‘Political Consensus’ in the Period 1945-79
‘Political Consensus’ in the Period 1945-79

‘Political Consensus’ in the Period 1945-79

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  • Pages: 6 (2732 words)
  • Published: December 15, 2017
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Consensus has generally been analysed at a number of different levels: A consensus of social harmony, or popular opinion amongst the mass electorate; A consensus between parties, one of partisan convergence and policy settlement; A consensus in Whitehall, particularly amongst the powerful, decision making few at the top of the government machine. Addison argues in favour of consensus, with most of his argument centring consensus in Whitehall. Pimlott is quick to present the opposite view, focussing on periods of social unrest and general dissatisfaction as well as a lack of absolute convergence between parties.

The inter-war years were, on the surface, ones of ideological polarisation and class conflict. Political stability is however, one of the most noteworthy features of British politics. The retention of stability can certainly, in part, be attributed to the Conservatives who, in fear of the perceived ‘red menace,’ playing a key role in inducting Labour to the ways of the British constitution. After witnessing the Conservatives dominate the inter-war years, in 1923, Baldwin called a general election in which his party won 258 seats, Labour 191 and the Liberals 158.

With no party gaining an outright majority, Labour, in partnership with the Liberals were in a position to form a coalition government. Despite appeals to save the country from Bolshevism, Baldwin, the classic reconciler, gave labour a chance. The trade unions and party organising and constitutionalising working class demands, relying on parliament, acting responsibly and negotiating with employers ensued a gradualism of the Labour party, with a taming of the radical pressures from below.

Labour moderation often brought about the same response from Conservat

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ives and there was a remarkable continuation of policies amongst new governments, exemplified best perhaps by the Conservative government of 1951 which accepted Labour initiatives in public ownership, welfare and retreat from the empire. There was a large degree of consensus on Keynesian Social-Democratic ideas in Britain. It was the product of a long search for an instrument that allowed the government to intervene in the market and reduce the effects of unregulated capitalism, without destroying the market, sacrificing consumer choice or entrepreneurial initiative.

It was the philosophy of the mixed economy and of the ‘middle way’, repudiating dichotomies of market versus state, labour versus capital, private enterprise versus public ownership and personal freedom versus social justice. Keynes’ objective was to save both the market economy and liberal polity which seems somewhat paradoxical in that his adherents rejected the classical market liberalisation of the 19th century but never severed from the utilitarian concept of man and society that is deeply embedded in our culture.

This seems incompatible with Keynesian Social Democracy, since the intervensionist state has, by definition, to change behaviour by influencing choices and purposes via punishments, rewards or persuasion. Even so, full employment and some degree of welfare provision became common goals. The climate was highly conducive to the introduction of these policies on which there was such a general agreement. The spectacular failure of capitalism and government in the inter-war years to solve mass unemployment served only to encourage the development of a middle opinion across the parties.

Lloyd George’s wartime government needed to mobilise the

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workforce and in doing so, accepted trade unions as ‘estates of the realm’. Their power (and that of business) was recognised and gradually they were pulled into the Whitehall machine and their spokesmen placed on advisory committees. Change could only be introduced with consent of each of the parties and the hence there was the development of consultation and bargaining which came to be known as ‘neo-corporatism’.

It was a system that was largely effective until the 1960s, when European Community wide general economic decline put more pressure on government to tackle the powers of the interest groups. The effect of the coalition government of 1940-1945 being compelled again mobilise society for war meant that there was no softening up period and a major acceleration of policy introduction. Again, war enhanced the power of organised labour and again the trade unions were drawn into the work of the government. They came to share the coalition’s assumptions of national interest, particularly with regards to the Keynesian revolution.

Also conducive to the potential for consensus on the middle way was public opinion, which was favourable of more collective legislation. Memories of mass unemployment in the inter-war years and of war and evacuation conferred to people an implicit social contract of accepting hardships and sacrifice in times of war in return for better in the future. Both parties new which direction that public opinion was leaning in. That said, it took a back bench revolt in 1943, to make the government accept the Beveridge package.

World War II had the great effect of altering the expectations of policy makers, particularly with respect to what government is capable of in terms of what is politically and administratively possible. To some extent, the state came to be seen as vaster and more beneficient than political parties. Much convergence was generated with the establishment of the Cabinet Committee on Reconstruction in 1943. Perhaps this was due in part to the Conservatives being more concerned with the war effort, leaving Labour with a relatively more unfettered influence on domestic policy.

The committee reached broad agreement in many areas, for example NHS, regional policy, full employment, social insurance and in housing. It did not however, come to an agreement on the future nationalisation of basic industries. Despite this, many industries were nationalised between 1945 and 1951, subsequent governments largely left them unchanged, with the exception of the iron and steel industries, which were nationalised by Labour, re-privatised by the Conservatives and then renationalised again by Labour.

In 1972, Labour also expanded nationalisation to struggling firms like Rolls Royce and the Upper Clyde Shipyard, with the Conservatives protesting that lame ducks were a drain on resources. The coalition government jointly produced the 1944 employment white paper, passed the education act in 1945, made progress on the Beveridge proposals and social insurance and issued reports on the future of the Bank of England and the industries of coal, gas and electricity. Gallup surveys produced evidence indicating some convergence between parties.

They found that there was a steady increase in the proportion of voters having a perception of the two parties as ‘much of a muchness’ from

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