Clement Attlee’s government carried out many radical reforms, but only one of its principal policies was prompted by ideological socialism: the nationalisation of iron and steel. Everything else can be traced back to the ideas of Keynes and Beveridge, both Liberals; or consensus policies developed by the wartime coalition; or a practical need to harness private utilities to the task of post-war reconstruction. The consequences for post-war Britain could have been enormous had Attlee’s cabinet resisted ideological socialism and not taken over iron and steel.
Attlee had not intended to nationalise them; but in December 1944 Labour’s annual conference voted for state control of the utilities, all heavy industry, the land, building companies and the clearing banks. Much of this list was excluded from the 1945 manifesto. The only firm commitments that remained were the utilities, the Bank of England and the one concession to the left: iron and steel.
In May 1948, Attlee reluctantly allowed the Bill to be published. It was not popular. In August 1949 Gallup found a 53-25 per cent majority against the Bill-a stark contrast with earlier nationalisation measures, which had been much more popular. Yet the Bill became law. One of the issues of the 1950 election was whether the new act should be implemented, as Labour wanted, or repealed, as the Tories promised. Labour’s own internal post-election assessment, and most of the dispassionate analyses, found that the party’s plans to take over iron and steel and, subsequently, sugar and cement, lost votes. The election reduced Labour’s majority from 146 to five. The following year Attlee called a further election; Labour lost and the Conservatives embarked upon 13 years of unbroken rule.
What would have happened if Attlee had turned Bevan down in 1948 and blocked iron and steel nationalisation? Let us make the modest assumption that Labour’s nationalisation policies cost it just one percentage point in support in its marginal seats. Labour would have held on to 21 seats it lost. Its majority would have been 47, not five. Attlee would have remained prime minister for a full second term.
This means that Labour, not the Tories, would have presided over the early stages of the 1950s boom. Attlee could have called the following election, in late 1954 or early 1955, having demonstrated Labour’s ability not only to provide a welfare state and full employment in the aftermath of war, but also to complete the transition from rationing to a consumer society.
What is more, by confronting and extinguishing the ideological ambitions of the left, Attlee would have accelerated the process-finally addressed by Neil Kinnock and completed by Tony Blair-of creating a new Labour party.
In the real world that Labour has inhabited since 1950, defeat has become a habit-and semi-permanent life in opposition has created its own negative, treason-seeking culture. This may be changing under Tony Blair: we cannot be certain until-and unless-he succeeds where every previous leader has failed: in winning not just one election with a clear working majority, but two. Had Attlee resisted iron and steel nationalisation, there is every chance that Labour would have reached this stage in its evolution half a century earlier.
The short term impact on Britain would have been far less. Iron and steel nationalisation apart, the Tories did not reverse Attlee’s domestic reforms. An extended period of Labour rule is unlikely to have hastened the advent of a non-nuclear or a pro-European Britain.
What about the Conservative party under the impact of ten or 15 years of Labour rule? It would have survived and eventually revived. But its character, and leading characters, would have been different. Edward Heath was first elected to parliament in 1950 with a majority of 133. Enoch Powell entered parliament at the same election with a majority of 691. A slightly better Labour performance would have kept both men out of the Commons, at least for a time. Perhaps Attlee’s decision to allow the Iron and Steel Bill to proceed in 1948 was bad not only for Labour, but also for organ music and classical Greek scholarship.