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Labour's War: The Labour Party During the Second World War.

Winston Churchill's wartime government was an odd political kettle of fish. It was much less a broad, national coalition of the three main British parties than a combination of Churchill and his cronies with the Labour Party. It began, flourished, and ended with an agreement about foreign policy. At the same time, the exigencies of total war, a new-found sense of community spirit, a shift in opinion at the centre and a sustained push from Attlee and his fellow Labour ministers conspired to bring about a definite softening in the political atmosphere over domestic issues as well. Did it all add up to that much abused, indeed pregnant word "consensus"?

Stephen Brooke thinks not. In fact, his aim is to refute Paul Addison's well-known theory by subjecting Labour's discussions, inside and outside government circles, to a very close scrutiny. He particularly focuses on five areas: education, health, social insurance, public ownership, and finance. How, he wonders, did the war and coalition experience affect Labour's policies and internal balance? And what assumptions did the party bring to office in 1945?

These are hard questions, although several studies have attempted to provide answers to specific aspects of them. Brooke's achievement is to have covered the subject in a single volume. At times, he has found the going hard: there are pedantic passages, awkward constructions and needless repetitions. Despite these shortcomings, the book does make a worthy contribution to an important subject, providing a substantial amount of material and a coherent argument.

Having, for another purpose, been over some of the same ground myself, I have long suspected that what Brooke now spells out is correct. Labour as a whole, and Labourites in general, did have a distinctive domestic policy. There was no profound consensus over domestic issues during the war. Indeed, in a recent article, Addison has suggested that "postwar settlement" might be a better description of what emerged from wartime "socialism." The Labour ministers, believing that Churchill would win the next election, mere certainly willing to compromise on some aspects of social reform and reconstruction. They even relished the widespread recognition that "planning" (another potent word!) would be as necessary in peacetime as in war. But when the Coalition discussions of specific plans are considered, the differences between the Labour and other ministers become obvious. They mere not so evident to Labour outsiders, but Attlee and his colleagues were prepared to risk the ire of their armchair theorists. Even so, there is a danger in concentrating an analysis on the tensions within Labour ranks and on the domestic differences between the Coalition ministers, and it is one that the author has not entirely escaped. The overriding purpose of the Coalition was, firstly, to win the war and, secondly, to secure the peace. Here there was agreement, historic and heroic agreement. Nor does Brooke sufficiently stress the extremely loose structure of the Labour Party, which permitted (almost invited!) criticism of the leadership at all levels (even in wartime), and the fact that the critics were over-represented in parliament.

What Brooke has done, however, is provide a general synthesis of the domestic Labour picture, consolidating many parts and perhaps establishing others. He asserts that the party's health policy was almost as distinctive during the war as before it, and that wartime improvements in the health services actually caused the party to sharpen its reform proposals. Much the same, he argues, was the case about the Beveridge report and the Coalition's subsequent White Paper on social insurance. In regard to education the picture is less clear: on some points, notably the controversy about selective or comprehensive secondary schools, Labour had not made up its mind. Yet in each of these areas Coalition compromise did not change future goals, and in some matters, such as transport and electricity, no compromise was possible. Perhaps the largest measure of Coalition agreement was to be found over the redistribution of industry. Even over full employment, Brooke finds, agreement was limited to the aim, not the means.

His best chapter concerns economic policy. His discussion of these complex matters, if somewhat repetitive, is handled with skin. The war affected Labour policy in two ways: it confirmed the prewar advocacy of planning and nationalization, and it strongly suggested that nationalization of industries beyond those set out in the 1937 Immediate Programme was not necessary. Control and efficiency could be obtained by subtler methods. Brooke is convinced (and convincing) that the debate between proponents of public ownership and those favouring planning through controls fell squarely within Labour tradition. In any case, both party factions differed widely and fundamentally from Labour's Coalition partners. And if Keynesian techniques of demand management mere, by 1943, far more widely accepted by the party's pragmatic economists, such techniques did not replace physical controls of supply and investment.

Of course, the wartime Coalition experience was bound to influence Labour thinking about domestic policy in certain ways. Brooke's overall contention is that the assumptions the party brought to office in 1945 were neither solely those of the Coalition nor derived purely from prewar days. As with any sensible political party, they were a mixture of continuity and change.
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Author:Burridge, Trevor
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Apr 1, 1993
Previous Article:British Intelligence in the Second World War, vol. 4, Security and Counter-Intelligence.
Next Article:The Attlee Years.

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