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A Bloodless Counter-Revolution: The Conservative Party and the Defence of Inequality, 1945–51

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Abstract

The development of Conservative Party policy in the early postwar years has provided one of the keystones upon which the ‘house’ of consensus has been built. According to the traditional narrative, the Party responded to the combined experiences of war and electoral defeat in 1945 first, by broadening its membership base and promoting a younger, more progressive generation, and secondly, by accepting the broad strands of what is often called ‘the postwar settlement’:1 the mixed economy, the welfare state, full employment policy and Keynesian economic management. Indeed, it has been argued that this was already the case in the spring of 1945, and that the ‘trouble was that people did not believe that the Conservatives meant what they said, whereas they thought on the whole that Labour did’.2 This credibility gap was closed by R.A. Butler, who oversaw the development of a ‘new Conservatism’, which he later explained as a ‘humanised capitalism’, ‘adapted to the needs of the postwar world’.3 Lord Blake has explained that Once in office the Conservatives had a golden opportunity to show that they were not only the party of freedom but that they could combine it with full employment, rising prosperity and the preservation of the welfare state….[T]he Party did not throw away its advantage. Whatever long term opportunities were missed in terms of restructuring British industry and taking the lead in Europe…Tory freedom did appear to work. Restrictions were relaxed. Living standards rose. Taxation fell. Employment remained high. The welfare state was not dismantled. The housing pledge was fulfilled.4

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Chapter
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Chapter
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Article
THE period spent in opposition between 1945 and 1951 has generally been thought of as a key to the understanding of the activities of the post-war British Conservative Party. Autobiographies of the Party leaders of the time began to appear at the end of the Fifties, already looking back to a period in which the Conservatives had decisively changed their approach. So for example, Lord Woolton's Memoirs reviewed not only a term as Party Chairman which had been a highlight of his own crowded career, but also his sharing in a major act of transformation, a transformation that had led on to Conservative success since 1951: ‘the change was revolutionary’. Other key figures in the organisation reached similar conclusions as their own accounts appeared: David Maxwell-Fyfe argued that the new Party rules which he had drawn up had not only decisively widened the political base of British Conservatism, but that events since had confirmed the importance of the change. R. A. Butler's account of The Art of the Possible argued in 1971 that ‘the overwhelming electoral defeat of 1945 shook the Conservative Party out of its lethargy and impelled it to re-think its philosophy and re-form its ranks with a thoroughness unmatched for a century’. The effect was to bring both the policies of the Party and ‘their characteristic mode of expression’, as he puts it, ‘up to date’. As recently as 1978, Reginald Maudling—a key figure behind the scenes in 1945–51 as a speechwriter from Eden and Churchill and as the organising secretary of the committee which produced the Industrial Charter of 1947—reached much the same view: ‘We were at that time developing a new economic policy for the Conservative Party … It marked a substantially different approach for post-war Conservative philosophy.
Article
THE period spent in opposition between 1945 and 1951 has generally been thought of as a key to the understanding of the activities of the post-war British Conservative Party. Autobiographies of the Party leaders of the time began to appear at the end of the Fifties, already looking back to a period in which the Conservatives had decisively changed their approach. So for example, Lord Woolton's Memoirs reviewed not only a term as Party Chairman which had been a highlight of his own crowded career, but also his sharing in a major act of transformation, a transformation that had led on to Conservative success since 1951: ‘the change was revolutionary’. Other key figures in the organisation reached similar conclusions as their own accounts appeared: David Maxwell-Fyfe argued that the new Party rules which he had drawn up had not only decisively widened the political base of British Conservatism, but that events since had confirmed the importance of the change. R. A. Butler's account of The Art of the Possible argued in 1971 that ‘the overwhelming electoral defeat of 1945 shook the Conservative Party out of its lethargy and impelled it to re-think its philosophy and re-form its ranks with a thoroughness unmatched for a century’. The effect was to bring both the policies of the Party and ‘their characteristic mode of expression’, as he puts it, ‘up to date’. As recently as 1978, Reginald Maudling—a key figure behind the scenes in 1945–51 as a speechwriter from Eden and Churchill and as the organising secretary of the committee which produced the Industrial Charter of 1947—reached much the same view: ‘We were at that time developing a new economic policy for the Conservative Party … It marked a substantially different approach for post-war Conservative philosophy.
The Art of the Possible
  • Lord See
  • Butler
  • L Butler
The Course of Conservative Politics
  • Viscount Hinchingbrooke
  • V Hinchingbrooke
The Road to 1945 British Politics and the Second World War
  • Paul Addison
The Case for Conservatism
  • Quintin Hogg
  • Q Hogg
The Conservative Party from Peel to Churchill
  • Robert Blake
  • R Blake
The only major study of Conservative social policy during the war estimates that some 90 per cent of the parliamentary party could be described as ‘liberal’ in this sense of the word
  • H Kopsch
The Art of the Possible. The Memoirs of Lord Butler
  • Lord Butler
  • L Butler
The Making of Conservative Party Policy. The Conservative Research Department since 1929
  • John Ramsden
  • J Ramsden
The Conservative Party and the Frustration of the Extreme Right
  • See Bruce Coleman
  • B Coleman
The General Election of 1945
  • R B Mccallum
  • Alison Readman
  • RB McCallum
Other prominent members of the group were Enoch Powell
  • C J M Alport
  • CJM Alport