In answering this question we must first decide what we mean by ‘consensus’ – for the idea is not uncontested1. A useful definition is suggested by David Dutton ‘after 1945 the political parties operated within a given framework, a set of generally accepted parameters in which certain key assumptions were shared and in which policy options were consequently limited’2. These ‘assumptions’ were generally confined to three main policy areas namely Britain’s global role, the role of the welfare state and the running of a mixed economy. Let us first consider the approach to foreign policy.
During the leaderships of Atlee (1945-51) and Churchill (1951-50) there was a belief that Britain should align itself with the US, as opposed to Europe; that Britain should be the leader of a new multi-racial commonwealth of states and that Britain should remain a top military power with nuclear capability. Indeed under these two prime ministers a clear sense of direction can be identified with Churchill himself praising Labour for taking ‘several most important decisions about our defence policy which… form the foundation on which we stand today’.
However, only certain strands of this foreign policy approach were actively carried out throughout the ‘consensus era’. In terms of an alliance with the US, all governments, with the exception of Heath followed pro-American ‘Atlanticism’. Britain aided the US in its fight against communism, played a leading role in forming NATO (1949), sent help to Korea (1950-53) and bought weapons from the US (post Nassau 1962). Whilst this alignment may at first appear to be evidence of clear policy direction, in truth Britain became increasingly dependant on the US (both in terms of military and financial support) and as a result dictated by US opinion.
For instant Britain’s withdrawal from the Suez crisis (1956 – where Eisenhower threatened Britain with devaluation) and Britain’s eventual accession in to the EEC (1972) were both heavily influenced by US opinions. This would suggest weak and compromising policy. In terms of Europe again we see confused policy. In the fifties a clear afront to European integration can be seen with Britain rejecting the Schuman Plan (1950) and not attending the Messina Conference (1955) which eventually led to EEC.
However, a U-turn in policy saw Britain unsuccesfully attempt to join the EEC in both 1961 and 1967, before eventually joining in 1972. Even when accession to the EEC was seen as desirable policy remained confused with Britain effectively getting rejected on the grounds of its strong alignment with the US. Conversely, it must be noted that once the decision to enter Europe was made a consensus remained between the two parties, indeed as Kavanagh and Morris point out ‘There could hardly be a clearer example both of consensus and the elite nature of consensus politics’3.
Weak resolve and compromise can also be identified in successive governments attempts to maintain Britain’s position as a global military superpower. Whilst the governments of Atlee and Churchill increased spending on defence and started programmes developing the a-bomb and later h-bomb, later governments’ attempts to continue this trend generally failed. Examples include the Suez crisis, which ‘dealt a shattering and long-lasting blow to the country’s self-image as a great power’4; the cancellation of ‘Blue Streak’ missile program (Feb 1960) and the failed summit at Paris in May 1960.
In one area of foreign policy, however, a fairly clear policy direction can be identified :de-colonisation. By 1979 the process was virtually complete, with the British Empire effectively finished. Whilst some may argue that his process was inevitable, some historians argue that the process was forced upon the British after the foreign policy failings mentioned above – perhaps indicative of little purposeful sense of direction. Another main policy consensus area was in the management of the economy.
Under the Atlee government many large industries were nationalised (e. g coal, railways, iron and steel, gas) and with the exception of steel and road haulage many of these industries remained nationalised under successive conservative governments. There was also consensus that the economy should be managed via keynesian demand management techniques i. e. using fiscal and monetary policy as well as exchange rates to keep aggregate demand at high enough levels to ensure full employment5.
The third pillar of this policy was that the government should have a strong relationship with trade unions (‘corporate bias’). Whilst at first glance, considering the ideology of the labour and conservative parties, it would suggest that this brand of ‘Keynesian’ or ‘Beveridgean’ economic policy used would have to be a compromise for both parties. However, both parties at the time saw this economic policy as a necessity.
For Labour state intervention by modifying market forces would eventually produce a both efficient and a more equal society, whilst the Conservatives may have accepted the need for greater market regulation to counter poverty and unemployment, although not to produce greater equality. So did this era see an overall clear and purposeful policy direction? Considering Britain’s economic condition in the 70s (high inflation, high unemployment, low growth, oil shocks) with the apparent mystery of ‘stagflation’ (high inflation but low growth) it would suggest a very confused state of affairs.
