Www.WorldHistory.Biz
Login *:
Password *:
     Register

 

9-08-2015, 22:39

BETTER TIMES AND RETREAT FROM EMPIRE

The war had been won by the British people acting in rare unison. Traditional class differences were softened by the wartime experience of common danger and loss. But in all essentials the class structure survived and was to impede Britain’s post-war progress. It survived above all in education, so denying equal opportunities to talented children from the lower classes. Social mobility improved, but far too slowly. The first post-war Labour government, though not revolutionary, did move the country in new directions, taking a gradualist road to impose more state control and planning on private industry, and to provide through social legislation a society that would care for the basic needs of all. Labour’s social policies were more successful than its industrial ones. Britain’s wealth was more equitably shared but it was created at a slower rate than the more successful European economies achieved after the war. The Labour government of 1945–50 enacted the measures that laid the basis of the post-war welfare state. It also set up the National Health Service and nationalised the coal and steel industries and the railways. The enactment of such a large and radical legislative programme required many compromises, and these, together with the avoidance of direct state control, ensured that Britain did not experience the kind of socialist revolution imposed on the communist states of Eastern Europe. The first post-war Labour government presided with success over the transition from peace to war. The miseries of the 1920s and the 1930s haunted Labour politicians and the working people alike. Careful planning and staggered demobilisation of the millions serving in the armed forces ensured that jobs were waiting for the returning men – and that they would not be temporary jobs, as many of them had been after the First World War. Strict rationing was continued, low wages and subsidised food prices kept the cost of living down, while the provision of health care and social security was spreading a safety net for the lowest income groups. In comparison with devastated continental Europe, Britain in the post-war 1940s was relatively well off. There was a market for all it could produce and as yet little serious competition. The immediate problem was the balance of payments: Britain did not export enough to earn the dollars to pay for imports from the US, to continue high defence expenditure abroad and to feed the British occupied zone of Germany, whose people would otherwise have starved. It still saw itself as a world power, the number three behind only the US and the Soviet Union, and, though recognising that the American alliance remained the indispensable first condition of West European security, determined to maintain an independent capacity to defend itself and its still far-flung imperial interests. In 1945 it seemed unwise to count on any long-term US commitment to Western Europe. In any case, British and American interests overseas frequently clashed, as for example in the Middle East. The Labour government was as passionately attached to parliamentary democracy, civil liberties and the independence of the law as any previous administration. But it also showed a much greater concern for social justice. The early postwar years were an ‘age of austerity’ for the few millions who before the war had enjoyed higher standards of living, more varied food and cheap domestic servants, but it was also an age during which the much more numerous poor for the first time were freed from the fear of unemployment, the workhouse, sickness, hunger and a pauper’s burial. As a nation the British people had never enjoyed such good health, subsisting on adequate rations that kept the people lean. Characteristic of the period was the word ‘utility’ which was widely stamped on furniture and clothing to denote good standard quality without frills. By pre-war standards, Britain made sound progress as its factories switched to peacetime production. A major problem was how to earn enough dollars from exports to pay for the imports Britain needed to feed its population, to provide tobacco and to get industry moving. That Labour recovered from the crisis year of 1947 was due less to Attlee, who provided little leadership, than to Stafford Cripps, who as chancellor of the exchequer emerged as the strongman. His strict economic policy, wage restraint and cuts in spending put Britain back on course. But despite Marshall Aid, Britain ran into renewed crises and devalued the pound in 1949 from its pre-war rate of $4.03 to $2.80. Bread was rationed for the first time from 1946 to 1948. When Labour finally fell from power in 1951, after winning the 1950 election by so narrow a margin of seats that Attlee decided to call another election, Britain was still enjoying a higher standard of living than its continental neighbours. There was a small drift of support from Labour to Conservative, 3 per cent in 1950 and a further 1 per cent in 1951. It was just sufficient to end the first Labour era of postwar Britain. The elections brought Churchill back to power, the Conservatives holding 321 seats and Labour 295. The swing was not remarkable given Labour’s six years in office; the socialist leaders were becoming old and sick. Sir Stafford Cripps retired in October 1950 suffering from cancer, Bevin died in April 1951 and Attlee also fell ill. A split within the Labour movement also became publicly known and weakened the party. The leftwingers led by Aneurin Bevan were outraged by the introduction of a charge for spectacles and false teeth, which destroyed the principle of a completely free National Health Service. Bevan and Harold Wilson, a rising young star, thereupon resigned from the government. But the majority of Labour supporters did not wish to go further on the road to socialism, and extending nationalisation was not popular. Labour’s reforming zeal had weakened in the face of the practical constraints of the slowly recovering economy. While Labour declined, the Conservative Party struck a note that appealed to the voters of ‘grey’ Britain, promising to rid the country (which was tiring of uniformity and the continuation of wartime