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 One of the issues of the 1950 election was whether the new act should be implemented, as Labour wanted, or repealed, as the Tories promised.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…