Tony Benn Copyrighted image Credit: BBC

Tony
Well first of all I didn’t really think we were going to win…

Michael
In 1945 Tony Benn was too young to vote. That didn’t stop him from campaigning hard for Labour…

Tony
I was the Labour candidate in a mock election in a troop ship coming through the Mediterranean in the summer of ’45, and Churchill was so strong. I mean he’d won the war, he’d made the great speeches, given us leadership. He had a lot of charisma, and Clem Attlee, who had many merits, had about as much charisma as a mouse – he was short, bald as a coot, had a little moustache, looked like Charlie Chaplin, and he swept to power.

Peter
Well it didn’t surprise me very much

Michael
Peter Carrington also has strong memories of Labour’s victory.

Peter
I was at the time in Germany and when I was talking to my squadron it was quite clear to me that there wasn’t one of them who was going to vote Conservative, no way.

Peter
…Labour, gains 87, losses none… (FADES UNDER FOLLOWING)

Michael
Do you remember the result itself coming through?

Tony
I went to Transport House and they had an epidioscope, they didn’t have television or anything, and they flashed the results up, and all of a sudden we realised there’d been a landslide.

Peter
Labour members who’ve been elected include Mr Greenwood, Mr Bevan, Mr Morrison, Sir Stafford Cripps…

Tony
And then out of the darkness coming back from Northolt in a police car, not knowing the result, in came this little man, blinking – it was clear he had no idea what had happened.

Michael
Clem Attlee?

Tony
And some… Clem Attlee. And some BBC person said ‘Will you say three cheers for the Prime Minister?’ and I was too shy.

Peter
...Dr Edith Summerskill…

Peter
Oh it was Labour Triumphant, I mean after all Labour had the most extraordinary victory.

Michael
The story of the 1945 election is familiar – the shock defeat which drove Churchill from Number 10, the ‘Labour landslide’ which brought to power a Government committed to building, yes, a New Jerusalem. The Attlee Government is now remembered as uniquely bold and innovative, as the administration which should be remembered above all else for single-handedly creating the NHS, even the entire Welfare State.But is that reality or myth? Professor David Edgerton of Imperial College London.

David
I think it’s rightly seen as a great reforming government. It’s seen as the government that’s inaugurated the Welfare State. It’s also seen rather negatively as the government that perhaps launched the British economy on a course of decline through increasing trade union power and increasing the power of the state. So we have a very mixed image of that government.

Michael
And how many of those perceptions are right do you think?

David
Very few of them

Music The Third Man

Michael
We remember 1945 as the dawn of a long period of peace. But that was far from clear at the time. The World War was over but the Cold War was beginning.

David
We forgot to remember that Labour Government was committed to armaments, committed to power politics, it was committed to new kinds of weapons – particularly weapons of mass destruction - it wasn’t just about increasing welfare provision – in fact it didn’t do very much of that. So it was a government which shaped the post-war world – but often in ways which are not advertised in the history books.

Michael
Today we forget the 1945 government’s fixation with defence. What else has been forgotten? First, the National Health Service.

Archive - Tony Blair
It is the embodiment of the values that I believe in. (FADES UNDER FOLLOWING)

Michael
It came into being on the 5th July 1948 – but was it Labour’s invention ?

Archive - Tony Blair
…and as we celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the Health Service… (FADES UNDER FOLLOWING)

Michael
Dr Martin Gorsky is a lecturer in Public Heath at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

Martin
Well I guess the conventional wisdom about the post-war Labour Government is as a great progressive, left-wing government which introduced the Welfare State into this country. And I wouldn’t want to dissent from that, but I guess one of the things we may forget to remember is that this was in a sense just part of a much longer process.

Archive - Winston Churchill
You must rank me and my colleagues as strong partisans of national compulsory insurance for all classes, for all purposes, from the cradle to the grave.

Michael
A perhaps surprising advocate of the Welfare State – Churchill speaking as the head of the wartime National Government in 1943.

Archive - Winston Churchill
We must establish on broad and solid foundations a National Health Service. Here let me say there’s no finer investment for any community than putting milk into babies. Healthy citizens are the greatest asset any country can have.

Michael
As a former Tory MP, of course I would like to debunk the idea that Labour invented the Welfare State – but are there more objective grounds for scepticism? Dr Stuart Mitchell of the Open University, and Professor Jose Harris at St Catherine’s College Oxford, recall that the welfare state actually emerged over several decades.

Jose
The creation of the NHS and the creation of universal insurance, and policies of full employment, were startlingly radical for the time, but none of them came out of the blue

Stuart
The Welfare State was not solely the creation of the Labour Party, but instead was the product of policy making and political thinking going back right to the beginning really of the 20th century.

