1a: A changing political landscape: The rise of consensus politics and political challenge, 1945-79


  • Consensus = term used to describe the broad agreement between both parties on the running of the economy & the development of the welfare state.
  • Both Labour & Conservatives up to the early 1970s believed in:
  • Attempting to achieve full employment, even if this allows inflation
  • A mixed economy, with heavy industry, railways, etc, in state ownership
  • A welfare state & national health service
  • Cooperation between gov, industry & trade unions in managing wages & prices
  • Consensus was to the moderate left of the political spectrum - policies devised by Labour were continued by Conservatives, esp. commitment to full employment.
  • Both parties endorsed a foreign & defence policy which was to the right of the political spectrum, with Britain confronting the USSR in the Cold War & investing in nuclear weapons.
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1945 General Election

  • May 1945 - Labour wanted to withdraw from the coalition following the defeat of Nazi Germany → election called July 1945.
  • Churchill believed he would be rewarded for his wartime service & his manifesto focused heavily on foreign policy, however there were bitter memories of Conservative pre-war govs & Churchill's 'gestapo' claim did not help.
  • The Labour manifesto 'Let us face the future' promised action on housing, jobs, social security & a national health service.
  • Labour won a landslide victory - Labour +239 seats, Conservatives -219 seats.
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Labour Government, 1945-51

  • Labour's main popular reforms:
  • Establishment of a National Health Service
  • National Insurance Act
  • National Assistance Act
  • 1949 Housing Act
  • 1944 Education Act
  • Labour won 1950 election but lost 78 seats due to 1949 House of Commons (Redistribution of Seats) Act - reduced no. of Labour safe seats by redrawing constituency boundaries.
  • Overall size of WC was shrinking (78% identified as WC in 1931, 72% in 1951) - more people considered themselves MC so were less likely to vote Labour or be members of a trade union.
  • Main causes of dissatisfaction w/ Labour:
  • Rationing - wartime food & fuel rationing continued after the war & items not restricted in the war e.g. bread became rationed in peacetime
  • Austerity - Labour seemed unable to revive Britain's struggling economy in the immediate post-war years
  • Taxation - standard rate of taxation in 1949 was 45% & the top rate of marginal tax for high earners was 90%
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1951 General Election

  • Following 1950 election, Attlee found it increasingly difficult to control Labour gov - by 1951 he was exhausted & many of his most able ministers fell ill or died e.g. Ernest Bevin died 1951.
  • The party was also divided over budget cuts - Britain's involvement in the Korean War  huge increase in military spending & in 1951 Hugh Gaitskill announced an 'austerity budget' which involved introduction of prescription charges for glasses and dentistry - Aneurin Bevin resigned over this.
  • Attlee lacked the authority to defuse the feuds within Labour so called an election in Oct 1951 which Conservatives won, despite Labour getting 250,000 more votes than Conservatives - Conservatives won 26 more constituencies than Labour.
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Eden's government, 1955-57

  • Anthony Eden = relatively young & popular politician who served as Churchill's foreign minister during the war.
  • He called a general election in May 1955 to ensure he had a strong mandate - election showed Britain approved of Conservatives' management of the economy.
  • July 1955 - Britain had lowest unemployment figures in recent history (215,000 unemployed).
  • The Suez Crisis forced Eden from office.
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The Suez Crisis 1956

  • Since 1947 the Suez Canal was used to ship oil to Britain, Europe & USA, however the nationalist president of Egypt, Gamal Abdul Nasser, stated that the canal should be in Egyptian hands & he would pay British shareholders a fair price for it.
  • Eden reacted w/ suspicion & hostility & when Nasser occupied the Canal Zone on 26 July 1956, his close relationship w/ USSR convinced the British that the canal would fall into Soviet hands.
  • Eden agreed in secret to participate in France & Israel's invasion of the Suez Canal Zone - he was motivated by a desire not to be humiliated by Nasser as he knew his standing in Conservative Party depended on presenting a strong image as an international statesman.
  • 5 Nov 1956 - invasion began & Eisenhower felt deceived that he had not been consulted on Britain's intentions & reacted angrily, threatening to sell USA's reserves of British currency & collapse the value of the £.
  • Britain was forced to withdraw from Egypt & Eden resigned Jan 1957.
  • Outcome of the Suez Crisis was a significant reduction in British world power & a recognition that it could no longer act independently w/o seeking US approval.
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Macmillan's Britain, 1957-63

  • Macmillan gov was v. popular due to a mixed economy; rising living standards; low unemployment; declining social inequality - Conservatives increased their majority in 1959 election.
  • In 1959 3 right-wing MPs (Chancellor Peter Thorneycroft, Nigel Birch & Enoch Powell) resigned as they believed the gov was spending too much - they were convinced that inflation, not unemployment, posed the greatest threat to the economy & their resignations were embarrassing to the gov however made little impression on the public in a period of low unemployment & fairly low inflation.
  • By 1962 the Conservatives' popularity was declining - perceived as out of touch due to large no. of UC cabinet members.
  • 'Night of the Long Knives' - Macmillan fired 7 ministers from his cabinet & replaced them w/ younger men due to the Conservatives' image as ageing & privileged - early 1960s were dominated by youth culture & JFK was a young, popular president.
  • Macmillan's actions were briefly seen as ruthless but showed that he was capable of taking action.
  • High profile spy scandals also rocked the government.
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Spy scandals

