The New World Order
The period of the 39th parliament of the United Kingdom saw the Cold War order finally begin to settle in place after the instable shiftings of the late 1940s whilst at home a new generation of political leaders rose to prominence as the nation’s political scene once again began to realign.
In the aftermath of the 1949 electoral victory of the Lib-Lab coalition the government was placed in a perplexingly difficult situation. Although Britain had been benefitting from American loans and aid since the end of the war, the unveiling of the Marshall Aid scheme in June offered the British government a level of financial security unseen since before the War. At the same time the British economy, just like its continental counterparts, was showing encouraging signs of strong growth. In light of this situation the Labour Left called for the country’s wealth to be spread yet more equitably amongst the population – calling for wage rises, further nationalisations, publicly funded infrastructure projects and major investments into health and education. Although the government could acquiesce to the latter demands in support of health and education, Labour’s Liberal allies were unwilling to support the former. With the Prime Minister being forced to stand with his coalition allies and against the majority of his party tensions within Labour continued to simmer.
In foreign affairs, 1949 would prove a highly controversial year for the British government. Scarcely a month and a half after the election Britain became a founding member of the North Atlantic Treaty – an alliance led by the United States and featuring Canada, France, Norway, Italy, Portugal, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg and from two months after the formation of the alliance West Germany as well. With the Soviets supporting the creation of East Germany from their occupation zone shortly after the much criticised formation of West Germany the opposition within the Labour Party were aghast at the solidification of Britain’s position within the American alliance – with the British even agreeing to maintain twelve divisions permanently in West Germany as part of NATO’s combined defence, and welcoming American bases within British sovereign territory.
As Civil War continued to rage in China and Greece, tensions between the Soviet and American blocks were running dangerously high. Yugoslavia, still a nominal if disobedient Soviet ally, appeared to be the latest flashpoint as the world lurched ever close to a new global conflict. Whilst the Soviets following a comparatively restrained foreign policy since the war Belgrade had remained a source of unwanted radicalism and independence within the Communist bloc. When the Yugoslavs fired upon and destroyed an American vessel that had drifted into their waters in November 1949 (at a time when American planners were seriously considering military intervention in China and a pre-emptive strike in Germany) it was clear that the Yugoslav leadership had to go. Stalin loyalists within the Yugoslav Communist Party overthrew Tito in December and began to engage in a wild purge against Titoite-Trotskyists, bringing the country firmly under the USSR’s wing. With the Greek Civil War coming to an end shortly thereafter, the loss of Yugoslav assistance being a major blow to the Greek Communists, the division of Europe into East and West seemed to have become fixed.
After a tense year both abroad and domestically, the situation began to calm in the New Year. With both sides coming to accept the divisions in Europe, within Britain the government successfully passed a series of measures that soothed the left with numerous new safety regulations being introduced to protect workers and a major programme for economic investment infrastructure (including the construction of power plants, a modernisation of railways and expansion of the road network). In the colonial sphere a Somalian Republic, including French Somaliland was given partial independence with British and French personal still playing a guiding role in the country as it moved towards full independence. Sadly for the Attlee administration, the good times were not to last.
On June 10th, 1950, the armies of the People’s Republic of Korea swept across the 38th parallel – invading the American sponsored Republic of Korea. Elsewhere, Chiang Kaishek’s Nationalist armies had only recently been broken in China – the fall of Nanjing, Shanghai and Chongqing all in the space of three weeks in April having precipitated a mass retreat towards the South coast of China. With the Communists making great advances in both China and Korea fear swept the Western world of a Communist takeover of all Asia, and perhaps the world. In the United Nations the Americans, French, Nationalist Chinese and British were united in condemning the North Korea invasion with many calling for a United Nations intervention in the conflict. Hopes of achieving UN approval for intervention were ended on July 4th when the Soviet Union vetoed proposals and instead demanded the neutrality of all parties in Civil Wars. The prospect of both China and Korea going Communist was not something the United States could tolerate without resistance – on July 14th, despite their failure to achieve UN approval, the Americans announced their intention to send troops to the Korean peninsula to protect the South Korean regime from defeat.
Under a veil of apocalyptic rhetoric the Attlee government collapsed upon itself. On one side Nye Bevan gave voice to fears that Britain had been brought to the very precipice of an international nuclear war and that support for the American intervention in Korea, as was demanded, would create the genuine possibility of war. On the other hand, the sense that the Communists would continue to aggressively expand unless stopped, and the perceived justice of the South Korean cause, rallied many, not least the main body of the Liberal Party, behind the cause of intervention.