Michael
National Insurance, introduced by the Liberals in 1911, covered some of the medical costs of workers – but not of their dependants. Between the wars good quality care was available free in some municipal hospitals, such as those run by the London County Council. But in many parts of the country, health services were thin on the ground, and a decent standard of treatment was provided only by the Voluntary sector. Such independent hospitals charged most of their patients, but even so found it ever more difficult to remain solvent. With the advent of the war, reform became inevitable.

John
I think the most important thing there was the centralisation of health services under the emergency medical service.

Michael
Professor John Stewart of Oxford Brookes University

John
This was important in itself because it for the first time brought under national control in particular the hospital services, and I suppose one might argue the social solidarity engendered by the war itself led to a very strong sense that the thirties could not be returned to and that some form of free medical care provided by the State primarily was in fact a necessity.

Martin
And probably we can place the sort of, the starting gun as it were, in 1941, a statement in the House by Ernest Brown, a Liberal, saying that the Government intended to institute a comprehensive health service.

John
The kind of iconic breakthrough though I suppose is the, the Beveridge Report of 1942.

Stuart
Although it’s not particularly detailed about health services per se, it does inject into a public debate the idea that health services should be reformed on a, on a national comprehensive, and perhaps most significantly free at the point of use basis.

Martin
Various internal discussions within the Ministry finally led to the production of a White Paper, proposing, setting out ideas for a National Health Service in 1944.

John
And indeed the Minister of Health, who was responsible for that White Paper, was a Conservative.

Michael
Do you believe that there would have been a National Health Service created during the 1940s if the Conservatives had won in 1945?

John
Yes I do. It wouldn’t have been the same National Health Service but I think there is plenty evidence that the Conservatives were committed to at least some measure of socialisation of the medical services.

Michael
Let me try a little counter-factual analysis with you.

Tony
Yes.

Michael
The first person to mention a free National Health Service in a big public way is Beveridge – not a Labour man but a Liberal.

Tony
Liberal.

Michael
During the war a coalition government under a Conservative Minister of Health works on a National Health Service plan. If Labour had not won in 1945, do you think some sort of National Health Service would have been created?

Tony
Oh there was a consensus built up during the war, no doubt about it. Churchill was, as I say, at home he was a one-nation Conservative, and there was a sort of consensus of course, and that consensus lasted for a very long time, lasted until monetarism came in and all that. And so you’re quite right, something would have done, been done - I don’t know quite what.

Michael
During the war the Conservative Health Minister Henry Willink was already negotiating with the powerful lobbies - the two feuding hospital sectors, the local authorities, hospital doctors and GPs - but with little apparent success. The man who cut through the Gordian knot was one of the best-remembered Ministers of the Attlee Government: Aneurin Bevan.

John
Bevan had a reputation for being a left wing idealogue, he was a miner by background, he was a very flamboyant, very charismatic individual.

Peter
I remember going and listening to him making speeches. They were fantastic.

Michael
Peter Carrington, a Conservative who entered the House of Lords in 1940, and who during the Attlee government witnessed great events in the Commons from the Peers Gallery.

Peter
I mean as a Conservative one didn’t necessarily approve of some of the language he used about, about the, one’s own party. But he was a great orator.

Michael
Bevan is remembered as a socialist ideologue – but I feel that he was more of a fixer, more of a pragmatist, than subsequent spin doctors would care to remember.

John
What Bevan had done was to turn Labour Party policy on its head, so Bevan, one might argue whether he was a pragmatist or ideologically driven, but certainly in his dealings with the doctors he was very pragmatic. What he was concerned with was delivering a National Health Service, and if that meant retaining the self-employed status of doctors then so be it.

Michael
Bevan’s great innovation was the nationalisation of the hospitals – pulling both the voluntary and the municipal hospitals into one national body. I would have thought that the Tories would not have done that. But Martin Gorsky believes that there were voices well outside the Labour Party that thought nationalisation the least bad outcome.

Martin
Michael Foot in his biography thinks it was a sort of flash of genius on the part of Nye Bevan himself, but there are some other contendors for this, the journal ‘The Economist’ for example pushed it, quite heavily, as the best solution. They argued that local government after the war was going to have too much to take on.

Michael
Although wising to establish ‘a comprehensive health service’, the Conservatives voted against the bill at its second and third readings – objecting to details of Bevan’s plan. This opposition was a gift to Labour, who could now cast the Tories as the enemies of the NHS. Tony Benn again:-

Tony
They did vote against the NHS and a point, it’s a debating point we often make, later they voted against it.

