The "post-war consensus" and its meaning for our understanding of British politics

Essay, 2013
10 Pages, Grade: 1,3


Index of contents

I. Introduction:

II. l.Whatisa"Consensus"?

III. Whatis the "Post-War Consensus"?
111.1. Beginning
111.2. Themes
111.3. End of the "post-war Consensus"

IV. Critiques on the Consensus:

V. Importance ofthe "Consensus"for the understanding ofBritish Politics

VI. Conclusion

VII. Bibliography:

Did the "post-war consensus" really exist and what does its existence/ non-existence mean for our understanding of British politics?

I. Introduction:

After the Second World War (WWII) a supposed "consensus" developed throughout British Politics. In February 1954 'The Economist' invented a new word- "Butskellism". The magazine thought that the policies of the Exchequer of the day, the Conservative R.A. Butler, were so similar to those of his Labour predecessor, Hugh Gaitskell, that they had been devised by a "Mr. Butskell"(Boxer 2010,38). This statement shows that even the people at the time thought of a Consensus in British Politics. Even my own understanding of British politics of this time is influenced by the concept of a "Consensus". So I suggest that the post-war consensus, if it existed, influences our understanding ofBritish Politics today.

I want to prove in this essay, if the "Post-war Consensus" really existed. First I want to show what is implicated by the word "Consensus". Secondly I am going to define the roots and beginnings of the "Consensus". Furthermore I will show different themes of the possible "Consensus" and it's ending.

Following, I will reflect on a possible "Consensus" shaping our understanding of today's British Politics. In analysing this I want to demonstrate it's importance, and if such a possible "Consensus" is comparable to a coalition.

Concluding I wish to summarize and explain if the concept of a "Consensus" is valid or not.

II.l. What is a "Consensus"?

Central for the understanding of a "post-war consensus" is the definition of "Consensus". "Consensus" comes from the Latin word "consentire", meaning feel together, agree or see consent. In a political sense it is comparable to a general or widespread agreement ( The term gained prominence in policy science through the work of Paul Addison (1975), who described the settlement of the Attlee government as 'Consensus'. Kavanagh & Morris(1994,13) argue that such settlement involved the imposition of 'a set of parameters which bounded the set of policy options regarded by senior politicians and civil servants as administratively practicable, economically affordable and politically acceptable.' Furthermore, 'It implies a set of common assumptions and a continuity between both the main parties when they were in office' (Jones et al. 1994,42). Another broad understanding of consensus is in terms of continuity of policy (Ellison 1996,21).

III. What is the "Post-War Consensus"?

The understanding of the construct "Post-war Consensus". Much has been written about the existence of such a Consensus. Many believe that this was 'marked by common agreement about the basic objectives and principles of government amongst the leaders of both major political parties, others believe the level of consensus has been overstated.'(Ellison 1996,17).Kavanagh& Morris (1994,4) distinguish different senses of agreement. One refers to a style of government characterized by institutionalized consultation between government and major actors. The second refers to a range of policies that were pursued by the "Consensus-governments".

How did the modern understanding of the 'post-war consensus' emerge?

III.l. Beginning

Many scholars see the roots of the so-called "post-war consensus" in the establishment of the coalition during WWII. Addison (1975,42) argued that the unique conditions and the experience of WWII gave birth to a consensus about post-war domestic policy. For a more effective defence and a faster decision-making-process a coalition got established. Addison (1975), Kavanagh& Morris (1989,1994) summarized that the parties became accustomed to working together. The post-war consensus was also a construct of its time. After the war many European countries were in bad financial shape. Britain had high amounts of debts, society was fragile. There was desire for a social contract between governments and people for a stronger post-war Britain. According to Titmuss (1950) the effects of war on the public opinion led to a more egalitarian and collectivist consciousness (Kavanagh 1997,31). Because of the more liberal character of the public opinion, the government desired to establish a welfare state. A Further influence on the constructing of the Consensus is seen in the establishment of the "Bretton-Woods­system". This forced Keynsianism and the "golden age of capitalism".

Seldon (1994,9) sees a reason for the Consensus in the role of civil servants. Governments and ministers come and go. Individual civil servants provide continuity they don't want change. Their sense of what was "practical", or what one serving civil servant called "ongoing reality", was a force in continuity and convergence.(Kavanagh& Morris 1994,7) Continuity is also a form of consensus.

III.2. Themes

In this paragraph I want to highlight the themes of the "Consensus". The range of politics is shaped by two main characters- William Beveridge and John Maynard Keynes (Williams 2000,44). "Beveredgeism" symbolized a commitment both to the collective provision of comprehensive welfare services in order to promote what was known as social citizenship, and government involvement in the provision of goods and services. Keynesianism meant government use of fiscal and monetary techniques to regulate the level of aggregate demand so as to create full employment(Kavanagh& Morris 1994,4).

The major planks of these policies were:

III.2.1 Mixedeconomy

The Labour Manifesto of 1948 declared five conditions for nationalization (e.g. inefficiency, monopoly position). As a consequence of this Paper (Public Ownership: The next Step), main industries got under public ownership. Gas, Coal, Railway, Water and even Car manufactures became public managed. Both parties, the Conservatives and Labour tolerated a mix of public and private ownership(Kavanagh 1997,35). One of the main reasons for adopting Keynesian demand management techniques was the aim to create full employment (accepted by both parties in the White Paper on Employment in 1944 (Rollings 1996,103)). Two man, who have shaped that part of the consensus are, as mentioned above, the Exchequers R.A. Butler and Hugh Gaitskell. Their so-called "Butskellism"-policies represents the economic part of the consensus. Indirect demand management, e.g. represented by the Labour governments "bonfire of controls" and the Conservative's rejection of "Operation Robot", characterized this policy. Critical authors mentioned that in fact there was no ideological accordance between the parties. In fact the Labour government started a legislation, which was never established because of Korea War, to use direct, negative economic controls. Rolling (1996,100) argued that the Conservative government also followed the "Consensus" just because the Bank of England forced them. Jim Tomlinson(1987,156) said that there was no "overwhelming willingness to sacrifice other policies to employment during Butler's chancellorship". But in fact both parties tried to reach the aim of full employment.

III.2.2. Welfare

The creation of a more social state after the WWII became a key aim of the governments. The key date in the emergence of the British welfare state was the Beveridge-report on "Social Insurance and Allied Services" (1942)(Kavanagh& Morris 1994,5). The authors envisaged that social security should be part of a comprehensive plan for welfare and be supported by a national health service and full employment (Kavanagh1997,37). In 1948 the National Health Service was established. Again it seems that there was much accordance between the Conservatives and the Labour party. Factual each party operated with a different set of assumptions. The scope of the "welfare state", as conceived by the Labour Party, was broader than supposed, reflecting an ideological commitment to state planning and regulation than that propagated by the Conservatives (e.g. food subsidies and rent controls). For the Conservatives instead, universal welfare was rooted in full employment, everyone should be able earn as much as he needs(Whiteside 1996,121).

III.2.3. Conciliation of the trade unions (TUC)

In general there was little conflict between the Treasury and the TUC. Trade Unions were accepted in the policy-making proses. Their bargaining position was encouraged by the good situation on the job market, and by the consultative status they were guaranteed by the Labour and the succeeding Conservative governments(Whiteside 1996,125).


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The "post-war consensus" and its meaning for our understanding of British politics
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Andreas Michaelis (Author), 2013, The "post-war consensus" and its meaning for our understanding of British politics, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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