With their allies approaching civil war and paralysed to act in this time of crisis, Liberal leader Archibald Sinclair was invited to meet with the leading figures of the Conservative-National Liberal Alliance. There the Liberals were presented with an impressive offer – in return for parliamentary support the Alliance would promise to form a unified government capable of effective and decisive action overseas in defence of the Free World, but more importantly would not threaten to roll back the Welfare State that the Liberal Party had participated in forming over the past five years with the Alliance committing itself to a mixed economy. Moreover, although a parliamentary pact in which the Liberals would support the government without being a part of it was preferred, they were guaranteed a veto over all government legislation. Although politically more inclined to a moderate Labour government, the breakdown of Attlee’s ability to control the radicals ensured that such a government was no longer a reliable option. On July 29th Clement Attlee agreed to resign as Prime Minister and allow Winston Churchill the opportunity to form a government – fearing an election at this time would be disastrous for both Labour and the country.
Within two days of coming to office Churchill deployed seven divisions to Korea. With British troops arriving in late August the participated in minor offensives that pushed the North Koreans away from the extreme South of the country. Then in September the war was brought to a dramatic conclusion by a bold operation undertaken by Japanese and American forces. On September 3rd Japanese and American troops landed near the Pyongyang, North Korea’s pre-war capital, and procededed to advance rapidly across into unoccupied territory. With the North Korean command structure in chaos South Korean, American and British forces launched a gargantuan offensive of their own – destroying the Kim Il Sung’s armies within a couple of weeks. With the North Korean government surrendering on September 24th in return for safe passage to the Soviet Union the Korean War had been brought to a remarkably swift end.
The swiftness of the North Korean collapse had precluded any Soviet attempts to intervene to protect the Northern regime, but that certainly did not mean the international crisis that had begun in June was over. By the end of September the Chinese Civil War was approaching an end with Communist forces closing in on the last Nationalist armies on the mainland grouped around Canton whilst at the same time assaulting the island of Hainan. A strong faction within the Western powers, counting the Supreme Commander of Allied forces in Korea – Douglas MacArthur – and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill amongst their number, believed that the Western powers should carry on their momentum from Korea and intervene in China by invading Manchuria and supporting the remnants of the Nationalists in South China. With the Soviet Union reeling from the blow suffered to its prestige in Korea such action would inevitably trigger a world war.
With this danger in mind the President Truman called for restraint from Allied forces in Asia – deploying naval units to the Taiwan strait to prevent any Communist attempt to conquer the island as well as heavily garrisoning the Northern frontiers of the Western aligned Vietnamese and Korean nations but going no further. Fears would linger for much of the rest of the year as the Soviet Union boycotted the United Nations in protest at the Western intervention in Korea and put its forces in both the Far East and Central Europe on a war footing. In truth, however, the supreme performance of Western armies in Korea had sent a wave of terror through the Soviet leadership – fears that the Red Army would be similarly outmatched ensuring that Moscow was careful not to push the Western Block into open conflict. By the end of 1950 the dividing line between the Communist and non-Communist world was firmly established as it had been in Europe the year before.
The clash between Aneurin Bevan, Herbert Morrison and Clement Attlee in the summer of 1950 nearly destroyed the Labour Party
Although tensions within the Labour Party had been brewing for more than two years when the Korean Crisis began, it was an extraordinary shock when the party appeared to fall apart in the early summer of 1950. Attlee resigned as Prime Minister and shortly thereafter as Labour Party leader having seen his position become untenable in the face of open rebellion from the Bevanite Left and belligerence from his supposed allies on the party’s Right. Being retired to the Lords at the age of 67, the long term party leader desperately pleaded for unity as Bevan easily defeated veteran right winger Herbert Morrison in the leadership election – winning the votes of 183 of Labour’s 278 MPs. Although Bevan was to lead the party on a new and radical path, he did heed at least some of his predecessor’s advice – offering his defeated opponent, Morrison, the job of Shadow Deputy Prime Minister as well as offering a younger figure of the Right, Hugh Gaitskell, the position of Shadow Chancellor. On top of this, in light of recent events, Bevan cooled off talk of closer cooperation and even unification with the Communist Party. The offers of conciliation meant that feared defections did not occur and the Labour Party survived – yet the divide between the party’s radical and moderate wings remained as bitter and deep as ever.
The government itself was far from immune from division. In the aftermath of the Korean War, and with the genuine fear of a new World War on the horizon, the government unveiled a vast programme of rearmament. During the five years of Labour government the British military machine had been gradually scaled down with next to no investment ensuring that the quality of equipment kept up to pace with the likes of the Americans and Soviets – the government remaining focussed on the development of the peace time economy. The new government saw this policy as naïve in the extreme, its vast programme for rearmament involved the construction of a new, modern, battle fleet, the expansion of the RAF with modern fight jets and modernisation of equipment across the armed forces. It was all very expensive.
