The theory of post war consensus has been used by political historians and political scientists to explain and understand British political developments in the era between 1945 and 1979.
The theory rests on the assumption that Conservative governments in this time period made an accommodation with the social democratic policy platform established by the Attlee Labour governments of 1945-1951. Further, that this resulted in a degree of policy continuity around the contours of economic, social and foreign policy which remained until the onset of the Thatcher government in 1979.
However, although this social democratic inspired theory of post war consensus has many notable scholarly advocates, it has also been widely questioned. Indeed, one historian of the Labour Party, Ben Pimlott, described it as a myth.
Advocates of the Theory of Post-War Consensus
The leading advocates of the theory of post war consensus are Addison (1975), Dutton (1991) and Kavanagh and Morris (1994).
The thrust of the advocates’ argument is that although differences existed between the two main political parties, those differences were fought out within a framework of common assumptions about the role of the state and the management of the economy.
Furthermore, not only did that framework contribute to discernible continuities in policy between the 1940s and 1970s, but there was clear break with those policy continuities after 1979.
Given that the consensus debate was built on social democratic principles and thus a legacy of the Attlee era, then how the incoming Churchill Conservative government of 1951 behaved is central. Here consensus advocates imply that the Churchill administration accepted the Attlee settlement.
In the domestic sphere, policy post 1945 embraced an extensive programme of nationalisation which had placed one fifth of the economy under public ownership, and the establishment of the National Health Service was the jewel in the crown of the new welfare state.
Foreign policy had involved independence for India and Pakistan which had acted as a prelude to the transition from Empire to Commonwealth, while the establishment of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation secured the alliance with the Americans within the defence of Western Europe.
Kavanagh and Morris would argue that the theory of post-war consensus would be best understood by examination of its policy pillars, which entailed:
The pursuit of full employment thus justifying Keynesian demand management techniques;
An adherence to the mixed economy thus legitimating public ownership of core industries;
An approach to industrial relations based on conciliation with the trade union movement;
A belief in active government with greater intervention justified by the need to flatten out inequalities in society;
A commitment to the welfare state underpinned by the notion of universal national insurance; and
An approach to foreign policy which was guided by maintaining Britain as a nuclear power and membership of the Atlantic Alliance.
Sceptics of the Theory of Post-War Consensus
However, acceptance of the theory of post-war consensus is not universal. Political historians (notably Ben Pimlott) and political scientists (such as Peter Kerr) have questioned the assumptions underpinning the theory.
For example, Pimlott argues that the notion of consensus is at odds with political activity. He asks was nothing at stake in general elections? Were different party programme false labels? Was the party clash little more than a cover for rival personal ambitions? Pimlott thinks not. Rather he emphasises how the ideologies underpinning the two main political parties differed profoundly over the distribution of income, and the nature of political authority.
Examples of ideological divergence that could be cited to justify this claim would include the conflict over the origins of the NHS, and the difference in attitudes between the parties over nationalisation – Labour being proactive advocates, and the Conservatives pragmatically accepting, yet holding an instinct towards denationalisation.
Over time the consensus critique would come to embrace the following additional arguments:
The pillars used to justify the consensus thesis are problematic. This is because a variety of significant public policy issues are not addressed. For example, opposing attitudes towards crime and punishment are not addressed within the consensus thesis. The debates regarding education, notably over private education, are also neglected. Also, given the centrality of the European question to understanding British politics, and the divergent views within and between the two main parties at various times, this represents another significant policy omission.
The consensus thesis is also overly influenced by party politics and the behaviour at elite level of the two main parties. Too much emphasis is placed on the personalities of a very narrow group of politicians who held office. By doing this, the advocates under-emphasise the influence of a variety of other players and institutions: for example, the interactions involving trade unions, producer groups and financial institutions, notably the City, the Treasury and the Bank of England, were more conflict laden than the consensus thesis implies.
The consensus thesis emerged during the crisis of the 1970s and gained traction through the implementation of Thatcherism in the 1980s. Thus it is a thesis that has been retrospectively introduced as a means of understanding Thatcherism, rather than explaining political development between the 1940s and the 1970s. Furthermore, even advocates cannot agree on when the consensus era ended – was it the onset of the Heath government, the influence of the IMF loan in 1976, or the onset of Thatcherism in 1979.
Despite these reservations the consensus thesis has endured because it creates an ordered way of understanding post-war political development and specifically provides a way of interpreting Thatcherism. Thus the pillars are used as a way of demonstrating the impact of Thatcherism:
The pursuit of full employment was abandoned as part of a shift from Keynesianism to monetarism
The commitment to the mixed economy was challenged via the pursuit of privatisation
Industrial relations moved from a perspective based on conciliation to a conflict laden interpretation in which Thatcherites called the trade unions the ‘enemy within’.
The belief in active government was eroded by a Thatcher government with a sceptical attitude towards the public sector and spending. Here the traditional Conservative mind-set regarding the inevitability of inequality resurfaced.
Attitudes towards the welfare state were challenged, even if the impact of Thatcherism was to modify this pillar rather than remove it.
The approach to foreign policy remained broadly in place, but with a stronger emphasis on the Atlantic Alliance within the Thatcherite approach.
The academic debate regarding the validity of the consensus thesis endures. Advocates have responded to the critique of their thesis by seeking to clarify its meaning.
Kavanagh and Morris have argued that much of the critique misinterprets what the thesis is about. It is about the evidence of policy continuity – in broad terms relating to the institutions and procedures that underpin the trajectory of economic, social and foreign policy.
The policy trajectory is characterised by continuity as it is about the policies pursued by elites within the two main parties when in government. It is not about the differences on the respective backbenchers or members, or the ideological differences that underpinned those differences.
It is a debate that rages on. No account of post-war British politics can have academic credibility without acknowledging the consensus thesis and the competing perspectives that have been advanced.
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