review of AUSTERITY BRITAIN: 1945–51 by David Kynaston (Ferdinand Mount, Times Literary Supplement)

Some later historians have sought to play down those ambitions and present the Attlee Government as little more than a group of well-meaning but short-sighted social democrats who were undone by their own timidity. Yet, at the start, their hopes were vaulting high. Even Herbert Morrison, the voice of down-to-earth moderation, declared that "part of our work in politics and in industry must be to improve human nature". The private goal of Sir William Haley, the BBC's Director-General, was that in time the Third Programme would become so popular that the Light Programme and the Home Service would no longer be required. And when television limped on to the scene, Haley anticipated the time when that medium, too, "working with all the other beneficent influences within the community will have the capacity, to make for a broader vision and a fuller life".

Along with this idealism went a good deal of contempt for the British people as they actually were. [...]

Few of the new elite would have agreed with Frederic Osborn, writing to Lewis Mumford: "I don't think philanthropic people anywhere realise the irresistible strength of the impulse towards the family house and garden as prosperity increases. They think the suburban trend can be reversed by large-scale multi-storey buildings in the down-town district, which is not merely a pernicious belief from the human point of view but a delusion". The vogue for planning and the revolt against suburbia coincided with two other irresistible forces: the preference for public ownership over private speculative building and, above all, the need to cope with the desperate housing crisis.

The Attlee Government is best remembered today for nationalization and the National Health Service. But, as Kynaston makes clear in his wonderful melange of statistics, gossip and quotation, housing was easily the top issue throughout the 1945 Parliament and at the 1950 general election. A quarter of Britain's dwellings did not have their own lavatory, nearly half lacked a fixed bath. The shortage of homes was estimated at somewhere between 700,000 and double that figure. In Glasgow, nearly half the population were thought to need rehousing. And the progress made under Labour was impressive. By 1951, a million new homes had been built, four-fifths of them for local authorities. When Harold Macmillan went on to set and meet a target of 300,000 homes a year, the majority too were council-owned. The trend continued under later Tory and Labour administrations, so that by the 1970s a third of the total housing stock was owned by the council – a transformation of the pattern of housing tenure more revolutionary in its implications even than the arrival of the National Health Service, which was, after all, a development of existing publicly financed health services along lines set out, though less ambitiously, by H. U. Willink (later Sir Henry) for the wartime Coalition.

The NHS in fact plays a strangely minor part in Kynaston's account – nothing like the iconic prominence it occupies today in our recollections. The public reaction he describes was one of weary gratitude, with only a little muttering about the inevitable shortcomings of the service and those who abused it. Much the same is true of the other great new arrival of 1948, the introduction of the national insurance scheme. In the dark days of the war the Beveridge Report had sold 630,000 copies, but now the enthusiasm had settled down into a placid acceptance of what were pretty modest levels of benefit.

Altogether, what strikes one looking back is not any great splurge on the "welfare state" – a term which Lord Beveridge himself disliked as a distortion of his intentions – but rather the tight-fisted caution with which it was introduced. The NHS never looked like meeting Aneurin Bevan's innocent hope that the service would make the nation so healthy that its costs would eventually come down. But the government made strenuous efforts to control the cost overrun (£50 million on an estimate of £176 million) and did not hesitate to overrule Bevan and bring in charges for false teeth and spectacles. By severely rationing treatment, it proved possible to keep the service more or less affordable, until several decades later the expectations of affluence broke the dam.

Kynaston is surely right in saying that "if the Tories had been returned to office in 1945, they almost certainly would have created a welfare state not unrecognisably different". As it was, Britain was spending less of her GDP on social welfare than Belgium, Austria, or West Germany. This part of Correlli Barnett's argument – that the British voted themselves too comfortable a peace – is not wholly convincing. After all, the queues and shortages of the Labour years were largely due to the determined diversion of almost all manufactures to export. Britain's share of world trade in manufactured goods actually rose under Labour. In 1950, the British motor industry enjoyed a startling 52 per cent of world exports.

But if the costs of welfare did not cripple the British economy, Barnett was surely right in arguing that imperial overstretch did. As Maynard Keynes bitterly observed in 1944, "all our reflex actions are those of a rich man", whether in insisting that the sterling area must play a leading role, or that the atomic bomb must have a Union Jack on top of it, or that that not a single brick in the imperial arch be abandoned, for fear that the whole lot would come tumbling down. Doubling defence expenditure from the pre-war level of 7 per cent, to meet the demands of the Korean War, was a breathtaking piece of bravado for a country still so ravaged by war and in hock to its creditors.

Yet the most corrosive causes of long-term decline surely lay within the structures of industry rather than springing from the overblown pretensions of government. It was not so much the obsession with occupying the commanding heights of the economy that did the damage. It was the failure to attend to what was going on down below. In manufacturing, for example, competition on price was virtually defunct. Collusive price agreements covered about 60 per cent of output, as against 25–30 per cent before the war. The clearing banks too had come to operate as a dozy cartel. Oliver Franks recalled that being Chairman of the Midland Bank "was like driving a powerful car at twenty miles an hour". Restrictive practices such as working to rule, overtime bans and the closed shop were spreading fast. And there was more to come, as trade union membership hit a peak of 9.3 million in 1951. In the Coventry car plants it was the shop stewards who called the shots. Labour in the docks had been decasualized, but far from improving as predicted, the turn-round time had fallen off badly. Most managers had little appetite for reform, since they had it relatively easy in a world where the United States was still struggling to supply its home market, and Germany and Japan were flat on their backs. Even Geoffrey Crowther, Editor of the Economist, who denounced the British system as "stiff, rigid and unadaptable", did not greatly care for the American system either, "where to my mind they have too much competition and pay too high a price for their wealth". All in all, what Bevan slightingly described as "the light cavalry of private industry" seemed to be trotting, quite blithely, into the Valley of Death.

Luckily their Britishness was strong enough that we didn't make them complete welfare queens.

Posted by Orrin Judd at July 7, 2007 9:17 AM

So now the sons and grandsons of those they abandoned in Post Mandate Jordan; India, &
Iraq, now comprise a 3rd of their doctors, and
not a few of hem want to wipe them out.

Posted by: narciso at July 7, 2007 10:38 PM

Actually the world in which these events occurred are captured in Tony Broadbent's novels of the

Posted by: narciso at July 8, 2007 12:15 AM