The welfare state in the UK: rapid developments after WW2
The welfare state is generally taken as a system whereby the state undertakes to protect and care for the well-being of its citizens. The welfare state in the UK built on earlier work but began a more comprehensive expansion shortly after the end of World War Two. This page explains why the time was ripe for it and why the Labour Party gained a landslide victory in the post-war general election. The page goes on to describe some of the new government's more major reforms, where the money came from and the national debt. Public opinion, the good and the downside are also discussed. Personal recollections from the time bring the page to life.
By the webmaster based on discussions with older people and research in museums
The change in government in Britain after WW2
After the end of WW2, everyone in Britain was weary of six years of war, and the dominating wish was for a life that had enjoment and lack of worry in it. This meant change. In particular, it meant that Winston Churchill, who had served the country and the world so brilliantly during the war, became primarily thought of as a 'warmonger' - a leader who thrives on war. I heard it from visitors to my parents' home, I heard it in the shops and I heard it anywhere that my young self chose to listen. People had suffered so much that they wanted to forget war; they wanted change, and change meant a change in government.
That was not the only cause for the ensuing general election. During the war, Churchill had been prime minister of a Tory coalition with the Labour Party, but the Labour Party, seeing no need for a coalition in peace, withdrew. It was this that sparked the general election on 5th July 1945, just a few weeks after VE Day (Victory in Europe Day) on 8th May 1945. It was the people need for change that permeated the run-up to the election and then determined its outcome.
The Labour Party manifesto for the 1945 general election
The Labour Party manifesto offered hope for ordinary people with a number of reforms, more of which below. They were just what people wanted.
I well remember the excitement of helping my father in his canvassing activities for the 1945 general election.
Our local Labour Party candidate was Evan Durbin, an Oxford lecturer, and the chant of us children was:
Similar chants echoed throughout the land and similar sentiments were voiced by adults for their Labour Party candidates.
The result of the 1945 election
Unsurprisingly the election was a landslide victory for the Labour Party. Public opinion had voted with its feet. People had valued Churchill, but they wanted to forget war - and, incidentally, Churchill was back as prime minister in the 1951 election.
The new Labour Government's reforms
Clement Attlee, the leader of The Labour Party, was now Prime Minister, and, child as I was, I could be in no doubt that everyone felt relief and hope that he and the Labour Party would bring hope for a better future in post-war Britain.
Most of all I recall the feeling of hope for the working classes - that the new Government cared for them - that they mattered - that there would be job creation - that schools would no longer need to operate a 'boot fund' to prevent children having to go to school barefoot. I remember that even during my time at Silver Street School this fund operated and was sometimes needed. Years later in about 1967, the reality was brought home more forcefully to me when I visited Belfast on business and saw children running round barefoot there in the middle of winter.
The Welfare State - the new Labour Government's reforms
The Labour Government introduced a number of valuable national changes and reforms under the general heading of the The Welfare State. It included the National Health Service (NHS) which meant free healthcare for all and free social security payments and housing support for those in need. Following The National Insurance Act of 1946, it provided state pensions for men injured or disabled at work. Its Homes for All policy aimed to provide decent homes for everyone. It also nationalised of key industries such as coal, gas and electricity so that they were run in the interests of the public rather than for private profit. Free secondary education for all children was also introduced, for which I owe a considerable debt of gratitude - although I also owe a debt of gratitude to the 1962 Conservative government under Harold Macmillan for free grants for students from low-income families for to attend university.
This is not the place for an exhaustive list of the reforms as the emphasis here is the effects on ordinary people.
The National Health Service (NHS)
Although the NHS wasn't launched until three years after the war, everyone knew it was coming because it was part of the Labour Party manifesto. No longer would people have to pay for medical care - or, as often as not, go without because they couldn't afford to pay. I clearly remember my mother taking me to the doctor clutching her half crown which was a lot of money in those days.
I understand that it took some effort to persuade medics that they would be paid by the Government rather than by charging individuals - but it did happen. The National Health Service Act itself was published in 1946 and the launch of the service was on 5th July 1948.
Where did the money come from?
With all these reforms to help the working classes, the government was short of money.
Although all adults except married women were required to pay a weekly contribution to cover sickness, unemployment and retirement, it was not enough.
Post war credits
Fortunately another good idea came to the rescue. Not only did it help the government, it also helped those who had served in the armed forces. Peter Johnson explains:
Men who had been in the armed forces had often worked 12 hours a day, sometimes 7 days a week. The result was that they had earned big wages to be received after the war. As, in the event, there was little to spend this money on, the Government introduced Post War Credits. This meant the men paid large amounts of income tax into the system from their nominally large wage packets, with the promise that it would be paid back later. The promise was kept, and some people were still getting repaid as late as the 1960s.
The National Debt
Yet more money was needed. So the UK had to borrow huge amounts of money, known as the National Debt.
According to Wikipedia, the National Debt was to be paid off in 50 annual repayments commencing in 1950. Some of these loans were only paid off in the early 21st century. On 31 December 2006, Britain made a final payment of about $83m (£45.5m) and thereby discharged the last of its war loans from the US.
Was there a downside to the 1945 Labour Government?
There can be no doubt that the Labour reforms were made with the very best intentions and that they did a great deal of good in post-war Britain. Over the years, though, perhaps some people have made unreasonable expectations that the government would take care and responsibility for them whatever they did. Perhaps it because the same for trade unions which sometimes seemed to regard the Labour Party as there to do their will.Another downside must be mentioned. Although America gave very generously indeed to the recovery of Europe after the war, it was so right wing that none of its money went into rebuilding the UK because it had chosen a left-wing government. This may be simplistic and there must have been contributing reasons, but was certainly the view at the time.