rationing) of unnecessary restrictions and regulations – but they also undertook to maintain the new welfare state created by Labour. The most important of their assurances was that they would maintain full employment: the new Conservatism was laying the ghosts of the 1930s. For all these reasons – and a redistribution of constituency boundaries had also aided the Conservatives – they won power in 1951 and held on to it without interruption for thirteen years until 1964. Churchill was back at Number 10. Seventyseven years of age, he was still a statesman of world stature who could speak on equal terms with Truman and Stalin. This obscured the fact that Britain had ceased to be a world power when measured in terms of economic strength. With R. A. Butler, who accepted all the Beveridge Report stood for, at the Exchequer, the country was assured there would be no return to pre-war Toryism. Churchill’s Cabinet contained ministers who wished to reshape Conservative ideology to encompass more concern for the poor; they believed in the healing power of consensus politics, in the acceptance of the welfare state and in the application of Keynesian economics to counter the effects of cyclical depression. Butler, the most senior member of the government after Churchill, represented this now dominant wing of the party, though its most radical exponent was Harold Macmillan. Macmillan was entrusted with redeeming Tory pledges to build 300,000 houses a year, and he succeeded brilliantly. Lord Woolton was another popular minister; responsible for food, his success was inexorably linked to the rising meat content of the British sausage. Anthony Eden at the Foreign Office enjoyed a national prestige, in part based on his resignation before the Munich settlement and in part on his close association with Churchill during the war. The last Churchill administration set the guidelines for successive Conservative governments for more than a decade. In overseas relations and foreign affairs British policy followed five complementary aims: to strengthen as far as possible the alliance with the US; to maintain an independent military capacity as a great power by joining the nuclear superpowers, the USSR and the US, in building atomic weapons; to defend what were regarded as Britain’s essential worldwide economic and strategic interests in eastern Asia and the Middle East; to promote cooperation among the Commonwealth countries and to adjust to a new relationship; and, finally, to assist as an ally West European defence without becoming embroiled in continental moves for closer collaboration. This combination of policies, reflecting what were then the perceived national interests, was based on a mixture of foresight and rather more hindsight. It delayed Britain’s decline in influence in world affairs only to hasten it later, as the attempt to play a more independent role revealed Britain’s growing inability to sustain it. At home these efforts overseas diverted resources that were badly needed to renew the industrial base. The retreat from power is more difficult to manage successfully than mastering the problems of expansion. In fostering the American alliance, Britain hoped to counterbalance its declining strength by emphasising the historic special relationship that has often been said to bind together the two English-speaking countries. British statesmen could also emphasise their country’s long experience of world affairs and saw themselves as able to provide wise counsel to their ‘inexperienced’ American cousins. In the real world most of these assumptions were illusory. Despite its nuclear capacity, Britain ceased in the 1950s to be regarded as the third world power. Anglo- American interests in the post-war world coincided on some questions, especially the defence of Western Europe against Soviet threats, but they could also diverge, especially in the Middle East. That was to be demonstrated starkly over Suez in 1956, after Anthony Eden had taken over the premiership. The American alliance, and America’s continued commitment to European defence, which could not be taken for granted in 1945 or 1946, has remained the cornerstone of British foreign policy, but since the 1950s Anglo- American cooperation could not truly be said to amount to an exclusive or a special relationship. Britain’s choice of the nuclear option did not give it the added weight in world affairs its leaders expected from it, nor did its role at the head of the too-disparate Commonwealth. For a time, Britain was the only nuclear power besides the Soviet Union and the US. In 1946 the Americans had repudiated agreements to share with Britain the secrets of the bomb, so Attlee decided to develop an independent bomb. Research and development in Britain, however, reached fruition only in 1952, a year after the Conservatives had returned to power. Even then the full lethal consequences of radiation were not understood; Britain’s chief scientists had recommended that the atomic tests be conducted off the coast of Scotland. In the event, Monte Bello Island off the coast of Australia was chosen and, in consequence, Australian rather than British lives were unknowingly jeopardised. Only a month after Britain’s first successful test in 1952 the ante was raised when the US demonstrated the much more destructive thermonuclear bomb, the H-bomb. Churchill was determined to keep pace with the US and the Soviet Union: Britain would not surrender the option of pursuing independent policies. Five years later, in May 1957, Britain carried out its own successful Hbomb test. By then Harold Macmillan had taken over the premiership from Eden after the 1956 Suez fiasco. A strong adherent of both traditional British independence and the American alliance, Macmillan was able to restore some glow to the special relationship by persuading Eisenhower to resume Anglo-American nuclear cooperation. Britain failed to develop its own missiles to carry the nuclear warheads and so was obliged to buy them from the US. In December 1962 Macmillan met President Kennedy in the Bahamas and successfully negotiated the Nassau Agreement, under which the US undertook to supply Polaris missiles to be fitted to British-built atomic submarines. This Anglo-American deal was to have profound implications for Anglo-French