Labour Party Forms Britain’s Majority Government Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

In the aftermath of World War II, Great Britain’s Labour Party won a majority of seats in national parliamentary elections. The party introduced a planned economy, nationalized several industries, and created the modern welfare state.

Summary of Event

The victory of the Labour Party in the parliamentary elections of July, 1945, marked the end of the National Coalition National Coalition, British government that had held office in Great Britain since 1931. This government, comprising Conservatives, Liberals, and a few Labourites, represented the effort of its members to find solutions to the grave financial problems brought on by the Great Depression of 1929. In reality, the National Coalition government was only a facade for the rule of the Conservative Party, Conservative Party, British which in its own right commanded an absolute majority in Parliament as constituted in the elections of 1931 and 1935. Labour Party, British Parliamentary elections, British [kw]Labour Party Forms Britain’s Majority Government (July 26, 1945)[Labour Party Forms Britains Majority Government] [kw]Britain’s Majority Government, Labour Party Forms (July 26, 1945)[Britains Majority Government, Labour Party Forms] [kw]Government, Labour Party Forms Britain’s Majority (July 26, 1945)[Government, Labour Party Forms Britains Majority] Labour Party, British Parliamentary elections, British [g]Europe;July 26, 1945: Labour Party Forms Britain’s Majority Government[01550] [g]United Kingdom;July 26, 1945: Labour Party Forms Britain’s Majority Government[01550] [c]Government and politics;July 26, 1945: Labour Party Forms Britain’s Majority Government[01550] [c]Diplomacy and international relations;July 26, 1945: Labour Party Forms Britain’s Majority Government[01550] Attlee, Clement Bevan, Aneurin Bevin, Ernest Churchill, Winston [p]Churchill, Winston;parliamentary elections George VI

The Conservative leader Stanley Baldwin headed the coalition as prime minister from 1935 to 1937. Following his resignation, King George VI called upon Neville Chamberlain Chamberlain, Neville , also a Conservative, to lead the nation. Chamberlain’s policy of appeasing Nazi Germany in the late 1930’s led to his resignation in 1940, when Adolf Hitler, chancellor and führer of Germany, ordered German troops to overrun Western Europe. King George thereupon asked Winston Churchill, the spokesman for those Conservatives who had condemned appeasement, to form a government. Churchill reorganized the cabinet extensively, bringing in both Labourites and Conservatives who, like himself, had opposed Chamberlain’s conciliatory policy toward Germany. A tough, aggressive leader, Churchill played a major role in the Allied victory over Germany in May, 1945. As Parliament had by then prolonged its session for ten years, Churchill agreed shortly after the German surrender to hold a general election. The king dissolved Parliament on June 15.

In order to prepare the way for the general election scheduled for July 5, the coalition cabinet resigned and Churchill appointed an exclusively Conservative cabinet. The election campaign was primarily a contest between the Conservative and Labour Parties. Both parties presented themselves to the electorate as being best qualified to solve Great Britain’s desperate postwar economic problems, World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];reconstruction which included the necessity of funding a staggering debt of more than three billion pounds and of replacing personal property, shipping, and industry destroyed during the war.

The Labour Party proposed a comprehensive economic plan that called for, among other things, the nationalization of many industries and the establishment of extensive controls over those in private hands. The Conservatives, while recognizing the need to continue certain economic controls, denounced the Labour program of nationalization as a major infringement upon the private enterprise system. Both parties promised an extension of social services and full employment. During the campaign, it was obvious that Labour had superior party organization, and Churchill made an appalling gaff, implying that Labour’s sweeping economic changes would bring in a “gestapo” state, a clearly unfair charge against a party with an admirable war record. In addition, many voters still blamed the Conservatives for their allegedly mean-spirited social policies during the Great Depression and for their bungling policy of appeasement prior to the war.

The election gave the Labour Party a substantial majority with 393 seats as opposed to the 213 seats retained by the Conservatives. The vote was officially tabulated on July 26, 1945. Clement Attlee Prime ministry, British replaced Churchill as prime minister the next day. By virtue of his victory, Attlee became Great Britain’s chief representative at the Potsdam Conference, which was then meeting to decide the fate of postwar Germany.

The Labour Party remained in power from 1945 through most of 1951, during which period it attempted, with the aid of loans from the United States, to deal with Great Britain’s economic and social problems by implementing its socialistic program. Economic policy;United Kingdom Economic systems;socialism Socialism Attlee, unimposing in appearance and totally lacking charisma, nevertheless turned out to be a first-rate leader and put together a formidable cabinet. In October, 1945, he secured from the House of Commons an extension of the government’s wartime emergency powers for five years. During this period, the government nationalized Nationalization of land and industries;United Kingdom the Bank of England, overseas cable and wireless services, civil aviation, coal mines, railroads, road haulage (trucking), canals and docks, gas and electricity companies, and the iron and steel industries. Owners of these industries were generously compensated.

