History - The Post War Consensus

Why was there was a 'post-war' consensus from 1951 - 1964

Humble beginnings

  • Attlee was almost re-elected.
  • It wasn't obvious that 13 years of Conservative dominance were about to begin.
  • 3 Conservative PMs - Churchill (Second Term), Eden and Macmillan.
  • More people voted for Labour than Conservative.
  • But more seats were gained by the Conservatives.
  • The election was close, the majority was thin.
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Legacy of national unity

  • Britain had been broken by the Second World War. 
  • After Attlee's reconstruction, the Post-War consensus had firmly developed out of national unity.


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Big government

  • Conservatives convinced of need for Big Government to support those in need.
  • NHS was set up and had a firm place in society.
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Full employment

  • Post Second World War fears - another war.
  • Didn't want to be seen as party of unemployment.
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Importance of Trade Unions

  • Conservatives wanted a cooperative relationship with the TUs.
  • Couldn't have a 1930s style relationship with them in the 1950s.


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Welfare State

  • Implementation of Beveridge Report under Attlee had created a strong welfare state.
  • The NHS was iconic and the Conservatives had warmed to it.
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Slender Conservative majority

  • The majority in Parliament was slender.
  • The Tories did not feel strong enough to dismantle Attlee's legacy of the Welfare State.
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Mixed economy

  • Left most of Labour's nationalisations alone.
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Why did the Conservatives continue Labour policies

  • There could be no outright rejection of the welfare state.
  • There could be no total reversal of nationalisation.
  • Experience of war had meant that people were more ready to accept the need for state intervention and planning - attitudes towards industry, trade unions and social policy were going to have to be very different from that of the 1930s.
  • NHS had already become iconic.
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  • Just as Labour had moved to the right by accepting capitalism and the mixed economy, the Conservatives moved to the left by accepting Keynesianism (taxing and spending) and the managed economy.
  • Consensus is kind of difficult to define - there were sharp policy differences, but also broad lines of convergence.
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Debate: 'Was there as post-war consensus?'


  • Addison - soil was right for coalition. There was a collective ages of politics due to a shared experience of World War One.
  • Seldon - broad agreement on the fundamentals of economic, social and foreign policies.


  • Pimlott - "we need to consider the possibility that the consensus is a mirage, an illusion that rapidly fades the closer one gets to it"

Evidence includes: Conservatives denationalised the steel industry and road transport, Conservatives were dealing with the evils of poverty as opposed to seeking consensus with Labour.

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