‘I look around my colleagues and i see Landlords, Capitalists and Lawyers. We are a cross section of the national life and this is something that has never happened before’
Arthur Greenwood – Lord Privy Seal – 1945
A New Jerusalem
There were only 62 days between the end of the second World War and Clement Attlee’s dramatic arrival in 10 Downing Street. Labour had shocked the world by ousting Churchill, and had a mandate to radically alter every aspect of the British working life. For the first time in the party’s history, they had a substantial majority to achieve the change.
The new intake of Labour MPs included a radical and diverse set of characters – youngsters who would go on to dominate the party, and public life. They included Denis Healey, Barbara Castle, Harold Wilson, Michael Foot, and James Callaghan. But the first Attlee ministry consisted of the old guard of Labour politics – Hugh Dalton, Arthur Greenwood, Ernie Bevin and Nye Bevan.
The period in office would focus on the building of a ‘New Jerusalem’, the centerpiece being the creation of the NHS, alongside a programme of mass nationalisation of the heavy industries – coal, gas, electric, transport and steel. Labour nationalised around 20 percent of the economy, and these sectors, which had been decimated during the war, were seen as the key to national renewal.
The government had the tenacity to implement many of the Beveridge proposals, creating a strong welfare state and committing the state to a mass house building programme. On defence, scarred by the horrors of war, they eagerly aligned Britain with America through the creation of NATO and development of ‘The Atomic Bomb’
Such radicalism was all the more remarkable when you consider the deep financial crisis afflicting the nation. Bankrupted by war, Britain had plunged all of its resources into survival.
Forward March Halted?
After the initial euphoria of nationalisation, a deep economic crisis hit the government in 1947. In 1948 Labour chancellor Sir Stafford Cripps introduced an austerity budget including a freeze on wages. He told the TUC, “There is only a certain sized cake. If a lot of people want a larger slice they can only get it by taking it from others.”
As unemployment rose from 400,000 to 1.75 million, Britain became ever more dependent on a £1.1 billion loan from the USA, the last of which was paid off in 2006 by the Blair government.
With a radical left wing emerging within the party, an alliance between Attlee-Bevin attempted to contain it. This would eventually lead to allegations of treachery and red toryism, particularity from Bevan, who was becoming the biggest figure on the left of the movement.
Bevan urged the government to embrace radical reforms and bitterly resisted any compromise on policy, resigning over the reintroduction of NHS prescription charges. Amidst these divisions, Labour lost the 1951 election and and consigned themselves to the political wilderness for 13 years.
The perceived unity of the Attlee era, gave way to a brutal civil war between the Gaitskellites and Bevanites – which i have covered in much more detail here in 1955 – Traitors, Red Tories and ‘The most boring election of all time’.
Could another leader have saved the party during these years?
Aneurin Bevan was one of the most important ministers in Attlee’s government and was the chief architect of the National Health Service.
Born in Tredegar, Wales, Aneurin Bevan was from a solid mining family and the poor conditions in which he grew up deeply affected him, inspiring him throughout his time in politics.
After leaving school at the age of 13, he began working in a local colliery. He later became an influential trade union activist, earning a scholarship to study in London. It was during this period that Bevan converted to the the ideas of socialism and after emerging as an influential figure during the 1926 General Strike, he was elected as Labour MP for Ebbw Vale at the 1929 Election.
After the 1945 landslide, Bevan was appointed Minister for Health, responsible for implementing the Beveridge proposal of a National Health Service. Undoubtedly this was his finest hour, as he battled with the BMA and medical professions to turn his dream into a reality.
For 18 months he was involved in a tough and complex negotiation to persuade the reluctant medical professionals to cooperate with vision. He later claimed he ‘stuffed their mouths with gold’.
On 5 July 1948, the NHS was born and the government took over responsibility for all medical services. Bevan would continue to defend the ‘free of the point of use’ aspect of the service, claiming “I will not be part of any Government that makes charges for the patient’. He would resign from the government in protest at the introduction of prescription charges for dental care and spectacles.
Towards the end of the Attlee era, Bevan led the left wing of the Labour Party, known as the ‘Bevanites’. In 1955, he stood as one of the candidates for party leader but was defeated by Hugh Gaitskell.
Ernie Bevin was a central figure in the British Labour movement during the war, before serving as foreign secretary in the late 1940s, overseeing the formation of NATO.
Ernest Bevin was born in Somerset in 1881. After being orphaned aged 8, he received very little formal education and by the age of 11 he was working in the docks. Here he developed a skill for organising and communicating with his fellow workers.
That skill enabled him rise up the Dockers’ Union, eventually working to create the Transport and General Workers Union. This was seen as a key milestone for the union movement – encompassing a diverse range of people and jobs into a single, integrated and highly powerful union
Through this, Bevin became a leading figure in the Labour party, working with the leadership to ensure workers rights were central to any future programme for government. Although he remained outside parliament, his powerful speech at the 1935 party conference paved the way for Attlee’s leadership bid.