  • John Vassall - Between 1952-62 Vassall (a naval attaché at British embassy in Moscow) was blackmailed by the KGB (security agency for Soviet Union). He passed on large quantities of top-secret information on the British Royal Navy & was caught when Soviet spies defected to the West & gave MI6 Vassall's name.
  • Harold 'Kim' Philby - One of Britain's most senior intelligence agents who defected to the USSR in Jan 1963. In 1955 (as Foreign Secretary) Macmillan had publicly announced that he had investigated & exonerated Philby therefore it was hugely embarrassing to Macmillan when this was revealed. Because of the Official Secrets Act, Philby's important role in the MI6 wasn't revealed until 1968.
  • John Profumo - In June 1963, the secretary state for war admitted to having had an affair w/ Christine Keeler. He had previously denied the affair to Macmillan, who believed him. It was also revealed that he had a relationship with a Russian attaché, Yevgeny Ivanov, & the press focused on the spy angle of the story (though it is doubtful there was any security risk).
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Wilson's government, 1964-70

  • In his first few days in office, Wilson discovered Britain's economic problems were worse than they thought -  previous chancellor of the exchequer left the country w/ £800m budget deficit.
  • Wilson had promised to improve pensions & build 500,000 new homes a year, as well as maintain Britain's military presence overseas (accounted for 20% of all Britain's spending in 1960s) but his only other option was to devalue the £ in 1967 - he initially didn't want to do this & it was a huge embarrassment for the gov, leading to Callaghan resigning as chancellor.
  • Wilson's gov achieved significant social & educational reforms in its 6 years in office:
  • Series of new universities & polytechnics built; The Open University was established; Laws on abortion, homosexuality & the death penalty were liberalised
  • Much of this was undermined by the economic problems faced & there was a widespread feeling that the promises of the Wilson years were unfulfilled.
  • Wilson's gov declined in popularity towards the end of the 1960s as unemployment began to grow & no. of days lost to strikes increased.
  • Wilson became suspicious of popular gov ministers (e.g. Roy Jenkins, James Callaghan, Barbara Castle) & morale in his cabinet declined due to this mistrust.
  • 1969 - Barbara Castle proposed legislation to curb no. of unofficial strikes but Wilson feared that Callaghan would use this to replace him → the legislation was never enacted & Britain endured a decade of rising strikes & union unrest partly because of this.
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Heath's government, 1970-74

  • Heath wanted to break w/ the post-war consensus & bring about radical political change - he referred to it as a 'quiet revolution' & believed that by removing the state from people's lives they would become more enterprising.
  • His first budget from Chancellor Anthony Barber featured tax cuts & gov spending cuts & Heath ended Wilson's incomes policy, believing wages should be set by the market, not gov.
  • The Barber budget (1972) was known as the 'Barber Boom' because of the large tax cuts - the budget fuelled inflation & failed to cure Britain's growing economic problems → Heath forced to increase intervention in the economy over the rest of his time in office.
  • By 1974 there had been two miners' strikes & Heath faced criticism from the opposition & his own party - Wilson accused Heath of attempting to ***** away union rights/critics within the party saw Heath as a 'traitor', betraying the promises made at the 1970 Selsdon Park meeting.
  • Several Conservative MPs formed the 'Selsdon Group' within the party - dedicated to introducing free markey policies & reducing state intervention.
  • In the second miner's strike (winter of 1973-74) Heath declared a state of emergency & a three-day week → called a general election in Feb 1974 - wanted election to be a referendum on union power & asked voters 'Who runs Britain?' in an election broadcast.
  • Heath was defeated - reflected lack of confidence in his ability to manage the unions, inflation & economic decline.
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Third Wilson government, 1974-76

  • First priority was to end union unrest by repealing the Industrial Relations Act, but instead the gov attempted to return to the corporatism of the mid-1960s by developing a 'social contract' - gov would offer subsidies to the cost of living in return for unions agreeing not to pursue excessive wage claims.
  • Wilson attempted to present his gov as conciliatory towards unions - Wilson's gov ended the miner's strike but the new policy of the social contract did nothing to deal with inflation, which was the underlying cause of the strikes.
  • Wilson's party was divided between 3 factions:
  • Centre right: inc. Wilson, Callaghan & Denis Healey. Held similar ideas to moderate left of the Conservative Party - in 1975 Chancellor Healey embraced monetarism & abandoned the post-war commitment to full employment.
  • 'Soft' left: led by Michael Foot. Foot was a pro-union politician but did not support Tony Benn's radical economic ideas.
  • 'Hard' left: led by Tony Benn. Benn shifted towards more extreme left-wing thinking throughout the 1970s & believed that Britain should become a 'siege economy' in response in the 1976 IMF crisis.

Siege economy - Economy in which imports & exports are controlled & export of capital is limited - e.g. to protect the value of the currency.

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Callaghan's government, 1976-79

  • Callaghan was from the centre right of Labour & began to abandon key aspects of the post-war economic consensus - caused him to clash w/ Tony Benn at cabinet meetings.
  • Callaghan thought Britain had used borrowing to live beyond its means for decades & this had resulted in a loss of confidence in Britain and the £ on international currency markets.
  • Benn proposed leaving the EEC & believed Britain could cut herself off from the global economy - Benn became↑ marginal figure within the cabinet & his economic arguments were seen as unworkable & extreme.
  • Despite the internal divisions, Callaghan remained v. popular w/ the electorate as opposed to Conservative leader Thatcher, who had low opinion poll ratings.
  • It was widely believed Labour would win at the next general election however a winter of strikes caused Callaghan's poll rating to slump - March 1979 one poll found 69% were dissatisfied w/ gov's performance, but still only 45% of those polled thought Thatcher was performing well as leader of the opposition.
  • 1979 election saw Conservatives win w/ a sizeable majority & Thatcher became PM.
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