Indeed 1975 saw the abandonment of keynesian management techniques when Chancellor Denis Healey refused to give a demand injection into an economy with increasing unemployment, instead deciding to focus on a low inflation environment as a priority. However, is this apparent breach of policy enough to suggest that politicians were confused? For although some of Keynes’ ideas are widely distrusted now, at the time there was a general belief in their merit – to call politicians confused or fickle for using them would be rather unfair.
The period also saw a general belief that the government should actively intervene in industrial policy. Successive government in the 60’s and 70’s tried to introduce a range of bodies: for instance the creation of the National Economic Development Council (NEDC) under Macmillan (1961), the Industrial Reorganisation Corporation (IRC – 1966) and the Industrial Act (1972) which gave the Department of Trade and Industry extensive powers of industrial intervention.
The creation of these bodies would perhaps suggest clear, purposeful policy and a belief that the government should be a major player in providing investment and direction for national industry. Again, however, we see that confusion as to exactly how the government should intervene. Many of the above mentioned bodies were short-live, the IRC for instance was abolished in 1970. A further policy area plagued by confusion and compromise lay in government co-operation with trade unions.
Much of the theory concerning trade unions at the time can be summed up the policy of the Labour (1945-51) and Conservative (1951-55) governments who sought to try and incorporate union leaders in the ‘key processes of the direction of production and control of the labour market’6 in return for a departure from collective bargaining and wage constraints. However, serious industrial disputes were common in this era particularly in the 70s where Heath’s clash with the miners (1972-4) and Callaghan’s battle with public sector unions (1978-9) helped to bring about the downfall of government.
In this respect we see clear examples of both confusion and compromise on behalf of government. Legislation regarding union powers was constantly delayed or watered down in fear of antagonising unions – with conservative efforts to introduce ‘cooling off’ periods and ballots before strikes never materialising, labour legislation in 1969 suffering a similar fate and the Heath government’s Industrial relations Act (1971) foundering on union opposition.
Furthermore, whilst a consensus that some sort of incomes policy should remain, a glance at fig. 1 shows that there was never any policy direction on what sorts of policy should be used (changing from voluntary to statutory to compulsory in a matter of 15 years). The third broad area of consensus policy concerned the welfare state. Following the Beveridge Report (1942) various ideas concerning government support became near universal in government policy.
In essence the policy rested on three main ideas: that the government should support its citizens in time of need from ‘cradle to grave’ via a series of benefits and services 7; that there should be universal access to health which is free at the point of use; and that a basic level of housing should be available to all. These essentially Labour introduced policies were accepted by the Conservatives – despite some initial reluctance, for example, on entering office in 1951 the Churchill government had plans for hospital charges but these were soon dropped.
Indeed many figures strongly support the idea of a strong bipartisan consensus on welfare with the real value of pensions and unemployment benefits approximately doubling (1945-75) and with a continual upward trend in welfare expenditure, which rose steadily between 1951 and 1976 both as a proportion of total spending and of GDP8. Despite this there remained noticeable differences in the two parties’ approach to particular areas, namely education, housing, pension and taxation.
In education, for instance, the Conservatives favoured private schools with grammar schools/ secondary modern division in the state sector, whilst Labour launched comprehensive schools in 1965. The eventual outcome ended up a compromise, with the Labour party not able to incorporate private schools into the state sector, as they intended, and the Conservative party, after 1975, accepting the Labour party’s proposals for comprehensive, although ‘they would certainly never have initiated this policy’ 9.
A similar compromise can be seen in the move towards means testing in social security – this representing a departure from Labour’s principle of universality. In conclusion, it can be seen that in many areas, such as US relations, the importance of the welfare state and the use of keynesian demand management purposeful intentions are clear throughout. Indeed I would go as far to say in almost all areas purposeful principles can be seen.
It is when, however, it comes down to specifics, for instance incomes policies, a sense of confusion can easily be sensed. However, to come down on one side or the other is difficult as it hard to differentiate between purposeful direction and confusion and compromise, which is often very much part of the consensus building process. The question that remains therefore is whether the politicians knew and believed in what they were doing – a question that can only really be answered by having an inside knowledge of the key personalities of the time.