Michael
I’ve read that the Prime Minister Mr Attlee was due to broadcast to celebrate the creation of the National Health Service, and was due to refer to it as a great national achievement, and that Bevan, seeing that the Tories had voted against it, said to the Prime Minister ‘No you must claim it as a great Labour Party achievement’. Do, do you have any memory of that story?

Tony
No, no.

Michael
No.

Tony
Not at all. But I can imagine those are… Well you’ve been in Cabinets, I’ve been in Cabinets, you know what it’s like. I mean outside we’re all together and inside there are serious and real arguments. That’s what democracy’s about. And it wouldn’t surprise me at all if Nye said that.

Michael
Peter Carrington – who served in Tory governments from Churchill to Thatcher - takes an indulgent view of Bevan’s wish to brand the NHS a Labour triumph.

Peter
Well I think probably any, any Health Secretary of whatever political party, would have made the same remark wouldn’t they? (LAUGHS)

Michael
Nye Bevan went further and called it ‘my National Health Service’.

Peter
That I think is going too far!

Archive
And now the test of inclusion is one of output.

Michael
Nationalisation is another part of the popular memory of the Attlee Government.

Archive
Firms are to be nationalised only if their annual output exceeds fifty million tons a year.

Michael
Both New Labour and the Tories for their own reasons like to pretend that the Attlee government nationalised industries for ideological reasons, with little understanding of the effect on our economy. But is this also a false memory? Professor Jim Tomlinson thinks we forget to remember the 1945 government’s commitment to economic modernisation.

Jim
Productivity, the word ‘productivity’, is everywhere, in the late 1940s. Government creates this Anglo-American Council on Productivity, sends all these teams of, of workers and managers to the US to look at what they’re doing. It’s absolutely central to what they’re trying to do.

Michael
For both Conservatives and New Labour it’s convenient to portray Old Labour as economic dinosaurs.

Jim
That’s a theme which you get in speeches from Gordon Brown, from Tony Blair, from Stephen Byers for example when he was Industry Minister, so I think there’s been a fairly consistent sort of New Labour narrative if you like about Old Labour. There’s been a desire to paint Old Labour as in need of change and therefore this is why we needed New Labour because Old Labour was not sufficiently alive to the issues of efficiency and productivity that New Labour obviously has put at the centre of its agenda.

Michael
If Attlee’s ministers weren’t nationalising in line with Clause 4 of Labour’s constitution – what were they doing? They took steel into public ownership for ideological reasons – but the rest of the programme looks more pragmatic. The Attlee government inherited exhausted industries which were already under government war-time control and had no future in the private sector. David Edgerton:-

David
Coal was in a very bad condition, its output had not been increasing for a very long time. Gas and electricity, there was a case there for exploiting economies of scale – it could only be done by further centralisation of the industry. In the case of the railways, again there were problems with, with low investment.

Tony
It was an extraordinary period, and the railways were bust, so you mustn’t think that what we did wasn’t an essential part of industrial re-organisation.

David
It’s clear for example that nationalisation is not about giving workers control over, over industries, it’s about giving government and government experts control over these great industries. It’s there not to re-distribute income but actually to help the modernisation of, of the economy more generally.

Michael
If the Tories had won in 1945 might they also have nationalised key industries - the railways for example ?

Jim
I think they’d have found it very difficult to avoid doing so, in some form, in the sense that the State would have had a key role in, in running the railways I think was, was undoubtable.

David
Right across Europe in the 1940s irrespective of the precise colouration of the government, you get nationalisation of utilities, of mines, of railways. One reason, very important reason for this was that right across the world capitalism was in ideological retreat. The thirties were a very live memory, it was politically impossible to return to the kind of policies of laissez faire that people had been putting forward at that time.

Michael
And having witnessed the poverty of the 1930s, ministers looked not just to America but also to Russia for economic inspiration. Jim Tomlinson and Jose Harris.

Jose
We tend I think to forget that the Soviet Union seemed to be a successful economic system at a time when capitalist systems had been failing.

Jim
Yes I would agree with that, I think even into the 1960s in Labour circles there was a belief that Soviet-style planning yielded success.

Music The Third Man

Michael
But that admiration was tempered by fear.

Jose
There’s the Soviet Union not just as a model but as a threat, and that I think is something again that we, well certainly the popular memory is completely forgotten about I think.

Michael
What we forget – above all – is that this was the first government of the Cold War. In 1945 the Attlee Government believed that the Soviet Union, entrenched in Eastern Europe, might attack the West – maybe Harry Lime’s Vienna or even Britain. Another World War seemed not just possible, but imminent.

