Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.
Have you ever been to the circus? If you have, then you've probably seen trapeze artists flying high above the ring, jumping and spinning on swings, ropes and wires. The job is certainly a dangerous one, and for that reason, most circuses provide a safety net for the trapeze artists just in case they slip up.
After WWII, most British wanted their own safety nets. Fortunately for the British government, most Britons were not trapeze artists. The nets they wanted were figurative - an assurance that, if any British citizen was hurt, unemployed or just downright unlucky, the British government would be there to lend a helping hand.
At the end of WWII, Great Britain found itself at a major crossroads. Millions of its young men were returning home from fighting on the continent and needed jobs, medical care and help returning to the normalcy of peacetime. Furthermore, parts of Britain needed to be rebuilt after having been heavily bombed during the war, especially London, where Germany dropped thousands of bombs in less than a year during the London Blitz.
Among Britons, there was a general consensus that the country's first post-war priority should be meeting these domestic needs of its citizens and cities before anything else. Historians have termed this general sense among the British public the post-war consensus. It was these motivations that led to Britain shocking the rest of world when Winston Churchill, the Conservative Prime Minister who had led Britain to victory in WWII, was defeated heavily in the July 1945 parliamentary elections. Churchill's Conservative Party lost nearly 200 seats in the government, returning a parliamentary majority for the Labour Party led by Clement Attlee.
Attlee, who had been appointed Britain's first ever Deputy Prime Minister during the war, won the election through claiming the Labour Party could rebuild Britain after the war better than the Conservative Party, whom he branded as a party fit only for wartime leadership. He was elected based on campaign promises that the Labour Party would focus on achieving and maintaining full employment in Britain, nationalize key industries and create an entirely free National Health Service.
Social and Economic Reform
Attlee's calls for improved social services and an improved standard of living for all Britons did not come out of the blue; rather Attlee was continuing the policies of several Labour and Liberal ministers and leaders of the early part of the 20th century. For example, Liberal Party Prime Minister H.H. Asquith, in partnership with his Chancellor of the Exchequer David Lloyd George, introduced a variety of reforms, including unemployment insurance and old age pension for Britons 70 years of age or older without the means to care for themselves.
What was different about Attlee's plans for social reform is the overwhelming support his policies had from the public. Indeed, many of Attlee's goals were taken directly from the Beveridge Report, published in November 1942. The Beveridge Report, produced by the Keynesian economist William Beveridge, addressed the social inequalities in British society at the time. The report categorized the needs of British society into five 'great evils': squalor, want, ignorance, idleness and disease. The report also proposed large plans to combat these evils, mainly through the creation of a national social safety net to help those without the means to help themselves.
The Attlee government used the Beveridge Report as a manifesto of sorts after the 1945 election. Indeed, only a month after its election, the Attlee government passed the Family Allowance Act, which granted each family a small monthly stipend per month for each child to aid in the child's care. The following year they passed the National Insurance Act, which established an extra income tax for all workers to pay into funds they could access later in life, such as unemployment insurance and a retirement pension.
Only two years later in the summer of 1948, the Attlee government instituted its most ambitious social program yet: the National Health Service. The NHS intended to bring free healthcare and cheap prescriptions to all British citizens regardless of their socio-economic class. The NHS was incredibly popular at the outset and remains one of the cornerstones of British society for many Britons. Attlee's decisive actions built upon the work of his predecessors, and in conjunction with the post-war consensus, helped build what many have called the British welfare state.
While internally the British were coming together, externally their once mighty empire was falling apart. Soon after the end of WWII, following nearly a century of unrest and conflict with Indian nationalists and the Indian National Congress, led chiefly by the non-violent protester Mahatma Gandhi, Attlee's government partitioned the expansive British Empire's territory in South Asia into India and Pakistan and granted both their independence from Great Britain in 1947.
The British further withdrew from the Middle East when they eliminated their mandate over Palestine and the newly founded state of Israel the following year. Furthermore, the British Empire suffered a major embarrassment when then Prime Minister Anthony Eden engineered a joint Israeli-French-British invasion to retake the Suez Canal, which had been nationalized by the Egyptian government in 1956. The invasion was condemned internationally, and after threats from several nations, the British withdrew their forces.
In the 1960s, the British government slowly allowed most of its remaining holdings in Asia and Africa to declare independence peacefully. Whereas the British government had once controlled nearly half of the entire African continent, by 1970, the Seychelles Islands were the only African territory still a British possession, and even that small nation declared independence in 1976. By the end of this period, the once mighty British Empire was largely confined to the British islands and several small islands around the world.
Rise of Thatcherism
The demise of the post-war consensus came in the 1980s with the surprise 1979 election of Britain's first female Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher. A staunch conservative, Thatcher guided Britain through a difficult economic period. Only, instead of championing social investment like Clement Attlee, she preferred free market economics and did her best to dismantle as much of the social safety net as she could.
For instance, even prior to her premiership when she was Education Secretary, she removed the free school milk program in British schools, earning her the derisive moniker, Margaret Thatcher the Milk Snatcher. In her time as prime minister, she cut taxes, abolished certain social programs and even tweaked the popular NHS to allow for increased competition in the system. Thatcher's ultra-conservative policies earned her many political enemies - even within conservative circles - and she was removed from power by her own party in 1990.
The end of the post-war consensus and the difficulties Thatcher had in removing many of the provisions of Great Britain's social safety net are perhaps a testament to the programs' success. Indeed, touching the NHS, which provided free healthcare and cheap prescriptions to all British citizens, was highly disliked during Thatcher's time and largely remains so today. These programs - from the NHS to free school milk - were in part due to the Beveridge Report's recommendations of far-reaching social programs, which provided a Keynesian blueprint for the Attlee government. The overwhelming majority Attlee's government received in the 1945 elections were viewed as a mandate for the implementation of these programs, one which Attlee's government did not waste.
After watching this lesson, you should be ready to:
- Identify Clement Attlee and Margaret Thatcher
- Describe the reforms that Britain undertook following WWII as well as decolonization
- Define the post-war consensus and the Beveridge Report
- Explain Margaret Thatcher's policies
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