This was to be the source of the new government’s first great internal struggle in the lead up to the March budget of 1951. The National Liberals were adamant that the country should move away from a reliance on American aid and loans (with Marshal Aid already in the process of being phased out) and should therefore make dramatic cuts to public spending – abandoning Labour era infrastructure projects, removing subsidies on goods, slashing public sector wages or even privatising industries and cutting down on welfare spending. They theorised that such measures would not only allow the government to balance its budget – raising market confidence and reducing the state’s reliance on borrowed money – they would also make the economy considerably healthier in general, facilitating even greater growth than that seen during the Labour era (which had already been the highest in Western Europe).
The problem was that a National Liberal budget could never pass through parliament. For many Conservatives, such a budget would be regarded as far too provocative and likely to result in widespread industrial action, but more importantly the Liberal Party was firmly opposed to such plans. As the different factions within the government fought with one another over the fate of the budget the Prime Minister’s health was fading rapidly and he found himself unable to control the cabinet. On February 20th he suffered a fatal heart attack – passing away at the age of 76.
In truth, there was only one likely candidate to replace the deceased PM – his protégé Anthony Eden. The Foreign Secretary had been involved in the upper echelons of governments since the 1930s and from the mid-1940s had effectively led the Conservative Party in light of Churchill’s ‘low intensity’ style of party leadership. A process of consultation with leading Tory grandees, as well as the King and the party’s allies in the Liberal and National Liberal parties, found Eden to be the overwhelmingly favoured choice and by the end of February he was installed as the leader of the Conservative Party and Prime Minister.
In the cabinet reshuffle that followed Eden’s promotion to the top job the prominent One Nationist and rival to Eden within the Tory Party, Rab Butler, was made Chancellor of the Exchequer with National Liberal leader Ernest Brown becoming Foreign Secretary and his party also gaining control of the Home Office. Rab produced a drastically altered budget that could appeal to the Liberals as well as the ‘New Conservatives’ within his own party who accepted the mixed economy and the need to use the state to improve the lives of the nation’s citizens. With the budget placing a heavy emphasis on housing construction, a point on which the Labour led government had been harshly criticised, and promising to follow through with Labour’s infrastructure projects (admittedly with a lower level of investment) the Butler budget did introduce notable austerity measures. Subsidies were drastically scaled back in a move aimed at gradually phasing them out entirely, welfare spending less dramatically so but most notably the budget called for a ‘reorganisation’ of the most efficient of the recently nationalised industries – steel. The Iron and Steel Corporation of Great Britain had been formed in late 1948, the new budget called for the return of elements of the industry to the private sector and major changes to those elements remaining under public ownership including staff cuts, wage reductions and an empowerment of managers with greater ‘flexibility’ to improve efficiency. Although the budget was a political success – offering enough to all factions of the government (and their Liberal allies) to allow for unity it was to lead to a major domestic crisis.
Within two weeks of the announcement of the budget the Iron and Steel Trades Confederation had called for strike action, with the steel workers on strike there would be smaller scale and less sustained industrial action across a wide variety of industries as Britain entered the first real domestic social crisis of the post-war era. With the Communists plunging into union activity in support of the strike the Labour Party had little choice but to give its full support to the striking workers. Indeed, Nye Bevan went so far as to claim that the government had lost its democratic legitimacy, if it ever had any, and demanded that Eden call a general election – pleading for the Liberals to abandon their support for the government and force his hand if he did not move voluntarily. In truth the status quo was very agreeable to the Liberals – the prospect of the election of Labour Party drifting dangerously far to the left or the election of a right wing government that would have no need for Liberal support were hardly attractive options for a party that had got used to having a strong say in British politics despite smaller size.
None the less, as the strike dragged on Eden’s government came under intense pressure – denounced by the left, the right wing of his government stood firmly against any concessions to the strike whilst the moderates within the government (and naturally the Liberal Party) encouraged an open dialogue with union leaders to bring an end to the industrial chaos. In the end the Steel Workers’ Strike of 1951 would last for just over three months – the end result was a clear victory for the government as, aside from a number of comparatively minor concessions to the steel workers, Butler’s reforms were largely allowed to be implemented. The onward march of British labour had, at least temporarily, been halted.