relations and so for Britain’s attempts to join the Common Market in the 1960s, because de Gaulle interpreted it as evidence of a British decision to opt for the US rather than Western Europe and of a British desire to relegate France to a second-class status. As a result, in 1963 the general turned down Britain’s application to join the Common Market. Although eventually Britain and the US sought to pacify their non-nuclear NATO allies by setting up in 1966 joint nuclear defence committees, which would share nuclear planning rather than weapons, the French – who by now had their own nuclear missiles – maintained their refusal to participate in NATO’s integrated nuclear structure and went their own way, testing their weapons in the South Pacific. The continuous nuclear debate highlights the significance of these decisions at home and internationally. At home the horror aroused by a weapon of indiscriminate mass destruction prompted in 1958 the largest popular protest movement of post-war Britain, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND). Originally its moral appeal cut across traditional party and class lines. CND became a powerful radical movement led by middle-class left-wingers, who sought to persuade the Labour Party to abandon the bomb unilaterally and so give a moral lead to the world. Within the Labour Party, demands for unilateral disarmament became a serious embarrassment for its leaders from Gaitskell to Neil Kinnock in the 1980s. Britain’s fivefold policy aims looked fine on paper, but the essence of a successful and coherent strategy is that all its elements should harmonise and that its priorities should be ordered correctly. Britain was handicapped by its success in the Second World War and by its unbroken historical tradition. It would have been difficult to foresee in the 1950s the rapidity of Western Europe’s recovery from the war. Towards its European neighbours Britain followed a policy of a partial commitment. This involved encouraging the collaboration of the Western European states, the Federal German Republic, France, Italy and the Benelux countries, without embroiling Britain too closely in their emerging political and economic arrangements. Britain saw its role as a powerful ally – supporting, together with the US, the strengthening of Western Europe rather than trying to lead it. This was partly because considerable importance was still attached economically and politically to Britain’s ties with the Commonwealth, the independent Dominions – Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa – which were joined by India and Pakistan and later by many former colonies as they gained independence. In colonial and imperial affairs Britain continued to adjust gradually to the new realities, but not without difficulty. Even if it had wished simply to abandon its colonial possessions quickly, it could not be done without conflict. There were always rivals ready to take Britain’s place, who even before its departure tried to make good their claims by fighting for them. British troops, and often their families too, were exposed to terrorism. Palestine was, thus, only the first of many quagmires. Cyprus, an important British base, flared into violence in 1955 after the British, Greek and Turkish foreign ministers, meeting in conference, failed to agree a solution to the problem of the island’s self-government. The leader of the Greek Cypriots, Archbishop Makarios, representing some 80 per cent of the inhabitants, wanted union with Greece, enosis, which was anathema to the Cypriot Turks. Britain wanted to retain a secure base, which became all the more important after the Suez debacle in 1956. A terror campaign was launched on the island by EOKA (the National Organisation of Cypriot Struggle), headed by a former Greek colonel, Georgios Grivas. Greece was backing the Greek Cypriots, and Turkey followed suit, backing the Turkish Cypriots with still greater militancy. Only in 1959 was there sufficient agreement between Britain, Greece and Turkey to allow the setting up of an independent republic of Cyprus, whose Turkish minority population was granted special safeguards, with both Greece and Turkey promising to respect Cypriot sovereignty. Britain secured two sovereign bases. It was a solution imposed from outside by the three powers, one that denied the majority of the islanders the right of union with Greece. Cyprus enjoyed an uneasy peace under Makarios, interspersed with serious conflict between the Greek and Turkish communities, until the final breakdown, the Turkish invasion and the effective division of the island into separate Turkish and Greek halves in 1974. The problem remains no less insoluble today, but it has ceased to be Britain’s responsibility, having been handed over to the UN, like so many other lost international causes. In Malaya, Britain was more successful. A determined military campaign was waged against a communist revolt started in 1948 with the objective of seizing power from the British. There were some 4,000 of these communist guerrillas, fighting fanatically from bases deep in the jungles. But the insurgency was defeated by 1954 and Britain granted independence to the Federation of Malaya three years later. Singapore was made selfgoverning under the terms of this settlement, but became completely independent two years later. In the same year in which Malaya was granted independence, Britain began its retreat from colonial dominance in West Africa: the Gold Coast attained independence as Ghana in 1957, Nigeria in 1960, Sierra Leone in 1961 and Gambia in 1965. The Commonwealth had become multiracial, a force (it was hoped) for racial harmony in the world. Britain appeared to be shedding its responsibilities and burdens with grace and little hardship. Macmillan, in a speech before the United Nations, reflected the false optimism of the time when he declared in 1960, ‘Who dares to say that this is anything but a story of steady and liberal progress?’ Yet the 1960s were soon to witness the breakdown of British-style parliamentary rule in the West African states, and Nigeria was plunged into civil war. Britain’s withdrawal from its East and Central African colonies proved far more difficult than withdrawal from the West. Here, the white settlers, who claimed the land as their own and who possessed disproportionate wealth and held dominant power over the black majority, foresaw that majority rule and independence would mean the end of their pre-eminence. Nevertheless the Conservative government succeeded in 1961 in reaching a satisfactory settlement in Tanganyika, which with Zanzibar soon after became the state of Tanzania. In contrast, the relinquishment of control in and the granting of independence to Uganda in 1962 started the country on a path of tribal rivalry and bloodshed. In Kenya, the 30,000 white settlers and Europeans wielded more influence than those in Tanganyika, so the path to independence here was more violent. As in Malaya, Britain faced a major uprising in the 1950s organised by the Mau Mau, a militant secret society comprised mainly of Kikuyu. Britain reacted to this revolt by banning black political activity and using military force. Military action, as in Malaya, was successful, but, unlike in Malaya, the black independence leaders were not on the British side – they were all in prison. Macmillan, proclaiming the ‘wind of change’ in a celebrated speech in South Africa in 1960, pressed on with the decolonisation policies, which placed Kenya under black majority rule and gave it independence in 1963. But, from the British point of view, the policy of ‘steady and liberal progress’, pursued with a mixture of military force, flexibility and diplomacy and intended to transfer power gradually to black political leaders, came seriously unstuck in Central Africa. Nyasaland and Northern Rhodesia, which became the independent states of Malawi and Zambia in 1964, had been federated with Southern Rhodesia. Here a white minority of settlers held all political power, but their demands for independence could not be accepted in the progressive climate of the 1960s. The position had changed radically in the half-century since the white South Africans had obtained all political power and had been entrusted with the future of the country. Now the Commonwealth was multiracial, with Asian and black member states. South Africa was forced to leave it in 1961. Talks intended to lead to a settlement in Southern Rhodesia broke down in 1965 and the white Rhodesians declared their unilateral independence in November. The new prime minister Harold Wilson sought a solution by negotiating with the Rhodesian premier Ian Smith, a former battle of Britain pilot, who enjoyed considerable public support in Britain, not least because what was happening in the Congo and Uganda was a bad advertisement for black rule. The British government had neither the will nor the backing to use force to topple Smith and impose majority rule. Instead, economic sanctions were adopted, but they proved leaky, with oil and other supplies reaching Rhodesia through South Africa and Portuguese Mozambique. Smith was able to hold out until 1979: the issue was decided in Africa and not in London. Britain, once at the centre of imperial power, had moved to the sidelines. What is surprising to foreign observers is the equanimity with which the majority of the British people accepted the loss of empire. To the serving British soldier direct experience of the squalor and poverty of what became known as the Third World was a reality that replaced the romantic simple patriotism of a bygone age. Only a minority who had directly benefited mourned the passing of the Raj. Realistic Conservatives did not reverse Labour policies after 1951, as might have been expected if Churchill had been taken seriously, but extended and hastened the process of granting independence. To the man in the street setting former colonials free did not solve the problem: they emigrated to Britain, making use of their rights as subjects of the Crown to settle in the home country, though only a small proportion of the population of the empire did so. There was nothing new in the experience of accepting immigrants – Russian and, later, German Jews and, during the Second World War, foreign allies from many nations, had settled in Britain. Large numbers of Poles, some 157,000, who had fought with the British refused after the war to return to their country, now dominated by the Soviet Union. The Polish miners of Mansfield with their own social club, the German refugees in Swiss Cottage, and other nationals elsewhere in Britain exhibiting different cultures were accepted with tolerance and good humour. Their British-educated children were soon indistinguishable from the rest. Although immigration aroused some contemporary argument, the assimilation of more than 300,000 immigrants presented no long-term problems, and their early concentration within certain areas gave way within a generation to their spreading out and absorption throughout the British Isles. These were the white immigrants. The problem of immigration from the former colonies and the new Commonwealth countries proved different. Immigration of West Indians and Asians did not begin in the 1940s and 1950s – in London, and in seaports such as Cardiff and Liverpool, sizeable black communities had already settled, attracted by the prospect of work. The essential features of the problem revealed themselves from the start. There is a natural tendency among all immigrants to concentrate in particular towns among their own peoples with similar cultural backgrounds. Here they are more protected and can expect some assistance. Discrimination by whites meant that immigrants obtained only labouring jobs, and not even those when employment became scarce. Moreover, the assumption of racial superiority and acts of prejudice drove an increasingly impoverished black community back in on itself. Violence in what became virtually ghetto areas fed on discrimination and resentment. In 1919 there occurred serious riots in Cardiff, Newport and London. In Liverpool people of Carribean or African descent were attacked by a mob. The assimilation of black immigrants has not proceeded as quickly and smoothly as that of the whites. Communities of Asian people and people of African descent take pride in their own culture and distinctiveness, frequently reinforced by their own religious observances. West Indians, the black people from the colonies and Indians had all been welcomed as fighting men during the war, and