Consensus, Bevan and Thorneycroft

I’m interested in transgressions. It’s only by seeing what is deemed unacceptable that we can identify where a line has been drawn. In turn, identifying those boundaries allows us to see the shape of the thing. If it has no shape, can we really be sure it exists at all? This is certainly true for pinning down the moral expectations of a bygone age, but more generally transgressions can help us make sense of values and attitudes.

How different were the values and attitudes – over and above specific policies – governing British politics in the mid-twentieth century from today? Might we go as far as saying there was a social democratic postwar consensus? I hold the rather old-fashioned view that there probably was some kind of political consensus in Britain in the decades following the Second World War. There are many caveats I should offer to accompany such a statement. The word ‘consensus’, for example, is a rather unhelpful one. It suggests something both specific in detail and all-encompassing in scope. On that basis we might take the two dramatic Cabinet-level resignations of the 1950s, one from the left in protest against cuts and one from the right calling for deeper cuts, as evidence for a lack of consensus. To my mind, however, they are the very transgressions that show us the shape of the thing.

The first of these was the resignation of Aneurin Bevan and junior ministers John Freeman and Harold Wilson. Nye Bevan will, of course, be best remembered as the founding father of the National Health Service. But he spent a great deal more of his career as the leader of the oppositional left in Labour politics with a significant focus on international affairs, not least American hegemony and nuclear weapons. These two aspects were brought together in his resignation from the government. The outbreak of the Korean War in 1950 prompted a British rearmament programme at the same time as economic orthodoxy was moving centre-stage. Bevan was moved to the position of Minister of Labour, while health was demoted to a sub-cabinet level ministerial post. He was no longer in a position to hold off the growing pressure for the introduction of charges in the NHS – initially for dentures and spectacles, but potentially for prescriptions as well. On 23 April 1951, he stood up in the House of Commons and said the following:

The fact is that the western world has embarked upon a campaign of arms production upon a scale, so quickly, and of such an extent that the foundations of political liberty and Parliamentary democracy will not be able to sustain the shock. This is a very grave matter indeed. I have always said both in the House of Commons and in speeches in the country – and I think my ex-colleagues in the Government will at least give me credit for this – that the defence programme must always be consistent with the maintenance of the standard of life of the British people and the maintenance of the social services, and that as soon as it became clear we had engaged upon an arms programme inconsistent with those considerations, I could no longer remain a Member of the Government.

… I now come to the National Health Service side of the matter. Let me say to my hon. Friends on these benches: you have been saying in the last fortnight or three weeks that I have been quarrelling about a triviality – spectacles and dentures. You may call it a triviality. I remember the triviality that started an avalanche in 1931. I remember it very well, and perhaps my hon. Friends would not mind me recounting it. There was a trade union group meeting upstairs. I was a member of ft and went along. My good friend, “Geordie” Buchanan, did not come along with me because he thought it was hopeless, and he proved to be a better prophet than I was. But I had more credulity in those days than I have got now. So I went along, and the first subject was an attack on the seasonal workers. That was the first order. I opposed it bitterly, and when I came out of the room my good old friend George Lansbury attacked me for attacking the order. I said, “George, you do not realise, this is the beginning of the end. Once you start this there is no logical stopping point.”

The Chancellor of the Exchequer in this year’s Budget proposes to reduce the Health expenditure by £13 million – only £13 million out of £4,000 million. No, £4,000 million. He has taken £13 million out of the Budget total of £4,000 million. If he finds it necessary to mutilate, or begin to mutilate, the Health Services for £13 million out of £4,000 million, what will he do next year? Or are you next year going to take your stand on the upper denture? The lower half apparently does not matter, but the top half is sacrosanct. Is that right? If my hon. Friends are asked questions at meetings about what they will do next year, what will they say?

The Chancellor of the Exchequer is putting a financial ceiling on the Health Service. With rising prices the Health Service is squeezed between that artificial figure and rising prices. What is to be squeezed out next year? Is it the upper half`? When that has been squeezed out and the same principle holds good, what do you squeeze out the year after? Prescriptions? Hospital charges? Where do you stop? I have been accused of having agreed to a charge on prescriptions. That shows the danger of compromise. Because if it is pleaded against me that I agreed to the modification of the Health Service, then what will be pleaded against my right hon. Friends next year, and indeed what answer will they have if the vandals opposite come in? What answer? The Health Service will be like Lavinia – all the limbs cut off and eventually her tongue cut out, too. I should like to ask my Right hon. and hon. Friends, where are they going? Where am I going? I am where I always was. Those who live their lives in mountainous and rugged countries are always afraid of avalanches, and they know that avalanches start with the movement of a very small stone. First, the stone starts on a ridge between two valleys – one valley desolate and the other valley populous. The pebble starts, but nobody bothers about the pebble until it gains way, and soon the whole valley is overwhelmed. That is how the avalanche starts, that is the logic of the present situation, and that is the logic my right hon. and hon. Friends cannot escape. Why, therefore, has it been done in this way?

