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Political History
in the UK
A Rapid Survey

A Big Mop & Bucket needed for Number Ten

     With a General election coming up, I thought that now would be a suitable time for a brief survey of post-war politics in our country since WWII. Many believe that our troubles began around 2016. They certainly increased alarmingly around that time, but many others beside me believe the rot set it considerably earlier than that.

Emerging from nearly six years of total warfare in 1945, the UK was near to exhaustion. Winston Churchill had been a great war leader during the hostilities. He was certainly the man for that dark time, but the British people, and especially the serviceman ready to come home, knew that a vote for him and his party would be a vote for a return to ‘The Hungry Thirties’. Unsentimentally they voted by a landslide for a change of Government in the July of 1945.


     Britain was in a parlous state after the deeply damaging WWII. Famine plans were actually drawn up for the Winter before my own birth. The country needed to be put back together. Despite political manoeuvrings within his own party to replace him with someone more ‘charismatic’ (a meaningless word in the public service) the Government charged with the job was headed by Clement Atlee. Churchill had called him ‘a modest little man with much to be modest about’.


     If Churchill was right, give me modesty and competence over ‘charisma’ every time. Atlee’s government succeeded not only in the challenging task of repairing the country, but also in laying the foundations of a welfare state,



     Unsurprisingly, many people wanted a break after the privations of long years of wartime and austerity. After the 1951 election, largely due to  peculiarities caused by the collapse of the Liberal Party, the Conservative Party found itself back in office, having narrowly failed to get there in the General Election of the previous year. In truth, this didn’t matter too much. Politicians generally had been chastened  by the experiences of recent years and had little of the kind of revolutionary zeal that was later to develop within the Conservative Party.


     The first Conservative Prime Minister was, unsurprisingly, the great wartime leader, Winston Churchill. By this time he was well past his best, which was suited to wartime rather than peacetime anyway. Again this didn’t matter a great deal because he was essentially a figurehead and was ably supported.


     There was a hiccough with Churchill’s successor, Anthony Eden who, in 1956 led his country into an immoral military adventure over the Suez Canal. This was quite as bad in principle as Blair’s inexplicable support for the actions of George Bush in Iraq nearly fifty years later, although of course the military action and deaths were on a much smaller scale.


     Britain’s international reputation never recovered from this time, but at least some order was brought back to the country, under the hastily arranged replacement premiership of Harold McMillan. McMillan undertook his role with a degree of competence for some years, but by the early nineteen-sixties was losing his way.


     When McMillan was replaced by the former aristocrat Alec Douglas Home after the badly handled ‘Profumo Affair,’ the electorate decided it was high time the Conservative Party was itself replaced, and it was voted out of office in the General Election of 1964.   



     ‘Ambling along’ is perhaps the way to characterise these years, although there were some undercurrents at work, notably the rise of Scottish Nationalism and the strengthening of trades union power. By 1979 there was no doubt that an expert hand was needed on the tiller to get the country back on course.



     In May 1979, what we got instead of an expert hand was Margaret Thatcher, who gave the steering a brutal wrench to put us on a rightwards course. We’ve been struggling ever since.


     The extreme irony is that many, including me, would support many of the virtues Thatcher professed to espouse, like hard work, reward of success, the creation of new jobs in an expanding economy, and the concentration of welfare support where it is most needed. Thatcher herself exhibited many of those qualities. In practice, the actual actions of ‘the Thatcher Revolution’ promoted the kind of ‘loadsamoney/get rich quick/success only means financial success’ thinking that still dominates public life today.

     Thatcher had three enormous slices of luck:

  [a] the way she was able to dominate those who could have opposed or restrained her. By this I particularly mean those in her own Government, her political opposition, and Arthur Scargill. The premature demise of the mining industry owes as much to him as to Thatcher.

  [b] ‘The Falklands Crisis,’ of 1982, when a failing Argentine dictator sought to save his future by taking over this remote imperial remnant, which should have been regularised years before (by either of the governing parties). After ‘winning’ the conflict (it was a near thing) she was able to portray herself as ‘the hero of the Falklands.’ The real heroes were in ‘The Task Force,’ who took on a difficult and deadly mission on the other side of the World. At this time, she was regarded as a failing politician, but afterwards her popularity increased.


[c] Most of all, the discovery of oil in the North Sea enabled Thatcher to bankroll her insane economic policies. ‘The Thatcher Economic Miracle’ was really the ‘North Sea Oil Miracle.’


     Eventually, she became too even for her own party, and they dumped her in favour of John Major, whose consensual style want down more easily with his political party. Failures by his political opponents enabled him to cling to power through most of the nineties. He refuted Thatcher’s intention of becoming a back street driver, although followed and developed the same policies. Major was more than an embarrassing footnote to Thatcher, though, It was he, not the ‘Iron Lady’ who became the Railway Wrecker, and who left a scar on the UK which is so evident to us today.


1997-2010 BLAIR-BROWN

     The country finally had the change of government it so desperately needed in 1997. Tony Blair became Prime Minister. He soon showed he was not perfect (remember Bernie Ecclestone?) but proved to reasonably competent and wasn’t doctrinaire. Then, inexplicably, in 2003, he led his country into an illegal military adventure in Iraq, in support of George Dubya Bush. A whole fragile region (‘The Middle East’) was destabilised, and many thousands of people died. Blair has never answered for this, but his reputation never recovered, either. He was eventually replaced in 2007 by Gordon Brown.


     Brown showed himself to be competent, probably the most so since Clement Atlee. But he was lacking in personal charm and, more importantly, was very unlucky. There was a global recession in 2009. Although Brown did more than most World leaders to attempt to limit damage, the opposition had some degree of success with their ridiculous slogan, ‘he’s crashed the economy’ (in 2022, one of their own showed us how to do this properly). Then, before the 2010 election, Brown left the microphone on after a broadcast Millions heard him describing a bigoted member of the electorate as ‘bigoted’.



The voting public was confused in 2010 and tried to vote against everyone. This didn’t work in practice and the result was something called a ‘Coagulation Government’ (some called it ‘a Coalition’). The lesser politician in this, someone who was called Nick Click, was quickly disposed of and David Cameron became entirely free to refine the policies begun in 1979.

By this time, these had developed from what was essentially the aim of selling the family silver, to more sophisticated and yet more brazen ways of transferring the diminishing wealth of the nation into digital noughts in a few selected bank accounts. There was no thought of actually increasing the nation’s wealth.

Eventually, Cameron couldn’t be bothered to deal with a row that had developed within his own party, and he allowed it to spill on the streets. Then, despite specifically saying he wouldn’t do this, he abdicated his responsibilities entirely and went off to write a book.



     The events of these years are too recent to need repeating here. Theresa May took on an impossible job and, when she had to admit she couldn’t do it, she was succeeded by two of the worst Prime Ministers in history, followed by one who was merely quite out of his depth. If you want a fuller account, I recommend the one in How They Broke Britain.



     What will we have as from 5th July 2024? Who knows? Whoever it is will need a huge mop and bucket.

Post-war Political History in the UK
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