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Whether or not one agrees or disagrees with the policies of Attlee’s government, which was in power for 6 years, it is undoubtedly one of the most influential governments the UK has been governed by in the 20th century. Attlee’s policies were controversial, but his legacy has been claimed proudly by the Labour party and many of his policies remain in place even after several Conservative governments were in power.
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By far the most famous of the achievements of Attlee’s government is the health care reform that created the National Health Service, providing free health care to all Britons. It was masterminded by Aneurin Bevan, the Minister of Health. He was a Welsh Labour politician, and a left-winger within the Labour Party. Eventually he would resign from his post as the Minister of Labour and lead a group of left-wing Labour MPs.
The National Health Service Act dates to 1946. While it is hugely popular today and Conservative governments have not repealed it due to its popularity, there are disadvantages which in those days were more apparent. It was attacked by the Conservatives when it was proposed. Before the National Health Service was established, free treatment was available from some hospitals, and there was national insurance which was introduced by the Liberal government earlier in the 20th century.
Although the introduction of the National Health Service created more jobs in the health care industry, and life expectancy increased, in addition to the elimination of the embarrassment of not being able to afford a doctor, the plan needed an increase in tax in order to have been able to be funded. Also, people misused and/or overused the service. This was colloquially called the “Dandruff Syndrome”, as people went to the doctor for cases that were not medical emergencies. Doctors were overworked and were not granted the freedom they traditionally enjoyed, which caused a lack of incentive for the doctors to work harder now that they had so many more customers. The British Medical Association shared this view and stated that it was against public interest that doctors would be viewed as salaried officers. They have maintained that they were not critical of a public health service, as they have been said to be before.
Another issue facing Britain in the post-war years was the issue of housing. In fact, at that time it was considered the single most important issue facing Britain. Many houses had been destroyed during World War II and little houses were built during the war. In 1945 the number of homes had decreased by 700,000 since the beginning of the war in 1939. 157,000 prefabricated houses were built, although they were disliked by Bevan. By 1948, 750,000 new homes had been built. The two housing acts emphasised quality over quantity. This can be considered both an advantage and a disadvantage. Considering the alarming and urgent situation of housing in Britain in that time period, I consider it a disadvantage as it meant that the target that was set was not met. However, the construction of such a significant number of new houses is very impressive and could be considered a success in general. Again, the main issue at hand was the funding of such huge projects, which meant increases in tax were needed. It must not be denied that although gains were made, the target was not met and therefore it is a failure. This is especially true as the Conservative government under Churchill that succeeded Attlee’s government did achieve these goals, although they were building upon the successes Labour had already achieved and did not have to initiate the new housing projects.
The Education Act was passed by a Conservative called Butler, but Labour was in charge of implementing the reforms that this Act proposed. One of the immediate successes of the Labour government was the installment of a female Minister of Education over 30 years prior to the election of Margaret Thatcher as the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. However, the actual achievements of this act are not universally considered to be successful.
35,000 new jobs for teachers were created and almost 1,000 new primary schools were built. This granted opportunities to bright working class children who might have been destined to have a job that didn’t utilise their intelligence to the full potential. This improved social mobility and therefore caused the gaps between different classes to become narrower. The school leaving age was raised to 15, which can be considered a success as it was opposed by the treasury.
The Act provided opportunities for bright working class children because it recommended a tripartite system of secondary education, encouraging pupils to join technical schools, grammar schools or secondary moderns. Although it succeeded in providing those opportunities, the government failed to implement to the recommended degree the technical schools, which may have meant that there was a lack of skilled workers available for technical jobs in the long run.
One of the main reasons why the implementation of this Education Act is often considered as a success is because there was little money to spend on education. However, this in itself can be counted as a failure, especially considering that taxes were increased and that therefore the government may have failed to assign their budget to the right areas effectively enough.