In 1940 Bevin finally became an MP, and was appointed Minister of Labour in the Churchill coalition government.
This appointment proved to be one of the most effective and important decisions of the war. Bevin was responsible for creating the war economy, in which all human and material resources were organised to maximise the war effort. Alarmed at the lack of coal stocks, he began a large scale conscription programme, recruiting thousands of young ‘Bevin Boys’ to work in the mines.
In 1945, Bevin became Foreign Secretary in the Attlee’s government. In the aftermath of the war, he was determined to make Britain a staunch ally of the US, particularly as the Cold War threat against the USSR grew. He worked on gaining US support for the Marshall Plan – a crucial financing of post-war Europe – and became the central figure in the creation of the NATO in 1949,
He would die in office on 14 April 1951.
Herbert Morrison, held a variety of senior positions within the Cabinet. He served as Home Secretary during the war and put together the radical 1945 Labour manifesto – Let us Face the Future.
Herbert Morrison was born in January 1888, in Lambeth. As a baby, he permanently lost the sight in his right eye due to an infection.
Morrison became active in politics and joined the Independent Labour Party (ILP) in 1906. A founder member of the London Labour Party, he went on to become the Mayor of Hackney, and the MP for South Hackney in 1923.
Morrison continued to sit on the London County Council, becoming its leader in 1934. were he oversaw the development of London’s housing, health, education and transport system, Morrison’s main achievements were seen as the unification of the transport system and the creation of ‘green belt’ areas around the suburbs. In 1935 Morrison stood for the Labour leadership, but was defeated by Attlee.
As the war coalition was brought together, Morrison became Home Secretary. Following this, the Evening Standard featured Morrison in the cartoon ‘All Behind You Winston’, emphasising the importance of national unity at the outbreak of the war.
During the war, momentum grew for Morrison to replace Attlee as leader of the Labour Party, mainly instigated by his mistress, Ellen Wilkinson.
After the war, Morrison organised Labour’s victorious 1945 election campaign and was put in charge of the manifesto, which included the radical blueprint for the Beveridge implementations. After the success of the campaign, Attlee appointed him Deputy Prime Minister, and he oversaw the mass nationalisation programme.
In the final year of Attlee’s premiership, Morrison had an unsuccessful term as Foreign Secretary. His parting gift to the nation would be ‘The Festival of Britain’ – a celebration of the modernity of postwar Britain.
Morrison had been widely expected to succeed Attlee as leader, but by this point relations between the two had soured. Attlee postponed stepping down until 1955. By the time the 1955 election came he had missed his opportunity , coming a poor third in the contest.
Ellen Wilkinson was a key figure in British socialism and feminism in the early 20th century, becoming only the second woman to hold ministerial office.
Ellen Wilkinson was born in 1891 in Manchester. Wilkinson came from a working class background, and embraced socialism from an early age. She managed to study at Manchester University before becoming an influential trade union officer.
Known as ‘Red Ellen’, she adopted a radical and militant left wing position, having previously been a member of the Communist party before joining Labour.
She was elected Labour MP for Middlesbrough East in 1924, and supported the 1926 General Strike. In the 1929–31 Labour government she served as PPS to a junior health minister but would lose her seat in catastrophic 1931 election defeat.
After taking time out to become an influential political journalist and writer, she became the MP for Jarrow in 1935. It was in the poor mining town of Jarrow that she would flourish as a radical campaigning MP.
Jarrow had one of the worst unemployment records in Britain. By 1935 80% of the population was out of work. In 1936 Wilkinson organised the famous ‘Jarrow March’ of 200 unemployed workers. The workers walked from Jarrow to London where she presented a petition to parliament calling for government action, only to be ignored by the PM.
In the coalition government formed in 1940, Wilkinson was appointed parliamentary secretary to the Minister of Pensions. Later she would join Herbert Morrison at the Home Office and was made responsible for the air raid shelters. She was instrumental in the introduction of the Morrison Shelters in 1941.
By 1945, Wilkinson was a key Labour figure and as chair of the 1945 party conference she called for the development of new radical socialist policies. She was rewarded after the landslide victory with the job of Minister of Education,
She was only the second woman to achieve Cabinet rank in Britain, the first being Margaret Bondfield in 1929. At education, Wilkinson’s planned to increase the school-leaving age to 18, but this proved too costly during the economic crisis.
Although only there for a short time, she passed the School Milk Act, giving free milk to all British schoolchildren. On 6 February 1947, she passed away aged only 55. It is believed that Wilkinson took an accidental overdose of barbiturates to combat the stress of her role.
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