It was estimated that roughly 20 percent of the nation’s economy was in state hands. Labour subjected industry left in private hands to extensive controls, primarily to establish a healthy balance of trade between exports and imports. Strict government regulations also maintained rationing in the buying of food, clothing, and fuel. In agriculture, the Attlee government established price supports for milk, livestock, eggs, and potatoes and set detailed standards of efficient production which farmers had to follow.

It is Labour’s domestic program for which it is chiefly remembered. The party constructed the modern welfare state, or, in the parlance of that time, offered security “from the womb to the tomb.” In 1946, Parliament passed the National Insurance Act National Insurance Act (1946) . Funded by contributions from employers, employees, and the state, this act dispensed funds for unemployment benefits, old age pensions, and grants to mothers having children.

The National Health Service, National Health Service, British which began operation in 1948, was by far the government’s most popular program. Pushed by Aneurin Bevan, minister of health, this act provided to everyone free medical services and supplies, hospital care, and nursing aid. Bevan was also responsible for directing the government-sponsored housing program, which built approximately one million units during Labour’s term of office. In conjunction with the expansion of social services, Attlee attempted to bring about a modest redistribution of Great Britain’s wealth by changing the tax laws whereby the heaviest burden fell upon the wealthy. Because of the resistance to these and other reform measures in the House of Lords, the Attlee government pushed an act through Parliament which restricted the powers of the House of Lords to delay legislation.

Foreign policy during this period was directed by Ernest Bevin, a former trade union leader who was appointed secretary of state for foreign affairs. The country played a positive role in creating the United Nations. Consistent with its socialist principles, the Labour government granted independence British Empire;dissolution to India (1947), Pakistan (1947), Ceylon (1948), and Burma (1948), and in something of a diplomatic debacle, Britain voluntarily surrendered its mandate for Palestine in 1948, which immediately led to fighting between Jews and Arabs in that area. During the early stages of the Cold War, Britain remained a staunch ally of the United States, joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in 1949 and offering military support during the Korean War. Much to America’s displeasure, however, Britain recognized the Communist regime of China in 1950. Significantly, Britain spurned any negotiations dealing with the creation of a European political and economic union, preferring instead to maintain close ties with the Commonwealth nations and the United States.

With the expiration of its term in February, 1950, the Labour government stood for reelection. The Labour Party ran on a platform that called for the consolidation of the gains it had made since the end of the war. The Conservatives promised to supply more housing and to end further nationalization and excessive controls. In addition, they attempted to assure the electorate that, contrary to statements from the Labour camp, they would not bring back unemployment and reduce the social services. Many people who had supported the Labour Party in 1945 now cast their votes for the Conservatives, who captured 297 seats. The Labour Party, however, retained control with 315 seats.

During the following months, the Labour Party barely managed to maintain this slender majority. A split in the ranks of Labour between right- and left-wingers during the middle of 1951 finally induced Attlee to call another election in October. This time, the Conservatives won a slim majority of seats, and once again Churchill became prime minister. The Conservatives were to remain in power for the next thirteen years.

Significance

The Labour government of 1945-1951 is regarded as one of the most important in modern British history. Correctly or incorrectly, it is credited with creating the modern welfare state, demonstrating the virtues of rational economic planning, and attempting to build a society embodying the virtues of social justice and economic security. Significantly, the Conservative Party after it returned to office accepted almost all of the welfare state and much of the nationalization program. This consensus was to last until the 1980’s, when it was vigorously challenged by Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government. Labour Party, British Parliamentary elections, British

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bullock, Alan. Ernest Bevin: Foreign Secretary, 1945-1951. New York: W. W. Norton, 1983. A flattering account of Bevin’s days at the Foreign Office by a respected Oxford historian.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Burridge, Trevor. Clement Attlee: A Political Biography. London: Jonathan Cape, 1985. A detailed, heavily documented study of Attlee’s political career. Includes photographs and a lengthy bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cairncross, Alec. Years of Recovery: British Economic Policy, 1945-51. New York: Methuen, 1985. An expert analysis of Britain’s economy with special emphasis upon the financial crises of this period. For the advanced student.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Headlam, Sir Cuthbert Morley. Parliament and Politics in the Age of Churchill and Attlee: The Headlam Diaries, 1935-1951. Edited by Stuart Ball. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999. Diary of a British member of Parliament, detailing the workings of Britain’s government under both Churchill’s and Attlee’s ministries.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McCullum, R. B., and A. Readman. The British General Election of 1945. London: Oxford University Press, 1947. A good analysis of the election which brought the Labour Party to power.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Morgan, Kenneth O. Labour in Power, 1945-1951. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1984. This lengthy, detailed account is arguably the finest study on the topic. Written by a distinguished Oxford historian.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pearce, Robert. Attlee’s Labour Governments, 1945-1951. New York: Routledge, 1994. A brief introduction to the topic designed specifically for students. Excellent bibliographical essay.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Swift, John. Labour in Crisis: Clement Attlee and the Labour Party in Opposition, 1931-40. New York: Palgrave, 2001. Details Attlee’s career as a prewar opposition leader; important background for understanding the Labour government of 1945-1951. Bibliographic references and index.

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