After a rocky start, the Eden government’s popularity quickly began to rise. Whilst the Steel Workers’ Strike had marked a defeat for the unions, it was also a warning to those in government of the power of organised labour and reaffirmed its commitment to a mixed economy and cooperation between the labour movement, employers and government. The administration’s popularity was greatly helped by the continuation of the rapid rise in the standards of living enjoyed by members of all social classes – even with American economic assistance being gradually phased out. The government would also benefit indirectly from the death of King George VI in February 1952 and the coronation of the young and popular Elizabeth II the following year. The spectacle of a coronation inevitably aroused public excitement whilst the strengthening of the popularity of the monarchy during this period translated into greater approval for the Conservative administration.
Since the withdrawal from almost all of South and East Asia in the mid to late 1940s the British Empire had refocused its centre to the Middle East. There mostly independent regimes existed under heavy British political and economic influence as the Empire maintained a firm grip over the centre of the Western world’s oil supply and the invaluable trade route leading from the Persian Gulf, through the Red Sea and Suez towards Europe. When Greece and Turkey entered NATO in early 1951 and a UN commission advising the independence of Eritrea was ignored in favour of granting the strategic territory to the friendly Ethiopian government the region appeared almost totally secure. Yet, during the early 1950s British hegemony was challenged in the two most important countries of the region – in Iran, home to Britain’s most valuable overseas asset in the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, and Egypt home to the Suez Canal.
In 1951 Mohammed Mossadeq was elected as Prime Minister of Iran and looked to detach Iran from the role of semi-colonial subject to the British by nationalising Anglo-Iranian Oil and reducing ties to the West. One year later the pro-British Egyptian monarchy was overthrown by a clique of young, left leaning, military officers who also hoped to rally against imperialism by throwing out the hated British advisors who had ‘directed’ previous Egyptian government and forced the withdrawal of foreign military units to the Suez Canal Zone as the country moved into the orbit of the Soviet Union.
With both Iran and Egypt turning away from Britain and the West in the space of barely a year action had to be taken lest the entire region followed the pattern set in its two leading countries and the Middle East fall into the Soviet Union’s orbit. In 1953 a joint Anglo-American operation sponsored a coup in Iran that brought down Mossadeq and restored the country to the Western sphere of influence. However, the survival of the Egyptian regime ensured that Arab Nationalism would grow into a potent force across the Middle East – threatening the future of the Western dominated regimes in the region and indirectly allowing Israel to drift away from the Soviet and towards the American sphere of influence.
Domestically the Right in British politics continued to drift towards unity and moderation as Eden’s Premiership drew on. With the Labour Party’s radicalisation making the defeat of the Left in future general elections a matter of supreme importance for Conservatives and National Liberals alike, calls for the complete unification of the two parties and a generally moderate policy that might best attract potential voters alienated by the Bevanites appeared natural and sensible. Yet, as ever, an ‘awkward group’ threatened to scuttle these efforts. Even as the National Liberal Party’s long term leader, Ernest Brown, strongly supported unification with the Conservatives, a faction within the Party emerged around the ex-Tory Peter Thorneycroft. Elected as a Conservative MP in a by-election in 1938, Thorneycroft had lost his seat in 1945 before going through a process of radicalisation after coming into contact with the ideas of Friedrich Hayek. Joining the National Liberal Party, he was returned to the Commons in 1949 and rapidly opposed the supposed ‘capitulation’ of both the Conservative Party and the National Liberal Party’s leadership to the ‘socialistic’ economic ideals of the Left. For Thorneycroft and his ‘separatist’ supporters a Keynesian party of the Right was only marginally better than an openly socialist party of the Left – he therefore advocated the removal of Brown from the leadership and the separation of the National Liberal Party from the Conservatives from where the party could return to its roots and commit to more acceptable policies.
In the Opposition, cohesion remained in doubt as moderates and radicals continued to disagree almost on a fundamental level. Amongst the most contentious issues facing the party was how Labour should relate itself to the Communist Party. In 1949 the CPGB had almost been wiped out of parliament as British Communism faced being discredited by the actions of overseas Communist Parties. Although Bevan had opened up Labour to limited collaboration with Communist supporters on the ground, he had stopped short of any arrangements for an electoral pact or for the absorption of the CPGB into the Labour Party for fear of causing further internal conflict. However, the death of Stalin in 1953 and emergence of a new Soviet leadership, that appeared more willing to interfere less with domestic Communist parties and directly confront the West, opened the way for closer ties. With a new general election on the horizon in early 1954 Bevan staked a great deal of his prestige in finally agreeing to an electoral pact with the Communists. A defeat of the new alliance between the Communists and Labour Party in the coming election risked badly discrediting his leadership, possibly beyond repair, and greatly strengthening the hand of the party’s Right.
Five years on from 1949 the United Kingdom faced another election with the country's politics growing increasingly polarised between two dominant political blocks. The days of the 'rainbow parliament' of 1945 appeared far away.