One of the aspects of the introduction of the Welfare State was the nationalisation of part of the British economy. The Labour Party wanted to keep true to its party constitution and to its working class roots. The Labour Party Constitution’s fourth clause set one of the objectives of the Labour Party to be that workers are sufficiently awarded for their labour, and that therefore the government should control the industry through common ownership. In 1945 it was announced that 20% of the economy would be nationalised.
It seemed much more radical than it was. The nationalised companies were often already partially nationalised and the nationalisation rarely affected the internal structure of those companies. It also did not create as much controversy as other aspects of the Welfare State, as Conservative governments had also previously nationalised some companies. The only part which created disagreement between the two main political parties was the nationalisation of iron and steel industries. The government set up the National Coal Board as a public corporation to run coal mines. This created a lot of jobs.
While in other times it could have lead to huge disagreements, many capitalists were grateful to the government for funding companies which were not doing well at that time. Other nationalised industries were mainly monopolies, and therefore the government was hardly criticised for it.
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Although it is arguable that the reforms to the economy changed little, working conditions did in fact improve, especially for miners and farmers. Farmers were given grants to modernise and were guaranteed minimum prices. This allowed output to increase, another success of the government’s policy. Another possible success of Labour in this area is its increased appeal to the working class.
Another huge factor that made some people view Attlee’s government as a failure is the winter of ’46-’47. This winter was extremely cold and there were huge shortages in food and fuel. After a normal December, there was a rapid rise in temperature in January, which caused massive floods, before the temperature started to fall again, causing temperatures of around -20Â°C. In March, the country was hit by a terrible blizzard. While it is not Attlee’s fault that this occurred, the minister of fuel and power, Emmanuel Shinwell, was blamed. He had cut electricity and had rations decreased. Another of the solutions of the government was to import large amounts of “snoek” fish from South Africa. It was disgusting and the government’s campaign was very unpopular. Eventually, snoek was used as cat food. The winter of 1946 is often seen as a turning point, as Labour was starting to lose its popularity. The damage had cost the government millions of pounds which could have been used to develop the welfare state.
There are some legitimate criticisms of the government about its handling of the crisis, however. For example, the cutting of electricity was not very effective in decreasing power supplies, but it had a huge negative effect on the morale of the people. The government’s handling of the crisis is a clear example of Labour’s policy of austerity, which meant that spending had to be cut and sacrifices had to be made. This policy was introduced in 1947 and marked a turning point for the Labour government. The government was also criticised for not doing enough to fix the damage the crisis had done. Instead, the government continued to believe in Britain as a superpower, and spent a large percentage of its GDP on defence. This also caused controversy within the party, particularly as Britain became more involved in the Cold War, which was opposed by many leading figures within the Labour Party, such as Bevan, the Minister of Health.
From a left wing perspective, the foreign policy of Attlee’s government can be viewed as a failure. Peace did not return to the world completely after World War II. The Cold War was occurring, and there was a serious risk of war with the Soviet Union. While the USA was determined to defend its capitalist allies, Britain wanted, as it still believed itself to be a superpower, a defence of their own. Britain had a nuclear programme since 1940, but its first testing of nuclear weapons occurred in 1952. Although Labour was not in power anymore at that time, it was Attlee who made the decision to develop an atomic bomb. This is normally seen as a message that Britain was strong enough to confront the Soviet Union. However, some have suggested that the Soviet Union approved of Britain having a nuclear bomb because they could then have sovereignty and the power to bargain with the USA.
On other points, Attlee also contradicted earlier Labour foreign policies. In 1944, the party had supported the fight against Greek communist guerrillas. It had also contradicted its policies of anti-imperialism by helping France and the Netherlands regain control of regions it lost to Japan in World War II, namely Indochina and the East Indies. At the same time, some of the government’s arguable failures in policies were the decolonisation of the British Empire. India and Palestine were partitioned, which caused huge political problems for decades to come. Ernest Bevin, the Labour foreign secretary, did not support Zionism and supported an Arab Palestine. It is therefore a failure of the government that it didn’t achieve its party’s goals. Britain had to yield to American pressure over Palestine and allowed the United Nations to take a decision on what to do with Palestine.