David
It wasn’t just a time of building a Welfare State, it was also the time of consolidating and to some extent re-building a warfare state, a national security state, a secret state.

Jim
The balance between welfare and warfare in terms of State spending, one could say that the warfare is much more prominent in total spending under Labour than stories about the creation of the Welfare State might imply.

Michael
What did you regard as the nature of the threat from the Soviet Union? What, what did you think we were in danger of, and why?

Denis
The Russians made no secret of their desire to rule the world.

Michael
In the late 1940s Denis Healey was the Labour Party’s International Secretary.

Michael
You travelled at that time through Eastern Europe, and did that serve to reinforce your feeling?

Denis
Yes because in the end the Red Army if it couldn’t win control of a country through the politicians would simply impose politicians of its own nature, like Rakosi in Hungary.

Michael
We remember the Attlee Government as sole creators of the Welfare State – wrongly I think – but we forget that they maintained a ‘Warfare State’ – the defence infrastructure appropriate to the threat of a new World War. After Attlee, the Minister who was most concerned with that threat was Labour’s Foreign Secretary – Ernest Bevin. If we remember Nye Bevan, the firebrand from the South Wales valleys and self-styled father of the NHS, perhaps we tend to forget Ernie Bevin – an equally formidable member of Attlee’s team. Lords Healey and Carrington.

Denis
He had more influence on me than anybody I ever met.

Peter
He was the sort of great robust figure who seemed to be sort of John Bull and sticking up for all he believed to be right, even if it was extremely unpopular with some people on his own side.

Michael
Bevin also supposedly comes back at one time from a meeting with the Americans, when an inner group of ministers is discussing whether there should be a British nuclear deterrent.

Denis
Oh yeah.

Michael
And Bevin says, apparently, “I don’t want an American speaking to me again like that, we need to have an independent nuclear deterrent.

Denis
Yes, I think… that was certainly his feeling.

David
The Labour Government is committed to building up a new technological infrastructure.

Michael
David Edgerton – author of ‘Warfare State’

David
As a result you get for example very important large new buildings developed for research in biological and chemical warfare at Porton Down. You get new research facilities in aeronautics for example in, in Bedford. You get the construction in Australia, in an enormous rocket range at Woomera, from the late 1940s. And of course we have the whole nuclear programme to develop an atomic bomb.

Michael
Is the Reactor still here?

Able
Yeah this is the reactor here. We’ve disabled the crane which you can see above us, this big orange structure.

Michael
I’m standing inside an enormous chamber, a circular vessel that must rise, oh I don’t know, fifty, sixty feet above me, with a great vaulted, enclosed top. This chamber contains a nuclear reactor, one of the earliest reactors that came into service at Harwell in the Oxfordshire countryside.

Michael
Its reactors are now decommissioned, but Harwell was the birthplace of the British nuclear industry, a site where the potential of atomic power was investigated for civil and military use. Beth Taylor and Andy Munn showed me the site.

Andy
In 1946 when Harwell was set up, certainly the establishment of the first reactors was to support the weapons programme.

Michael
Once Aldermaston and Windscale get established, what is the role that Harwell plays in supporting the military programme in those two sites?

Beth
I think probably the two key steps here were the construction of the two first reactors – GLEEP which was actually the first reactor in Western Europe, and a year later BEPO, and that became the prototype for the Windscale piles, which produced plutonium – absolutely essential for the British military programme.

David
Sometimes called Korean war …. that’s, that’s actually a misnomer, because fighting the Korean war for the British was not a major effort. The great investments were in the making of weapons to be used in Europe, and in other parts of the world, against the Soviet Union, not against the poor North Koreans or, or Chinese. So the Labour Government is spending at least twice as much on warfare as it is on the National Health Service. And in the very late forties and early 1950s it pushes defence expenditure up to something approaching twelve per cent of gross domestic product.

Michael
Today it’s just 2% of GDP – which gives some sense of the massive commitment that the Attlee Government made to defence. Tony Benn regrets that decision.

Tony
There was no Soviet threat, the Red Army wasn’t planning to come to Britain. I mean they’d lost twenty-five million people and so on. But we were told that, and the Americans forced Attlee to re-arm, which I don’t think he wanted to do, and the Korean war started and so on. And I think that was the biggest mistake.

Music Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered

David
The British Socialist project is tied to an American capitalist project in a way that hadn’t been anticipated in, in 1945.

Michael
They’re in ideological retreat?

David
There is an ideological retreat. At the very least there’s a loss of confidence in the broader Socialist project.