after 1945 West Indian labour was encouraged to come to Britain to fill jobs for which there were not sufficient whites. London Transport, for instance, recruited 4,000 workers in the Caribbean, and the National Health Service could not have functioned without cleaners and nurses from overseas. Need reduced prejudice. Increasingly doctors from India and the Commonwealth entered the Health Service too, thus draining the Third World of the educated and skilled personnel it could spare least of all. It has been estimated that by 1973 more than a quarter of the doctors in the National Health Service had not been born in the British Isles. When immigrants wishing to escape the poverty of their homeland could no longer be absorbed by a growing British demand for their labour, pressure for control of immigration grew stronger. Now arguments were added explaining why the ‘New’ Commonwealth citizens were no longer welcome in Britain. The 1962 Commonwealth Immigrants Act ended unrestricted immigration, and the exclusion of immigrants later became still more rigorous. But the entry of new groups, such as some 100,000 East African and Ugandan Asians holding British passports, driven out in the late 1960s and 1970s by racial and economic resentment and by greed for their wealth, the arrival of dependants of existing immigrants, the small number of new immigrants, and the second-generation children born to the original immigrants, all enlarged the Commonwealth communities in Britain from 392,000 in 1962 to 1.85 million in 1976, out of a total population in Britain of 55 million. Would racial conflicts explode into bloodshed as the former Conservative minister Enoch Powell prophesied? Such dire predictions proved wide of the mark. The vast majority of African and Asian immigrants and their descendants are peaceable, hardworking and assert their right to be British in Britain’s multi-ethnic and multi-religious contemporary society. Britain has come a long way since American black airmen (of the USAAF) landed in 1944 in a Norfolk village whose inhabitants had never seen a black man before. Britain is now a multiethnic society and a new generation has been born into it. Racial differences are commonplace, accepted as part of life in Britain today, while intermarriage is more frequent. Just as the rigid barriers between Jews and Christians have broken down and anti-Semitism has greatly diminished, so racial prejudices have lessened. The significance of the immigrants’ contribution to the wealth of Britain still needs to be fully emphasised and set against the problems. Even these are not simply racial. In times of depression and high unemployment the deprived inner cities have vented their anger and frustration against the forces of the establishment, whose most visible manifestation is the police. The evils of unemployment have increased criminality and the maintenance of law and order has been perceived by the deprived as tinged with racism. Yet the spectacular riots of the 1970s and 1980s are the exception and not the rule; the violence of the few attracts more attention than the patience of the many. There was a broad consensus among the British people from the 1950s to the 1970s about the kind of society they wanted: gross poverty and misfortune, whether through ill health or old age, to be banished by the state’s provisions of welfare and medical care; decent standards of housing and education for the population as a whole; a growing supply of consumer goods, the pleasures of a car for every family and summer holidays away from home; an expanding economy to bestow these benefits; greater personal freedom of choice in lifestyles and the shrinking of the frontiers of legal sanction on questions of morality; a move away from authoritarian ‘Victorian’ standards; and finally a decent livelihood for all, with full employment. The maintenance of law and order was taken for granted, respect for the law and the police was almost universal, violence the exception. In seeking the good things in life, there was an expectation that they could be attained without too much effort, by a kind of natural progression, though interrupted from time to time by brief setbacks. CND was an overwhelmingly peaceful movement whose respectable leaders, with Canon Collins of the Church of England at their head, were accompanied by a few policemen at their ritual Easter march to Aldermaston. The Teddy boys, the Mods and the Rockers provided more entertainment than serious teenage challenge, to be tolerated good-humouredly. At the same time the more cerebral Angry Young Men confined their rebellion against the prevailing materialistic mood of complacency and optimism to novels and the theatre. Harold Macmillan caught the prevailing mood in his often quoted phrase: ‘Most of our people have never had it so good.’ But class divisions remained, with great inequalities of wealth, an educational system that despite widening opportunities did not provide anything like equal opportunities. Discrimination for senior positions was based on unconscious assumptions in favour of their ‘own kind’. Preference for Oxbridge graduates in the foreign service, in the City and elsewhere persisted. Throughout these three decades, both major parties, Labour and Conservative, could count on a bedrock of class support. Elections were decided by the floating voters. To ‘float’ was not a difficult ideological feat since there was so much common ground between the two parties on foreign affairs, defence and the welfare state. Judgements by the floaters were based on which party could provide the more competent prime minister, and which party’s policies promised to deliver that steady advance of the economy that had eluded the party in power; the floating voter was frequently voicing the need for a change, a vote against the party in power, rather than expressing ideological convictions. Labour in power was not intent on extending socialism but was willing to work with the mixed economy. Conservatives were ready to accept the social legislation of their Labour predecessors. From 1950 to 1970 there appear to have been only relatively small shifts in voting patterns, the biggest swing towards or away from Labour was less than 5 per cent. Only Labour and the Conservatives secured