The Socio-political Scenario of Great Britain
THE SOCIO â€“ POLITICAL MILIEU OF GREAT BRITAIN IN THE POSTâ€“WAR ERA
The World-War II had crippled England more seriously than the World-War I. It had caused tremendous damage to England economically, politically and socially. It took many years and great sacrifices of the British citizens to salvage England from the debris of the War. In the words of C.D. Hazen:
Six lakhs of Great Britainâ€™s were killed or wounded; about forty lakh houses were destroyed; the number of its cargo ships came down considerably, and its internal and external debt increased to a very big proportion.
The War had brought about frustration, fear, cynicism, bitterness, joblessness and absurdism among the British youths. What was needed at once was to create a healthy mood in the nation without which no rehabitation, reconstruction and the revival of healthy economy was possible. In the words of its famous economist Keynes:
In order to achieve the immediate strength Britain sacrificed all its considerations for its future.2
The immediate task which confronted Britain was to get rid of the War Government and install the Civilian Government to initiate damage control activities with the active co-operation of the British citizens. The peaceful transfer of power to a democratic government was a must after the bloody War. There was every possibility of Churchill being a dictator like Stalin in the Soviet Union. Immediately after the War, there were elections to the British Parliament in which the Labour Party had a stunning victory over the Conservative Party and a Labour Government was established in Britain.
In the Post-War elections held in July 1945, Churchill had a hope of electoral victory through gratitude for the war time guidance and anchoring successfully the ship of the British nation to the port. But it was a wish without offering to the electorates any positive domestic programme to alleviate the miseries of the Post-War England. The Conservative Party wanted to encash its victory in the war without offering any economic and social balm to the Post-War youths. The Labour Party, on the other hand, smelled the mood of the nation and came out with definite, radical proposals. Sharply reacting against the War time Government, the British electorates transferred the power to the Labour Party giving almost 400 out of 640 seats in the House of Commons. It was the clear-cut victory of the Labour Party with a thumping majority under the prime ministership of Clement Richard Attlee.
In spite of the electoral landslide of the Labour Party, it was not the bed of roses for Clement Richard Attlee to settle with the Post-War problems in the domestic front and abroad. Though Britain and its allies had won the war yet the war had cost Britain one-quarter of its national wealth. The public debt of the kingdom had tripled from 1939 to 1946. War time property damage was estimated at ,800,000,000 at 1946 replacement costs. The total casualties (killed, wounded, imprisoned and missing) of the armed forces and the civilian population were 9,50,000.
Britain, therefore, faced many domestic problems. The bomb damage had to be repaired. Foreign trade had to be rebuilt. Large occupation forces had to be maintained in the conquered areas. Momentous decisions had to be reached and implemented regarding India, Egypt and Palestine. Peace treaties had to be made. In 1947, severe weather conditions followed by floods also enhanced the miseries of people.
In order to solve the domestic problems, the Labour Government had no option but to exercise its complete direct and indirect control over the British economy. The way lay through socialization, nationalization and industrialization to bring about a change in the traditional Britain. I
The first task before the new government was to build and mend houses destroyed and damaged during the war. Another area to which the new government had to pay a greater attention was education because it involved the present and future of 3,00,000 lakhs of British youths faced with hopelessness and unprecedented crisis brought about the war. After April 1947, primary education was made compulsory for children of 15 years of age. Facilities for technical training and vocational education for adults were greatly enlarged.In the field of higher education, the government was determined to do a lot. Eventually, in 1963 the government appointed a committee of eleven men, which recommended expansion of Britainâ€™s system of higher education to a considerable degree so that large number of jobless British youths could enjoy the benefits of university training.
Besides housing and educational programmes of the government, another area of immediate interest was the provisions of social and economic security to each individual so that every citizen could enjoy the peace of mind. As such the government made provisions for insurance payments in case of unemployment, maternity, sickness, and death of a bread-winner and in various other circumstances. All these facilities were offered to the British citizens as the social service of the State.
Another area of public interest which occupied the attention of the government was National Health Service. Every British citizen was made eligible without charge for care in a hospital, medical service or special care regardless of his income or occupational status.
These social welfare schemes were a novelty in the history of Britain but none of these schemes could be effected without the proper control of the British exchequer. In order to do something more for the British public, it became necessary for the Labour Government to adopt nationalization policy. In the elections of 1945, the Labour Party had already pledged itself to the nationalization of commanding industries. Though the policy of nationalization adopted by the Labour Government was not a new thing as the telegraph and telephone system had already been operated by the Post Office Department. The radio and the sale of power had been nationalized in England as early as in 1926 and 1927. Hence the Post-War nationalization policy of the Labour Government was nothing but the extension of the scope of nationalization.
The Labour Government nationalized the Bank of England, the overseas wireless services, the coal mining industry, much of transport and electrical and gas supply. After the nationalization of these enterprises, the Labour Government passed an Act in 1949 to nationalize the iron and steel industry. In 1951 the government set up the Iron and Steel Corporation of Great Britain and made it the owner of Britainâ€™s important iron and steel companies.
These measures adopted by the Labour Government were denounced by Winston Churchill, the leader of the Conservative Party. He saw in the new programmes of the Labour Party a danger to the traditions and liberties of the British people. He expressed his concern saying that â€œthe liberties and free life of the Britain are in great danger.â€6
Britain went to the polls in February 1951 once again. The main issue in the elections was the policy of nationalization. The Labour Party indicated in its election manifesto all the new area of nationalization. The Conservative Party, on the other hand, promised to the electorates less national control. In the elections of 1950, the majority of the Labour Party in the Parliament dropped down from some 140 to about half a dozen seats. These elections clearly reflected the mood of the voters and the declining popularity of the Labour Party. The British population was in no mood to bear continuing pressures and crises developing from extensive social and economic experiments of the Labour Government. The policies adopted by the Labour Government had resulted in the rise of taxes, which were resented by the British Populace.
It was very difficult for the Labour Government to continue in the office for another term of five years with a bare majority in the Parliament. The Labour cabinet was immediately faced with many acute problems. The entry of the British in to the Korean War was not popular in Great Britain. The adverse trade balance of Britain created a severe financial situation. In addition to it, the defence needs made the British budget higher than ever before. Hence the social and economic programmes of the Labour Government were opposed and Prime Minister Attlee had no option but to declare another election in late 1951. Consequently, the Labour Party had to drop new nationalization schemes in the election of 1951 whereas the Conservative Party campaigned its election after the slogan â€œBritain strong and freeâ€. Consequently, the Conservatives and their allies won 320 seats to 295 seats of the Labour Party. Winston Churchill once again assumed the office as Prime Minister.
The new government immediately set about dismantling the Welfare State. Under the Steel Act of 1953, the Iron and Steel Corporation of Great Britain was dissolved, and a private agency was established in its place. However, the government continued with the house-building activities and social insurance plans of the past government. The British youths had already lost their faith in the Labour Party for making compromises during the last two elections. They were disillusioned with the new government also as they found it no better than the previous government. The war time controls particularly rationing of food and coal were removed neither by the Labour Government nor by the Conservative Government until 1954. The tight control over the economy was made necessary by an excess of imports over exports.
In May, 1955, elections to the Parliament were held again. The Conservatives