This essay sample on Post War Consensus Essay provides all necessary basic info on this matter, including the most common “for and against” arguments. Below are the introduction, body and conclusion parts of this essay.
The postwar ‘political consensus’ is a much debated and controversial area of British politics. The ‘postwar consensus’ is traditionally seen as lasting until 1979 over which time the political governing class was committed to ‘Keynesian social democracy’ (as dubbed by Marquand). It involved a major world role for Britain; a welfare state based on ‘cradle to grave’ provision of benefits and services for all citizens; and a mixed economy managed by governments on Keynesian lines in such a way as to maintain full employment.
However, the evidence suggests that a ‘political consensus’ did not exist or rather not in the traditional view. British governments are rarely revolutionary they are evolutionary and this would appear to be the case, certainly from 1945 to 1979 governments evolved to change. What did exist was a centre-left policy bias that had become convention because of the events in domestic politics of the Second World War.
Britain had a war to win and collectivism was needed to mobilise the economy in the most efficient way possible.
This led to a great expansion in the role of government in society. Whitehall grew to accommodate this role and there was now an institutional momentum behind greater government intervention in postwar Britain. New peacetime departments were in place, new administrative procedures were at an advanced stage of preparation, and new mentalities were ingrained in officials.
This interventionism was firmly toward the left of the political spectrum; liberalism and tempered socialism were the fashionable tools to deal with societies ills.
The Labour party and liberal intellectuals, for instance Keynes and Beveridge, dominated postwar planning. The Beveridge Report (1942) was the source of future policy commitments on social policy and full employment. The lack of Conservative impression on the postwar planning was due in part to the nature of Churchill’s relationship with the party and his greater concern with the war in progress. The impact of collectivism was really only properly felt by the two governments following the Second World War, both led by two significant figures from it Attlee and Churchill.
Three key policy areas highlight the consensus reached, Britain’s world role, the welfare state and a mixed economy. British foreign policy from 1945 to 1955 was based on the view that Britain’s ‘special relationship’ with the US, leadership of the Commonwealth, possession of nuclear weapons and large conventional military capability gave the country a continuing leading status as a world power. Events following 1955 firmly changed policy aims, breaking the supposed consensus. The Suez crisis of 1956 severely dented Britain’s claim to an independent world role.
In 1962 the policy pursued by the two previous governments of an independent nuclear deterrent was ended when Britain became totally dependent on the US for the supply of nuclear weapons. By the mid-1960s the notion of the Commonwealth as a world force was at an end. Also membership of the EEC, which had been firmly off the agenda during the 1950s, became a pressing desire during the 1960s and on the third attempt in 1973 Britain became a member. This highlights that in foreign policy there was not a consensus extending until 1979, objectives changed by the mid-1950s.
The major theme of postwar economic policy in Britain was closer government involvement in running the economy. The main elements of economic policy were: a largely private enterprise economy with a significant public sector of recently nationalised industries; government’s acceptance of the responsibility to manage the economy at a level of demand sufficient to maintain ‘a high and stable’ rate of employment; their adoption of Keynesian methods in order to do so; and the operation of a ‘corporatist’ style partnership.
The Attlee Government with nationalisation of major industries, for instance coal and railways, achieved the creation of a mixed economy. The Conservative Government of 1951 to 1964 only privatised steel and road haulage in response to the nationalisation, signalling the ‘political consensus. ‘ Chancellors of both parties used a combination of fiscal techniques (for example tax rates) and monetary methods (for example interest rates) to manage the economy in a Keynesian manor. The government also employed ‘corporate bias’ (Keith Middlemas) to avoid industrial conflict through close relationship with industry and trade unions.
These policies remained broadly the same until they came under increasing strain with the economic crises of the 1970s. These led to the ‘winter of discontent’ of 1979 and the election of New Right Conservatives. This ended the postwar consensus on economic policy with the Conservatives now pursuing the reduction of inflation over the maintenance of a low rate of unemployment. Tax cuts were introduced and the privatisation of public sector industries and services. Also relationships with the trade unions deteriorated, with legislation introduced to curb their influence.
Therefore there was a ‘political consensus’ from 1945 to 1979 on how to run the economy, though it began to collapse toward the end of the 1970s and completely ended with the introduction of monetarism under Thatcher. There was certainly ‘political consensus’ in the area of the welfare state. The accepted basis of social policy was that a wide range of publicly provided benefits and ‘universal’ services should be available to all on demonstration of need and, in the case of services, free at the point of receipt.
The keystones of the welfare state were a National Health Service providing health care to all regardless of income, a comprehensive system of social security and pensions based on national insurance contributions, and a state educational service. These policies have been broadly upheld since their conception during the Second World War and implementation under the Attlee Government. There have of course been differences, for instance the Conservatives encouraged the purchase of council homes whilst Labour stressed the need to increase their stock.
Even under Thatcher changes that were introduced were predominantly organisational and managerial and sought greater cost-consciousness, efficiency and diversity in the delivery of services rather than any erosion of the principles of taxpayer financing or of free services at the point of use. Therefore the broad principles of the welfare state remain to this day, outlasting the traditionally perceived end of the ‘political consensus’ of 1979. Therefore in the three main policy areas of the ‘political consensus’ consistency across all three in the same time period has only existed until 1955.
Foreign policy changed dramatically after 1955 with the policy objective of maintaining Britain as a world power reversing to complete withdrawal from the Empire and joining the European Union. Also the dependence on America for a nuclear deterrent was at odds with the pursuit of an independent deterrent under the Attlee and Churchill Governments. Thus the postwar ‘political consensus’ on foreign policy ended in 1955. The economic policies pursued after the Second World War were broadly consistent until 1979, with the goals of high employment and a mixed economy top of the agenda.
Thatcherism was at odds with this, with low inflation as the target and privatisation of state industries. However, with the welfare state it would appear that the postwar consensus continues to this day, with ‘cradle to grave’ services free at the point of service still in existence. The Thatcher Governments may have introduced market forces into to the welfare state but this has not changed the broad principles laid down by Beveridge in 1942. In conclusion, it is a misconception to see the period of 1945 to 1979 as a postwar ‘political consensus.
At most it can be argued that there was a centre-left domination of policy during this period, leading from the shift in public opinion and from the ability of Labour and leading liberals to command the postwar planning process. The breakdown of Britain during 1970s economically, then led to the introduction of what would appear to be a true ‘political consensus. ‘ This is because in the three main policy areas, Britain’s world role, the welfare state and the economy. Thatcher, Major and Blair have pursued broadly similar policy objectives.
It could conceivably be argued that the institution of Whitehall holds the key to policy direction. When the bureaucracy grew substantially during the Second World War it was under the auspices of Labour and liberal policy thinking. Thus policy implementation was biased toward the centre-left. After the Thatcherite reforms of the Civil Service during the 1980s, it may now have a bias toward the centre-right, therefore possibly explaining the policies pursued under the current Labour Government.