sufficient support to be considered credible government parties, the Liberal Party being unable to break the two-party mould. In fact, the traditional Labour workingclass base was shrinking and British politics was moving towards a radical reshaping in the 1970s. Churchill’s 1951–5 administration will be remembered for the old wartime giant whose now rare speeches could still inspire. But few outside the inner circle of politicians knew how physically impaired the prime minister had become, as the result of two strokes. His well-tried ministerial colleagues performed well enough, except for R. A. Butler at the Exchequer, who gave the economy too great a boost just before the election by lowering income tax, only to have to raise it immediately after it was won. Macmillan’s success at housing did more than any other single policy of Churchill’s administration to restore faith in the efficiency of private enterprise and the free market. The hybrid policy of encouraging private enterprise while maintaining the main features of the welfare state, a harmonisation of Labour and Conservative economic and social policies, became known as ‘Butskellism’ (Hugh Gaitskell had been Labour’s chancellor of the exchequer). Churchill kept Eden, his unchallenged heir, waiting too long. Eden had first entered government twenty-six years earlier as a junior minister. He had spent a lifetime in diplomacy, emerging unscathed from the condemnation of 1930s appeasement thanks to his break with Neville Chamberlain in 1938. As Churchill’s lieutenant in foreign affairs he had served the country throughout the Second World War. He again demonstrated his diplomatic skill as foreign secretary after 1951. The future of Western Europe was still uncertain in 1951. Could former enemies, especially West Germany, be trusted? The thorniest problem was whether, and under what controls, to permit German rearmament as part of the joint defence effort of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. The Americans pressed for West German rearmament, while the French, looking back on their historical experience, felt grave misgivings. The attempt to overcome these difficulties by creating a West European Defence Community (the Pleven Plan) finally failed when the French Assembly rejected ratification in August 1954. Britain had been willing to join not as a full member but only as an ally, thus indicating again its unwillingness to give up its status as the third great power and to combine with its continental allies as an equal European. Eden was the principal architect of the compromises that created the framework for West European defence at a nine-power conference over which he presided in London in the autumn of 1954. This was followed by the formal treaty signatures, the Paris Agreements, in October. With the admission of Italy and the Federal Republic of Germany, the Brussels Treaty Organisation was superseded by a Council of West European Union. That winter West Germany was admitted as a member of NATO. The Federal Republic of Germany had been restored to full sovereignty, but had agreed to certain restrictions, the most important of which was not to manufacture nuclear weapons. Berlin alone retained its status as an occupied city, since any Western alteration of the agreements reached with the Soviet Union would have opened the way for the Russians to declare them void. Eden had demonstrated full British support for a restored West Germany and for the military defence of Western Europe in alliance with the US and Canada. Thus West European Union and NATO were closely linked. But the British policy of keeping its distance from continental Europe was also confirmed. Eden’s second triumph was to preside over and bring to a successful conclusion the Geneva Conference in 1954, which extricated France from Indo-China. Unfortunately in the longer term this proved to be only another act in the tragedy of Vietnam. In the same year as these diplomatic successes Eden began to negotiate the treaties intended to place Anglo-Egyptian relations on an entirely new and friendly basis; they provided for the withdrawal of the British from Suez, but allowed the retention of the military base in emergencies. A group of Conservative MPs responded by accusing him of weakness. Eden was hypersensitive to charges of appeasement, and the shadow of Munich was to overwhelm his good judgement. The fuse was laid for the Suez Crisis two years later. Churchill finally accepted retirement in April 1955, the unavoidable consequence of his age and ill health. Eden called an election in May and won comfortably. The new prime minister entered 10 Downing Street with the broad support of the party and Conservative voters behind him. Yet the impression soon grew that he lacked the leadership qualities of a prime minister. The economy was not going well either. Eden’s health was suspect and the constant disparagement unsettled him, by nature impatient of criticism. The Suez invasion had widespread support from a public that saw this drastic action as a signal to the rest of the world that Britain could not be pushed about. But a more considered view, highly critical of Eden, was expressed among both Conservative and Labour members of parliament. Gaitskell (who had replaced Attlee as leader of the Labour Party in December 1955) was particularly vehement in his attacks on the prime minister. When the Suez expedition failed, Eden’s health completely broke down and he left London to recuperate in the West Indies. During his absence Butler acted as de facto prime minister. When Eden resigned in January 1957, the premiership did not pass to Butler, as had been widely expected. Since the Conservative Party had no leader, the queen sought the advice of senior Conservatives, among them Churchill and Lord Salisbury. Soundings were also taken among ministers. The shadow of Munich and appeasement still clung to Butler, and the preferred candidate was Harold Macmillan. His record seemed to be one of brilliant achievement. As Churchill’s representative in the Mediterranean from 1943 to 1945, he had mastered the complex political problems of rival French, American and British interests in North Africa and later in Italy. Shrewd, ambitious, tough and ruthless when the need arose, Macmillan politically