On Friday 26th October 1951, Clement Atlee, then liberal prime minister drove to Buckingham palace to tender his resignation. The reason for this? The conservatives had a clear majority over their Labour counterparts. There are several reasons why the Conservatives stayed in power between 1951 and 1964, but the four main factors were: economic, political, social and luck.
Throughout the 1950s Britain’s world trade was at 25% – an all time high- and there was growing prosperity amongst the middle classes and most average people. The conservatives were voted in on the prospect that they would stand by their manifesto of “setting the people free” which essentially meant less interference in people’s lives from the government.
On 27th July 1953, all British troops had been withdrawn from Korea. This enabled the Chancellor of the Exchequer – then Rab Butler – to cut down on defence spending, and raises social and domestic spending. After this, the government implemented decontrol of the economy, and it seemed to be going well. This, however began to have a negative impact on the economy, so the conservatives decided to reign in control, and introduced economic policies, which were more interventionist. This nevertheless did boost the economy for a while and did continue the conservative’s strength in power.
So why did Labour not come out ontop of the conservative at their darkest hour of economic downfall? People associated the Labour government with cold austerity measures and rationing throughout and post war. People also preferred conservative policy as they could reap the full reward of their extra bit of wealth.
There were also political reasons for why the Conservatives stayed in government for this 13 year period. There was, or what seemed to be, a consensus between Labour and Conservatives. They both believed that during these “Golden years” the economy should be left to it’s own devices. However, where they differed was that the conservatives wanted to boost spending, and cut tax, which was very different to what the labour party wanted to do. This was ofter referred to as Butskellism after RA Butler and Hugh Gaitskell.
The organisation of the conservatives was much better than their labour counterparts because of a man names Lord Woolton. He made changes to the way young recruitment was done for the party, and organised more party supporters to be deployed on the street as activists. This meant that more people were exposed, and therefore swayed, to the conservatives point of view.
The conservatives also had a string of charismatic leaders which outmatched their opposition. The likes of Churchill, Eden, Macmillan, and Douglas-Home were all very good speakers, and were good at connecting with the hoards of people.
The labour party were also associated with socialism and cold war communism, and none of the British people wanted to see their country descend into anything like Eastern Germany and Russia. The party had also been split between the right wind Gaitskellites and left wing bevanites who argued about Labour’s policy. This division occurred throughout the 1950s.
After the post war destruction, one of the most important conservative pledges to the greater population was to deliver 300,000 houses a year. In 1951 this was pledged, and not only did they provide this, they also did it a year ahead of plan. This meant that the 300,000 people that had been provided with a new home were more likely to vote for the conservatives because it was them who had built the houses. This coupled with the fact that people had a sense of deference towards the conservatives meant that people were very unlikely to vote Labour.
The final point, but also what I believe to be the main point as to why the conservatives stayed in power between 1951 and 1964, is luck.
The Suez crisis, which happened on 29th October 1956 happened straight after the election of 1955. This meant that the conservatives had time to recover from the political media storm that arose from it. By the time the next election had come, people had forgotton about the scandal, and were concentrating on the there and then aspects of the party.
The economy, which seemed to continue to thrive during their time in government, meant that people were better off than during the war, and that meant there was more money sloshing around the economy. There is nothing to suggest that the government did anything to boost the economy at that time, and that it was purely down to chance that the economy was in a “boom” period. This also coincides with the point about the economic cycle being at the same time as the electoral cycle.
Overall, I think that the 13 year period of the conservatives was purely down to their luck factor. Had it been a time of economic depression, the Labour party would have been more likely to be voted in because of their strategies to combat any economic downturn. It was also lucky that the Labour party was divided during these years and unable to make a joint conclusion on what the party policy should be.