After all, the National Health Service was something of which we were all very proud, and even the Opposition were beginning to be proud of it. It only had to last a few more years to become a part of our traditions, and then the traditionalists would have claimed the credit for all of it. Why should we throw it away?

When we think of a postwar consensus, we tend to think of the NHS as being one of its central pillars. Bevan its founder. There was some significant degree of consensus on the NHS, but it did not begin with the 1944 White Paper under Churchill’s coalition government and it was not in evidence when the health service came into being on 5 July 1948. If we can talk of a consensus regarding the NHS, it was not brought about by the Opposition falling into line behind Bevan’s project. Rather, the consensus was one between the Labour right and the Conservatives, the beginning of which was marked by the resignation of Bevan.

Seven years later came another Cabinet-level resignation. This time Chancellor of the Exchequer Peter Thorneycroft was accompanied by two junior Treasury ministers, Enoch Powell and Nigel Birch. Thoneycroft had pressed his party to support the Beveridge Report in 1942. This and his backing of Harold Macmillan for the Conservative leadership (and with it the premiership) in 1957 might make him appear a creature of consensus and the political centre. However he was only in post as Chancellor for a little under a year, during which time he became increasingly concerned at the level of public spending and rising inflation.

Macmillan sought to neutralise this by inviting Thorneycroft to submit a paper on savings. When it appeared (written by Powell), it called for cuts in welfare spending, an increase in the price of school milk and the introduction of new board and lodging fees in NHS hospitals. The Treasury team’s dissatisfaction with the lukewarm response to these proposals was described by the Prime Minister, as he set off on his tour of the Commonwealth, as “a little local difficulty”. When he addressed the House of Commons on 23 January 1958, Thorneycroft explained his protest:

“For twelve years we have been attempting to do more than our resources could manage, and in the process we have been gravely weakening ourselves… any hon. Member in this House would say he was against inflation, as men say they are against sin. The question is where and when we choose to stand and fight it … I believe that there is an England which would prefer to face these facts and make the necessary decisions now. I believe that living within our resources is neither unfair nor unjust, nor, perhaps, in the long run even unpopular. There are millions of men and women in this country, in the Commonwealth, and in many other countries of the world who depend for the whole of their future on sustaining the value of our money. Self-interest and honour alike demand that we should take the necessary steps to hold it.” 

The policies to which the government was committed, those spending commitments of the postwar consensus, were, he said, “not the path to greatness. It is the road to ruin”. Despite this, it only took two years for Macmillan to welcome Thorneycroft back into the Cabinet. That is not to say he admitted any error of judgement. By the time he would reflect that in resigning they simply had “probably made our stand too early”, he was Conservative Party Chairman under the anti-consensus Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Yet it is not entirely clear what message we should take from the 1958 Treasury resignations. Typically we think of this as an early division in the Conservative Party between ‘Keynesians’ and ‘Monetarists’, foreshadowing the debates that dominated the late-1970s and 1980s. The late, great Ewen Green rejected this idea, viewing the resignations only as prefiguring the focus on inflation as a ‘social problem’. Meanwhile, the speedy rehabilitation of Thorneycroft into Macmillan’s government suggests the surviving dominance of the centre-ground.

These two resignations certainly illustrate the lack of a consensus capable of bringing together the full range of opinion across the senior level of the Labour and Conservative parties and of covering all political concerns. However, I would suggest this does not mean there was no consensus, but rather that it shows us the boundaries of that consensus. By the end of its six years in office, Labour had moved to the right enough to prompt Nye’s resignation. Seven years of Conservative government later, the level of spending and the resistance to cuts was still too high for those for whom spending cuts and charges for public services were the solution to the problem of inflation. It is the very resistance to the centrist compromises of governments of both parties that reveal… Well, they reveal that there was something there. Consensus is the wrong word. But for Bevan and Thorneycroft, consensus by any other name was just as disappointing.

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