dominated the decade from the mid-1950s until ill health and fatigue loosened his grip. Although he had occupied the senior offices of state during the short space of 1951–7 – Housing, Defence, the Foreign Office and the Exchequer – Macmillan had been the outsider among Conservatives in the 1930s, accepting the new economic theories of John Maynard Keynes and castigating the policies that he blamed for the unemployment of that decade. Intensely patriotic, he wished to rebuild Conservatism to embody the vision of ‘one nation’, the creation of harmony between the classes. By promoting social mobility, the Conservatives would loosen adherence to the Labour cause. The large university expansion of the 1960s helped to serve this end among others. The working people of Britain were not the enemies to be kept at bay, in Macmillan’s philosophy, but the ‘sturdy men’ who had defeated the Kaiser’s and Hitler’s armies. They would respond to a policy of fairness that gave them a share in growing prosperity. Unemployment was an evil and not an option of policy. The majority of his countrymen, Macmillan believed, would respond to an emphasis on traditional British values and to a paternalistic aristocratic style of leadership. It was a cleverly packaged update of Disraeli’s Tory vision. Macmillan was the first British politician to master the new television medium. He presented himself as the disinterested statesman–gentleman who would lead the country to reform without tears, the antithesis of the puritan ethic, which preaches that only what hurts can be truly beneficial. His style of government was conciliatory rather than confrontational, both at home and abroad. After the shock of Suez a more careful alignment of policy to match British resources in the world had become necessary. Indeed the Conservatives were at a low ebb when Macmillan took over. Yet, less than three years later, Supermac (as a cartoonist christened him) had restored the party’s morale and increased its share of the vote in the October 1959 election sufficiently to win an overall majority of 100 seats in the House of Commons. The Labour Party, it is true, was not well placed to fight that election, its rank and file divided between unilateral disarmers and Gaitskell’s majority in favour of retaining the bomb, and between those who wished to extend nationalisation and Gaitskellites who believed that nationalisation was not only irrelevant but an electoral handicap. The Liberal vote had more than doubled, but in the absence of proportional representation the party was left with exactly the same number of MPs as before – a mere six. How had Macmillan brought about the recovery? What had the Conservatives achieved? In foreign affairs, the deleterious effects of Suez were overcome and good relations with the US restored. Macmillan also played the role of world statesman with relish, attending summits with Eisenhower in Bermuda and Khrushchev in Moscow before the abortive Geneva Conference in 1960. He had the sangfroid to react coolly to Soviet threats over Berlin and the vision to press on with independence for former African colonies. And he was astute enough to recognise that a world role could place unacceptable burdens on the British economy and frustrate the goal of greater prosperity. Britain still kept 700,000 men under arms and maintained conscription, devoting a larger share of its gross national product to defence than did its continental neighbours. The far-reaching Defence White Paper of 1957 saw the solution in relying on a nuclear deterrent, reducing the armed forces to 400,000 and abandoning conscription in favour of professional forces. Meanwhile, almost unnoticed in Britain, the European Economic Community had been created by the Rome Treaties of 1957. Britain had rejected the opportunity to become a founder member on the ground that it did not wish to weaken its Commonwealth ties. Macmillan still saw Britain as playing a world role, not as just another European nation such as the Federal Republic of Germany, France or Italy. But rather than be isolated, Britain formed the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) with Austria, Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Switzerland. These nations undertook to eliminate tariffs between each other, but they did not adopt a common tariff. This was one essential difference between them and the EEC, which levied a common tariff against external agricultural imports in order to protect the less efficient French and German farmers. Britain remained free to import cheap agricultural produce from New Zealand, Australia, Canada and elsewhere in the world. The Treaty of Rome appeared to be contrary to Britain’s economic interests and its supranational aspects were distasteful to its government and Parliament, which wished to retain undiminished sovereignty. In this respect Parliament was at one with the majority of the people. In a few years the Six would outstrip Britain in economic growth and prosperity. It is in retrospect curious that Supermac’s electoral success was in no small measure due to the feeling that Britain was on the right course and that standards of living would rise uninterruptedly in an era of full employment. This optimistic view was buttressed by the people’s insularity and their ingrained belief that Britain did all things best. The economic stagnation of 1957 and 1958 were quickly forgotten and expansive government budgetary measures produced a boom in 1959 and 1960. Macmillan had timed the election well. Macmillan’s second administration (1959–63) did not fulfil the promise of the first. The economy was soon thrown into reverse as Britain yet again faced economic crisis, with each crisis more serious than the last. Ensuring full employment was an undertaking that might no longer be possible to honour as unemployment reached 800,000 during the winter of 1962. The nuclear option did not turn out to be nationally independent – as it had to rely on US missiles. The ‘remedy’ of a new boom engineered by the last of Macmillan’s series of chancellors of the exchequer proved no remedy at all, whether for the economy or for the Conservatives’ chances of re-election in 1964. Macmillan meanwhile sought the limelight in the role of statesman, asserting British influence