How useful is the idea of “the postwar consensus” in analysing British politics after 1945? Essay

Most political, economic and social commentators in the post-1945 period are generally in favour of the view that after World War Two a “postwar consensus” existed. Alleged to have been in existence from the mid 1940’s to the mid 1970’s, it consisted of all the politicians of all major political parties agreeing to a range of policies which Britain were seen to require in an age shattered by the war. The term “consensus” means agreement when translated from Latin and is said to exist in politics when politicians are happily agreeing over a range of issues concerning the well being of society. Those who believe that the consensus existed believe that its birth was in May 1940, when Winston Churchill took charge. Despite the fact that few people believe it never existed, a debate still remains on whether or not a consensus ever existed in British politics after 1945.

Believers of “the postwar consensus” claim that it was formed because society was in need of repair after the devastating effects of the war, and there was a “need to maintain civilian morale and give people something to work for” (p. 12). During the period 1940 to 1943, universal social security, family allowances, education reform, the main features of the National Health Service, and an all new revolutionary approach to budgetary policy had been placed on the political agenda.

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Two key names who helped to influence the policies of the 1945-1951 Attlee Government were William Beveridge and John Maynard Keynes. By focusing on policies which concentrated on the social aspects of the individual, Beveridge helped to promote citizenship through the provision of welfare services, whilst Keynesianism “meant government use of fiscal and monetary techniques to regulate the level of aggregate demand so as to create full employment” (p. 4). It is these which are often seen as the main components of the consensus.

Addison (1987) claims that the war led to a genuine consensus on the need for the development of greater social security and welfare reforms, full employment, etc. This view has been accepted by the vast majority of authors, whilst others make slight adjustments to it and a small minority reject it.