Denis
I was in favour of us having nuclear weapons so long as the Americans and Russians had them.

Michael
Was that not a, an unexpected point of view from a Labour government?

Denis
It was supported by the overwhelming majority of voters, not necessarily members.

Michael
So, so when Gaitskell goes to the House of Commons and proposes this enormous amount of defence spending, Healey’s for it?

Denis
Yes that’s right

Michael
Labour scraped home in the General Election of 1950, but in 1951 the Attlee government’s two competing agendas – warfare and welfare - collided spectacularly. Chancellor Hugh Gaitskell proposed a plan for 4.7 billion pounds of defence spending. When he then imposed charges on dentures and spectacles Nye Bevan resigned – fearing that welfare was losing out to warfare. In 1951, the newly elected MP Tony Benn backed not Bevan but Gaitskell.

Tony
Yes it’s very interesting, you see at the time the Korean war was raging, and it, the question of whether there was a Soviet threat - I wasn’t at all clear in my mind as I am now that it wasn’t there – and it was a very explosive event.

Michael
Would you describe to me what you remember of Bevan’s appearance at the parliamentary Labour Party on the afternoon of his resignation?

Tony
Well it was, it was at a time when the parliamentary Labour Party had some meaning. There was a flaming row – I can’t remember all the details now but it’s all in the diary – people shouting at each other and threatening to take somebody outside and, and knock them about and so on. And Nye was a very charismatic figure. I remember Barbara Castle later saying to me, “I’m fed up with Nye calling me a fascist”, you know I mean when you got across Nye he was very strong, but by God, what the man had done.

Michael
The Attlee Government limped to defeat in 1951, evicted from office by a Conservative Party that promised to end rationing and build more houses. Their achievements are many – not least granting independence to India. But I believe that our memory of the Government’s priorities is faulty. If you compare welfare spending in the late 1930s and the late 1940s there’s not such a great leap forward – the creation of the NHS and other social measures increased welfare spending by about 2% of GDP.

Jim
That’s a very small amount given the kind of rhetoric which surrounds the idea that this was the, the key moment for the Welfare State.

Michael
Jim Tomlinson again.

Jim
So if one sort of charted welfare spending over the whole of the, the twentieth century and into the twenty-first century, the 1940s would not look at all spectacular.

David
The Labour Government is committed to industrial modernisation, to exports, and it’s also committed to defence. It’s a really very clear contrast in what’s going on on the ground. Of course it’s not a contrast that’s evident in the public relations of the regime and it’s not a contrast that’s evident in discussions in Parliament, and perhaps as a result of that it’s not a contrast that’s evident in most historical writing in our, our received historical understanding of the Labour Government in that period.

Michael
This isn’t the impression that I thought I had of the Welfare State creating Labour Government.

Tony
Well it did create the Welfare State.

Michael
Tony Benn.

Michael
As a figure of the left, you quite rightly claim that this was the government that formed the National Health Service, increased pensions massively, has all sorts of things to its credit in the establishment of the Welfare State, but I say to you as a figure of the right, this was the government that really got a grip on armaments spending, this was a government that saw that much more had to be spent on weapons than on health, this was the government that committed us to nuclear weapons, and these are as much monuments of this Labour government as the Welfare State.

Tony
Well I think it’s perfectly true to say that the Americans had a dominant influence, that’s been the problem and still is today. Of course we did have an independent nuclear deterrent, we had a Vulcan bomber that could drop an elementary bomb, but we didn’t tell Parliament. Oh I’ve criticised that many many times. But if you ask the number of people who’ve suffered because we have an atom bomb with those who’ve benefitted because we have the Health Service, because we’ve had the Welfare State, because we’ve had for many many years free education, by God if you set ‘em in the balance there can’t be much doubt about it.

Michael
But, but if we’re thinking about accurate historic memory, the government that yes creates the National Health Service, but that had been thought of during the war, spends a few hundred million on it…

Tony
But why had it been thought of? Well you speak as if it… only because people like Nye, who’d been a miner’s leader, for years campaigned for the Health Service, and dismissed a ridiculous idea. I mean these things don’t come out of the blue. The demand for a National Health Service came out of people’s experience. I mean things don’t just happen.

Music The Third Man

Michael
It’s true that things don’t just happen. But what we remember of the past is no accident either. I believe that there’s been a fair amount of myth-making about Attlee’s government. Too many people on the left and the right have had an interest in playing down the cross party consensus that reigned, overlooking how much Labour spent on defence, and in trying to make us forget to remember.

This is a transcript of BBC Radio 4's The Things We Forgot To Remember; the  programme was originally broadcast in November 2006