on the basis of its great experience as a world power. In reality his part in bringing about the American–Soviet detente that followed on the Cuban missile crisis in October 1962 was marginal. But the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty of 1963, which sought to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons, undoubtedly owed much to Macmillan’s persistent diplomacy and he took justifiable pride in his achievement. On the negative side, it reinforced Britain’s illusions that it had retained its great-power status as a member, along with the superpowers, of the exclusive nuclear club. As Britain’s weak economic performance became evident, Macmillan turned towards the Six, whose progress and growing influence threatened to leave Britain on the sidelines. Britain now, in August 1961, made a belated bid to join them but, characteristically, did not come as a supplicant – it was offering its political experience and its own internal market as bait, and in return expected special terms that would allow preferential entry into Britain of Commonwealth food and raw material exports and also permit Britain to meet its new obligations to fellow EFTA partners. Britain might have realised its essential aims had it been a founding member in 1957; now, four years later, the difficult bargains struck between the Six, and especially France’s success in protecting its backward agricultural sector, had created a successful going concern. Each of the six member states believed that its national interest was best served by the maintenance of the EEC, and were not prepared to jeopardise it, even though the less powerful Benelux countries and Italy would have welcomed a counterbalance to the Franco- German axis of Adenauer and de Gaulle. Public opinion in Britain was deeply divided, with many people suspicious of foreign entanglements. Negotiations for a package deal nevertheless seemed to be making reasonable progress when de Gaulle in January 1963 brought them to a halt, declaring that Britain’s Commonwealth ties and Atlantic interests prevented it from becoming a fully committed European partner. It was a bodyblow to Macmillan’s aura of success. Supermac’s second administration proved a disappointment to the electorate, not least because the brakes had been applied to the economy immediately after the election of 1959. The new chancellor Selwyn Lloyd attempted to introduce a ‘pay pause’ in 1961, but lack of agreement with the trade unions doomed it to failure, and its application to the wages controlled by government led to strikes by railwaymen, postmen and nurses. In 1962 Macmillan replaced Selwyn Lloyd with Reginald Maudling, who exuded confidence and optimism, qualities much needed in the face of growing unemployment, particularly in the north, which reached 800,000 in the winter of 1962–3. Maudling went for an expansionary policy and planned to break out of the dreary ‘stop–go’ cycle of deflation and boost and achieve sustained growth by accepting a substantial once-and-for-all deficit on the balance of payment. The problems this caused were inherited by Harold Wilson’s Labour government in 1964. Macmillan appeared to have lost his magic touch. With the economy in difficulties, Britain’s attempt to join the European Economic Community vetoed by de Gaulle, and the ‘independent’ nuclear deterrent dependent on American missiles, the only relative success was the continued disengagement from colonial responsibilities: in Africa, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Tanganyika, Uganda, Kenya, Zambia and Zanzibar all gained their independence between 1961 and 1964, as did Cyprus, Malta, Trinidad and Jamaica, and the queen gained many new titles as former colonies became sovereign members of the Commonwealth. But independence did not solve all problems at a stroke. Nigeria was to be rent by a terrible civil war, and Uganda suffered grave misfortunes at the hands of its own rulers. In Cyprus internal conflicts have not been resolved. The problems of Rhodesia were to plague successive Conservative and Labour governments for more than a decade. But the most serious problem facing not only Britain and the Commonwealth but the Western world as a whole was the denial of equal rights to the non-white majority in South Africa. By 1961 South Africa had recognised that it had become impossible for it to remain in the new Commonwealth, the majority of whose members were now Asian and African countries. But Britain retained close and friendly relations with South Africa, particularly in trade, while at the same time rejecting the policy of apartheid. Opposition, however, was confined to rhetoric and, later, sporting contacts; Macmillan, in one of his more memorable speeches, admonishing his white South African audiences in 1960 that he had been struck by the strength of African national consciousness: the ‘wind of change is blowing through the continent’. Macmillan was soon to feel the ‘wind of change’ much more immediately at home. Conservative voters, disillusioned with the government, seemed to be switching to the Liberals in droves. Macmillan took drastic action, reshuffling his Cabinet in 1962 by sacking an unprecedented number of Cabinet ministers simultaneously, a display of ruthlessness that became known as the Night of the Long Knives. Then security scandals began to haunt the government and to throw doubt on Macmillan’s grip on affairs. The most dramatic concerned John Profumo, the secretary of state for war, who had shared an attractive mistress with a Soviet military attaché. There was probably no breach of security in bed, though nobody could listen in, but the secretary of state, having earlier denied the association in the House of Commons, later admitted to it and resigned. A sexual scandal in high political places was, of course, a great media event. Macmillan was described as gullible and failing. In the House of Commons Labour’s brilliant young leader, Harold Wilson, made the most of the government’s discomfiture. But Macmillan, perhaps the most astute and skilful politician of the post-war era, might still have recovered had his prostate not incapacitated him in October 1963. He was rushed from Downing Street to hospital and there resigned the premiership.

 

 

html-Link
BB-Link