Attlee, Bevin and Britain's Cold War: Graham Goodlad Examines the Role of Britain's Postwar Labour Government in the Early Stages of the Cold War

By Goodlad, Graham | History Review, March 2011 | Go to article overview

Attlee, Bevin and Britain's Cold War: Graham Goodlad Examines the Role of Britain's Postwar Labour Government in the Early Stages of the Cold War


Goodlad, Graham, History Review


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Britain's first majority Labour government was elected in July 1945 at a pivotal moment in international affairs. The Second World War was almost over, with Nazi Germany defeated and the fall of imperial Japan imminent. As tensions emerged in the alliance between the USA and the Soviet Union, this was a critical time for Britain as the third strongest of the allied powers. This article discusses the role of the Labour Prime Minister, Clement Attlee, and his Foreign Secretary, Ernest Bevin, in the events which led to Britain's involvement in the opening stages of the Cold War. It also examines some of the controversies surrounding British foreign policy in this period. How justified is the argument, advanced by some historians, that the Labour government failed to develop a distinctively 'socialist' approach to foreign affairs? At the time many on the British left hoped that the new government would promote international co-operation, independently both of the USA and the USSR. Did Attlee and Bevin contribute to the growth of international tensions by unnecessarily antagonising the latter, which had been the West's indispensable partner in the struggle against Nazism? Can the government be convicted of pursuing an illusory 'great power' status, of unwisely tying Britain to the American alliance and missing the opportunity to help build up a viable community of western European states? Or can its decisions be defended as realistic responses to Britain's narrowing room for manoeuvre at a time of unparalleled difficulty?

Firstly, however, it is important to consider the outlook and aims of the government's principal policy-makers, and the context in which they found themselves operating. Without an understanding of the constraints imposed by circumstances on the government, there is a real danger of assessing its actions in a simplistic manner.

Priorities and Pressures in Office

Some members of Britain's traditional governing establishment expected the Labour election victory to herald a radical change of direction in foreign policy. Sir Orme Sargent, for example, who was soon to become Permanent Under-Secretary at the Foreign Office, feared a 'Communist avalanche over Europe, a weak foreign policy ... the reduction of England to a second class power'. Certainly, at the May 1945 Labour Party conference, Bevin referred to 'left speaking to left' in postwar Europe. In reality, however, it was unlikely that Britain's new leaders would seek to abandon Britain's position as a leading world power. Attlee and Bevin had both been senior members of the wartime Churchill coalition, which made some continuity in foreign policy likely. Relations with the Soviet Union had not been harmonious, even at the height of wartime collaboration. Bevin was devoted to the maintenance of the British Empire and distrusted Soviet communism--a feeling which he carried with him from his background as a leading figure in the British trade union movement. The self-taught, workingclass Bevin was undiplomatic in manner, his language eccentric. Of the projected Council of Europe, for example, he said: 'If you open that Pandora's Box, you never know what Trojan 'orses will jump out.' Bevin brought to international negotiations an intuitive shrewdness, derived in his own vivid phrase from 'the hedgerows of experience'. He combined this with a rugged determination to fight his country's corner--Tm not going to have Britain barged about', he once declared--which won him the regard of senior Foreign Office civil servants. Notwithstanding vocal criticism of his policies from the Labour left, especially during the government's first two years, his robust patriotism also earned him steady support from the party's trade union wing. In common with many members of his generation, Bevin approached relations with the Soviet Union with a determination not to repeat the appeasement which had occurred in the 1930s.

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