A prefabricated brave new world

July 7, 1995

W. G. Runciman claims that the real revolution in British society occurred after the first, not the second, world war.

After the first world war, the hopes of the electorate for a new and better world, which led them to vote for Lloyd George in the "Coupon" election, were soon disappointed. The short-lived post-war boom collapsed and with it the promise of "homes fit for heroes to live in"; the wartime spirit of co-operation dissolved in increasing party political animosity; the trade unions turned against Lloyd George and he against them; no significant measures of social reform were enacted by the coalition; and by the time that Lloyd George fell from power in 1922, disillusionment with the so-called "Reconstructionists' was complete.

After the second world war, by contrast, the electorate rejected the Conservatives even though Churchill was acknowledged as being, like Lloyd George, "the man who won the war". The Labour Party enjoyed for the first time in its history an overall majority in the House of Commons, and proceeded to implement a successful programme of nationalisation, full employment, "fair shares for all", and creation of the "welfare state". When Churchill was returned to power in 1951 on a minority of the popular vote, he did not attempt to reverse the principal innovations of the Labour Government but, on the contrary, explicitly accepted them.

Put like this, however, the contrast is almost wholly misleading in one fundamental respect. Whatever the electorate may have thought at the time, the fact is that between 1915 and 1922 British society evolved out of an old into a new kind of capitalist, liberal, democracy, whereas between 1940 and 1951 it did not.

After Lloyd George's prime ministership, the economy, the dominant ideology, and the conduct of national and local politics were all irreversibly different from what they had been in 1914. The state was directly involved in the economy, including labour relations, housing, and the administration of uncovenanted unemployment benefit; taxation remained at levels unthinkable before 1914; control of industry passed to progressively larger managerially controlled corporations; agricultural land was transferred from landowners to tenant farmers on an unprecedented scale; the working-class interest was fully integrated into the institutions of parliamentary democracy under what was soon to be full adult suffrage; and Lloyd George's successors as prime minister all enjoyed a far greater degree of power than Asquith or Balfour or Salisbury had ever dreamed of.

After 1945, on the other hand, nationalisation, for all the controversy which surrounded it, made little if any difference to how, or by whom, the industries in question were run; the trade unions remained uninvolved in management and wedded to free collective bargaining; controls were systematically dismantled; rationing was continued only for as long as, and to the extent that, it had to be; central planning went no further than a few very modest departmental interventions in the workings of the market; supposedly punitive taxation was limited to Cripps's one-off capital levy; and the creation of a national health service and a comprehensive national insurance scheme was no more (if no less) than the culmination of a sequence of recommendations and reforms dating back to the 1920s and 1930s.

The reason for which there was such a paradoxical disjunction between rhetoric and reality in the aftermath of both wars is simply that it suited both the left and the right. After the first world war, it suited the left to maintain that capitalism was unreformed and a discredited ruling class still in power, while it suited the right to maintained that "normalcy" had been restored and "Bolshevism" kept at bay. After the second world war, it suited the left to maintain that the "Old Gang" had been defeated and a peaceful social revolution effected through the ballot box, while it suited the right to maintain that a government controlled by socialist intellectuals and over-mighty trade unionists was leading the country to ruin. Hence a conventional wisdom according to which much less changed after 1918, and much more after 1945, than was in fact the case.

The correct explanation of the changes that did and did not take place is, in summary, that the first "total" war in the country's history set in train a series of institutional adjustments whose unintended repercussions outlasted their initial impact. For that reason, the second world war, when it came, although it generated a similar short-lived mood of national unity, had nothing like the same long-term effects, intended or otherwise. As always in social evolution, the selective pressures which were (after 1918) or were not (after 1945) forcing qualitative changes on the society's central institutions could be identified and analysed only with hindsight. The policy-makers of the time were, and were bound to be, unable either to predict or to control the consequences of events and processes whose significance is even now far from easy to assess.

Lord Runciman is fellow at Trinity College, Cambridge.

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