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The Attlee Years.

Historians have traditionally regarded Clement Attlee's Labour governments of 1945-51 as two of the most successful reforming administrations in modern British history, which translated their popular mandate for post-war "reconstruction" into the progressive achievements of the welfare state, fun employment and the mixed economy. More recently, however, as the rapid decline of Britain economy and the decay of the welfare state itself have begun to tarnish the glitter of these accomplishments, Attlee's record has been subjected to mounting criticism. The critics fall into two broad schools of interpretation. Left-wing historians charge Labour with a betrayal of the wartime hopes for a "people's peace": far from transforming Britain into a socialist commonwealth, Labour used its opportunity merely to restabilize the capitalist system. Curiously enough, criticism from the other end of the historiographical spectrum, voiced most forcefully by Corelli Barnett ests on the diametrically opposite charge that Labour was so myopically preoccupied with its ideological vision of the "New Jerusalem" of the welfare state that it neglected the far more pressing task of renovating Britain's ageing industrial economy. The edifice of the welfare state was thus erected on rotten economic foundations. Though they differ in their precise interpretations of Labour's failure, both perspectives clearly see Attlee's government as the fortunate inheritor of an unprecedented mandate for reform, which then failed utterly to seize this opportunity of a new start for the nation.

Now the pendulum is swinging back once again, and this collection of essays seeks to rehabilitate Labour's record. Their revisionist aim is to provide a more accurate map of the various political constraints and impediments which faced the Attlee administrations and limited its room for manoeuvre. Perhaps the most intriguing contribution comes in the two essays dealing with public opinion. Tony Mason's and Peter Thompson's overview of the political mood in wartime, together with Steve Fielding's survey of opinion in the post-war years, show clearly that we have tended greatly to exaggerate the actual extent of popular radicalization. Enthusiasm for reform was restricted mainly to a vocal but small minority of largely middle-class radicals, who were greatly outnumbered by a hopeful but nevertheless apathetic majority, which was tired of the privations of the war, highly sceptical of official promises of a rosier future, and yearned not for a socialist revolution but rather a swift return to peacetime normalcy.

The rest of the collection can be read as explorations of the various interests and sources of opposition which exploited this absence of active popular support to undermine Labour's efforts at reconstruction. Lewis Johnman's and Helen Mercer's studies of Labour's plans for industrial modernization show that the government faced fierce opposition from the business community, which insisted on a speedy return to unfettered private enterprise and effectively blocked the government's attempts to foster renovation in the private sector. Officials in Whitehall also proved uncooperative, as their concern with the more immediate problem of Britain's mounting balance of payments crisis easily overrode their political masters' lofty priorities of long-term industrial reconstruction. Similarly, Tiratsoo's own account of the doomed efforts to rebuild the bombed city of Hull shows how the Labour council's ambitious plans for a new city centre mere progressively whittled down by the opposition of the local Chamber of Trade and the industrial priorities pursued by the Board of Trade. Finally, in an intriguing but highly condensed foray into discourse analysis, Bill Schwarz shows that while the Conservatives may have been initially caught by surprise by their defeat in 1945, the party quickly adjusted the language of its message to the new progressive political culture and eventually used the international climate of the Cold War to recapture the ideological high ground at home.

These findings go far towards rehabilitating the Attlee governments. The picture which emerges is that of an administration which may have been swept into power on a short-lived upsurge of popular enthusiasm for change, but which almost immediately faced the insurmountable obstacles of a largely uninformed and apathetic public, concerted resistance by powerful vested interests, and a resurgent opposition led by a rejuvenated Conservative party. Yet the book does not manage entirely to exonerate Labour. Its carefully marshalled evidence of obstruction does not necessarily dispel the suspicion that Labour was at least partly responsible for its failures. Indeed, some of the essays tend directly to confirm this charge. Thus, for example, Ian Taylor's opening survey of Labour's policy-making during the war clearly shows that its post-war problems were compounded by an earlier failure to think out clearly its approach to reconstruction. Taylor contends that, in the absence of viable socialist blueprints, the government was all too often forced to abandon its initiatives or to endorse the less far-reaching but better-defined plans of reform advanced by non-socialist "experts" like Beveridge and Keynes. This suggests that Labour may have contributed greatly to its defeat by marching into the post-war confrontation without a clear plan of battle. This surprisingly critical conclusion fits badly with the main thesis of the collection, yet it appears to find additional confirmation throughout the book. Fielding, for instance, contends that Labour must shoulder much of the blame for the apathetic state of popular opinion, since its typically Fabian and highly technocratic approach to the exercise of power allowed little room for public participation and left even its traditional supporters feeling detached from the struggle over reconstruction. This suggests that Labour's problems may have been as much the product of its failure to evolve a coherent socialist agenda, compounded further by a complacent refusal to try to mobilize public support, as they may have been the result of obstruction by vested interests. In short, the volume shows that Labour faced constraints hitherto little examined by traditional historiography, but its revisionist efforts fall short of fully exonerating the Attlee governments.
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Author:Ritschel, Daniel
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Apr 1, 1993
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