Labour 1945 – a success?

The 1945-51 Government: For or Against?

A report on a debate between the Ernest Bevin Society and the Socialist Party of Great Britain by Hugh Roberts

‘That the 1945 Labour Government was of great benefit. to the Working Class”: this was the proposition defended by Madawc Williams on behalf of the Ernest Bevin Society in a debate with the SPGB held in Chiswick Old Town Hall on October 13. This is where the West London branch of the SPGB holds its regular meetings, and the room was accordingly full of SPGB members and supporters, about 30 in all, whereas only three members of the Bevin Society were present. But these easily held their own and it soon became clear that the four or five neutral members of the audience strongly agreed with the case which they were putting.

The debate had been arranged at the SPGB’s initiative, but the wording of the motion was chosen by the Bevin Society. Although the SPGB had agreed to this, it became evident in the course of the debate that this agreement was purely a matter of form. Again and again, successive SPGB speakers returned to their principal theme, that the Labour Party is not socialist, and that true socialists should not expect any good to come of it or have anything to do with it, but should recognise that their place is in the SPGB.

In support of this point, they regularly quoted statements or referred to actions of Labour leaders in the 1960s and since then, up to the present day. The argument amounted to this: “See how unsocialist Labour is today! Therefore of course the Attlee government didn’t benefit the working class!” The spuriousness of this reasoning should be self-evident, and was vigorously pointed out on the night. To defend the Attlee government in no way implies blanket approval (or belief in the socialist character) of the policies and behaviour of the Labour Party since then. The two things are quite distinct. But it was apparently essential for the SPGB to confuse the two.

This is because the 1945 government clearly poses an immense problem for the SPGB. Since the existence of the SPGB is predicated upon the axiom that the Labour Party has never been and can never become a socialist party, or a vehicle for the advance of socialism in any way, it is clearly necessary for the SPGB to belittle the achievements of the 1945-51 Labour government. This, of course, is not easily done. Hence the SPGB’s tendency to wander repeatedly from the point at issue, to which they were relentlessly dragged back by the Bevin Society.

In so far as the SPGB speakers addressed the motion, they made three main points. First, they argued that, faced with the enormous problems of the time, and lacking as they did any real commitment to socialist principles, Labour’s leaders in 1945 failed to enact socialism and actually made a conscious decision to this effect, and settled for managing capitalism instead. In other words, 1945 was the moment of truth for Labour’s ‘socialism’ and it comprehensively failed the test.

Interestingly, the SPGB could not provide any real evidence of this crisis of Labour’s faith. The crux of the argument was that Labour “failed to enact socialism”. It was taken for granted that this was due to a failure of nerve and will.

Is socialism something that can be “enacted” by a Labour government within a few years? It took capitalism centuries to develop and fully supersede feudalism. Is socialism such a superficial thing in comparison that it can be brought fully into existence by a series of decrees in six years? The SPGB clearly thinks so. Attlee and Bevin knew better. And once it is acknowledged that socialism as an economic and social system is a profoundly complex affair which will inevitably take time to develop fully, it must be recognised that the 1945-51 government did not fail at all, but acted very energetically to promote development along socialist lines as far as this was possible at the time.

The second argument against the motion was that the 1945 Labour government benefited capitalism; ergo it cannot have been “of great benefit to the working class”. The SPGB does not have a monopoly of this line of thinking, of course. Mountains of academic claptrap have been produced to this effect over the last thirty years. In support of this argument, the main SPGB speaker produced statistics of growth in capitalist profits between 1945 and 1951, which he clearly supposed proved his point.

The Attlee government was a socialist government operating in a democracy and inspired by democratic principles. It had a mandate to nationalise major sectors of the economy, but not everything. Its nationalisation proposals were strongly resisted as it was, and had it attempted to nationalise much more it would have had great difficulty in organising their effective management as public property. It had the sense not to bite off more than it could chew. It therefore settled for establishing the mixed economy as a first step. Many sectors of private capital which were not nationalised certainly benefitted from the new set-up. The massive reconstruction of the economy achieved between 1945 and 1951 laid the foundations for the subsequent boom. The achievement of full employment and the implementation of the Beveridge Report massively enhanced working class living standards and purchasing power, and so greatly expanded the domestic market. In these circumstances, profits were easily made by private capitalists. So what?

The SPGB clearly regards this as a zero-sum game. If capitalists benefit, clearly the workers don’t. In fact, apart from those capitalists who were expropriated, both classes benefited in economic terms. If you don’t have a programme of liquidating the bourgeoisie overnight, then you must continue to live with them for a while, and that means accepting that they will continue to make profits. The point is, of course, that while most capitalists were able to continue to make profits, and therefore felt that their place in the scheme of things was still broadly secure for the time being, the working class was entering a new world. The material and political benefit to the working class was of a totally different order from the continuing benefits to capital. It opened up entirely new horizons. If the potential created between 1945 and 1951 is yet to be realised by the British Labour movement, that is not something that can be blamed on Attlee’s government, but on its successors.

In this connection, it was remarkable how reluctant the SPGB speakers were to discuss such matters as the NHS and so forth. In so far as they were discussed, it was as measures taken on capital’s behalf, to make available a healthy workforce. As if capital ever bothered about having a healthy workforce before! As if the working class has no interest in its own standard of health!

It was also notable that the SPGB had no explanation of Thatcherism. If Attlee’s government was doing capital a favour, why has Thatcher been doing everything in her power to dismantle its achievements? If nationalisation benefitted capital, why is · Thatcher privatising? The SPGB gave no answers to these questions. It has none.

The third argument deployed by the SPGB against the motion was the clincher. It is obvious that the Attlee government did not benefit the working class from the fact that the working class was so fed up with this government after six miserably disillusioning years that it booted it out of power in the 1951 general election.

The Bevin Society speakers pointed out in reply that Labour obtained its highest ever popular vote in a general election in 1951. And it actually obtained more votes than the Conservatives. It was only the vagaries of the constituency boundaries that enabled the Conservatives to pick up more seats. Never before or since 1951 has the British working class been so massively solid in support of the Labour Party. It knew where its interest lay. The SPGB’s view of the matter was greeted with astonishment and disbelief by all those present, except its own members.

Many other issues were touched on in the course of the debate. Madawc Williams made the point that the Attlee government’s achievements in the international sphere were enormously significant. The granting of independence to India, the jewel in the imperial crown, made the subsequent withdrawal from Empire inevitable; Bevin’s role in securing the Marshall Plan was crucial, and helped to make possible the economic reconstruction of the European democracies, while the foundation of NATO, again primarily on Bevin’s initiative, established the basis of security upon which the democratic governments of France, West Germany, Italy and so on could rebuild with confidence. It was clearly in the interest of the British working class, given its attachment to a democratic conception of socialism, that democracy should be preserved elsewhere. Interestingly, the SPGB made no attempt to argue with the Bevin Society on this ground.

A good debate. We must have more.

[It was actually the only one]

This article appeared in November 1989, in Issue 14 of Labour and Trade Union Review, now Labour Affairs.  For more, see