In July 1945, two months after Germany had been crushed and one month before Japan surrendered, Great Britain held a general election. It is generally believed that Churchill called the election at this particular time because in this hour of victory his own popularity stood at its peak. The results astounded Churchill and the world. Churchill's Conservative party suffered a crushing defeat at the hands of the Labor party, which was committed to a program of socialism. The eloquent and bellicose Churchill was replaced as Prime Minister by the modest Clement Attlee, who had given up a comfortable career as lawyer and university professor of political science to become a crusader for social reform. The socialist government's Foreign Minister and second in command to Attlee was Ernest Bevin, a rough and aggressive trade unionist who by sheer force of intellect and personality rose from orphaned poverty to be the boss of Britain's organized labor.
The Labor government of Attlee, Bevin, Morrison, and Cripps resolutely set out to carry through the greatest social revolution ever to have been achieved in any country in a peaceful, democratic fashion. The old system of allocating the nation's resources, manpower, and energy for the purpose of immediate private profit was considered outdated. Henceforth such allocations were to be made on the basis of long-range national need and general benefit as determined by national boards of experts motivated by general welfare rather than by personal profit. Four major fields of financial and industrial activity of a basic and monopolistic nature were to be nationalized. These were: (a) banking and investment which were considered basic to the regulation and control of all economic life; (b) sources of industrial power- coal, electricity, and gas; (c) inland transportation and communications including civil aviation; and (d) steel. Altogether approximately 20 per cent of British industry was to be nationalized and 80 per cent was to be left in private hands.
The Labor government believed that great wealth alongside dire poverty could no longer be justified, particularly in this time of national crisis. It further believed that lack of adequate housing, food, education, medical service, and social security for the masses was intolerable in this age of science and machinery. It therefore set out to reduce the gap between rich and poor by raising wages and lowering high salaries and profits. Taxes on low incomes were to be lowered and those on higher incomes were to be raised by a sharply graduated scale. Great inherited wealth was to be virtually eliminated by high inheritance taxes.
Britain's socialist leaders, the majority of whom had a middle class rather than a proletarian background, were, of course, quite aware of and concerned with the present strain on the leisure class that in the past has produced most of Britain's cultural achievements. Their position, however, is that the basic needs of the masses must take precedence over the desires of the leisure class. They hope that with greater education and an improved standard of living, the masses in time will be able to make cultural contributions of their own to Britain's rich heritage.
Although the tired British people were subjected to months of austerity reminiscent of the war itself, by 1948 economic recovery had progressed to a degree greater than that in any other country in Europe. In spite of the staggering difficulties faced by British economy at the end of the war, by mid-1948 industrial production was 38 per cent higher than it was in January, 1946, and 10 per cent higher than in 1938, just before the war. Merchant ship and motor truck production had more than doubled the prewar figure, and tractor production had increased fivefold. The production of electricity had more than doubled the prewar figure. Major farm crops and dairy products had increased by more than 50 per cent.
While wrestling with emergency relief, restoration, production, taxes, and budgets, the Labor government vigorously pressed its program of social reform. Social insurance was extended to cover all classes and occupations. Housing and basic food prices were kept low by a system of subsidies. Free public education was made compulsory to the age of fifteen. By 1948, approximately half a milb'on more children were in school than before the war. Free lunches and free milk were given to all school children. By means of government scholarships several thousand students were attending the universities, including Oxford and Cambridge, who never would have been able to do so otherwise.
The socialist government's National Health Service Bill was designed to provide free medical service for every Britisher. Every physician participating in the system is paid an annual standard fee by the government for each National Health Service patient carried on his books. All medical services, including operations, are covered. The patients may choose their own physicians. No physician is compelled to participate in the program, but a majority of them have chosen to do so. More than 90 per cent of the people have enrolled in the program. As a result, millions of British people are receiving medical care who had never been able to do so before.
The Labor party suffered a serious loss in the death of Ernest Bevin on April 14, 1951. His great influence in the trade unions and his forceful personality had been important sources of strength to the Socialist program. Herbert Morrison was appointed to succeed him as Foreign Secretary. The death of Bevin was followed just eight days later by the defection and resignation of Labor Minister Aneurin Bevan, another power in the British Socialist movement. Harold Wilson, President of the Board of Trade, followed Bevan out of the cabinet. Aneurin Bevan was the recognized leader of the leftwing of the Labor party. He was strongly opposed to Prime Minister Attlee's decision to curtail the Socialist program in favor of participation in the Western rearmament program of the United States. Bevan believed that the American military program was out of all proportion to the actual need and that if fully participated in by Great Britain would eventually destroy the whole Labor program. For the time being, however, the great majority of the party membership continued to follow the lead of Prime Minister Attlee.
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