Juggling with Welfare and Greatness: Britain under the Tories, 1951-64

Article excerpt

In assessing Britain's performance during 13 years of Conservative rule, Dilwyn Porter picks out the two themes which have dominated British history since the Second World War.

Historians writing about Britain since 1945 have generally been more interested in what went wrong than what went right. This is not surprising. The 30 years or so after the end of the Second World War witnessed the loss of empire and confirmed Britain's fall from Great Power status. At the same time Britain's economy entered a period of relative decline when it's rate of growth lagged persistently behind that of most other developed nations.

Yet there was another side to the story. A.J.P. Taylor, in his celebrated English History 1914-1945 (1965), finished on an optimistic note arguing that victory in 1945 was a triumph for the British people. Britain might have lost its Great Power status but there were real compensations: as the British Empire declined, the condition of the people improved. It is possible to carry this forward into the 1950s and 1960s. Sustained improvement in welfare provision, even after Labour gave way to the Conservatives in 1951, is important here. So, too, is the rising level of personal prosperity culminating in a `great leap forward' into affluence at the end of the 1950s.

It is important to make connections between the two sides of the story. Robert Holland has argued that it makes sense to see much of British 20th-century history in terms of a balancing act, as governments juggled with the often-conflicting priorities of `welfare' and `greatness'. Some historians, especially during the Thatcher era, argued that the post-war balance had been wrong, that the impulse to national greatness had been significantly weakened by the commitment to welfare. Correlli Barnett's Audit of War (1986) was, perhaps, the most celebrated statement of this kind. Yet, more recently, an alternative view has surfaced. If welfare, broadly defined, was prioritised, was it really such an undesirable outcome? Britain may have lost an empire but, as Nick Tiratsoo has pointed out, `there are many who would ask whether this was a morally defensible or economically advantageous arrangement anyway'.

The 13 years of Conservative rule from 1951 to 1964 are crucial in any assessment of the British experience in the post-war period. Successive governments under Churchill, Eden, Macmillan and Home were confronted with declining British power abroad and rising expectations at home as people began to regard welfare as a right and affluence as a reasonable expectation. In this period `the art of the possible', as politics was once described, required that constant attention be given to the delicate balance between external priorities (greatness) and internal priorities (welfare).

A new Elizabethan Age?

Arguably the outgoing Labour government had impaled itself fatally on the horns of this dilemma over priorities in 1951 when part of the additional expenditure required to finance participation in the Korean War was raised by imposing NHS charges. This retreat from the high ground marked out by Bevan in 1948 made it a little easier for the incoming Conservatives to adhere to the welfare side of the post-war settlement. Housing policy, under Macmillan, was the Churchill government's greatest success; the figure of 300,000 new houses each year, as promised in the 1951 manifesto, was achieved for the first time in 1953. But the precarious position of the pound precluded any attempt to steal Labour's clothes or simply to let consumption rip.

In foreign policy Churchill talked expansively about Britain's unique position at the intersection of three overlapping spheres of influence -- the Atlantic, the Commonwealth and Western Europe. The reality was less dignified and his government often adopted the relatively low-cost option of allowing the Americans to take the lead. Eden, as Foreign Secretary, reviewing defence commitments in the Middle East and South-East Asia in 1953, observed that the strategy was `to persuade the United States to assume the real burdens . …