Bevin was a strong supporter of the USA and against communism. He made Britain a founding member of NATO and Britain received Marshall Aid from the USA. He was a proponent of becoming involved in Korea, and this is the most controversial aspect of Britain’s foreign policy in the years that Labour was in power. Although his pro-American sentiment had already angered some Labour MPs before, British involvement in the Korean War almost ended in the Labour Party splitting. Britain now spent even more of its GDP on defence. Aneurin Bevan eventually resigned from his post after dental care was not provided for free anymore in order to be able to spend more on defence. Harold Wilson, the President of the Board of Trade followed and later Prime Minister, followed. Britain’s foreign policy in the years that Labour was in power has been said by Peter Hennessy to show that Britain was still determined to be a great power, even if that meant spending a huge percentage of the budget on defence and less money being available for the development of the welfare state. The foreign policy, to me, is a failure because it meant the development of the welfare state was slowed down and the government failed to fully recognise that Britain had lost its power and that it was not in the economic position to be such a power. Also, it weakened their party and according to many, such as Jenna Philips, foreign policy was a decisive factor in the loss of the general election by Labour in 1951.
Arguably the most disadvantageous aspect of the Attlee government was the fiscal policy. The huge extent of the reforms required huge government spending and therefore tax had to be raised substantially. The new tax policy of Attlee’s government, however, was effective in making tax non-regressive by taxing the rich substantially more than the poor and the middle class. This policy made the Labour party very popular with the working class, as thousands did not have to pay any tax. However, it may have become unpopular with the upper class and upper middle class, not only for financial reasons but also because Attlee was trying to bridge social gaps and get rid of the class system.
However, taxes were not enough to finance Britain. The effect of World War II was devastating. Britain devoted all its resources to fighting the war. As it could hardly import or export anything, it relied heavily on the Lend-Lease agreement for food and other vital resources to keep it going. At the end of the war, Britain was almost bankrupt. Lives had been lost, homes had been destroyed and Britain would never be the same again. It seems strange that, at that time, Attlee would want to introduce an expensive welfare state, when there are obviously other things to worry about. But where World War II destroyed so much, there was a desire for real change, and for Britain to become a “new Jerusalem”. However, this could never be achieved by Britain in its economic state of the time. John Maynard Keynes, a famous economist, was sent to negotiate a new loan from the USA. Eventually, it was given, but it was much smaller than the loan that was desired. It was a loan of over 4 billion pounds (which would be worth much more today) which had to be paid back with 2% interest. It wasn’t until 2006 that Britain finally paid off its debt to the USA. Britain had expected a subsidy from the USA as recognition of Britain’s help in defeating Nazi Germany, especially from the years before the USA was involved in the war or at least an interest-free loan. Keynes wanted the Sterling to be convertible to the Dollar, but this was not granted, making the Sterling weaker than the Dollar. Therefore, the loan was a disappointment. According to Alan Sked, a historian, the US didn’t truly realise that Britain was virtually bankrupt. It is hard to call this a failure of the British government. In fact, I believe it to be a success of Attlee’s government to have made so much progress in times of such economic hardship and where the US had not given sufficient financial aid, in addition to the harsh winter of 1946-47.
In conclusion, I believe that the Labour government was successful in implementing its reforms, and these reforms and projects had positive results, even if the initial target had not been met. Labour was unlucky to be in power in a time of economic hardship and cold weather. Also, they managed to implement changes without sufficient financial aid from the USA, which can be considered an achievement. The successes of the welfare state for me far outnumber the failures. It was so popular that the Conservatives did not repeal it when they were in power. Labour had created a new type of politics: the politics of consensus. This allowed Britain to remain stable and preserve the great successes of the Labour government and their prime minister Attlee, who is regarded as one of the best prime ministers Britain has had in the 20th century.
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