No Turning Back: the Peacetime Revolutions of Postwar Britain

In his 1975 book The Road to 1945, Paul Addison described how the British people appeared, for a tantalisingly brief period, about to enter the Promised Land. Since then, he has enhanced his reputation with a series of works on modern British history, the most notable of which is a magisterial study of Winston Churchill on the home front, published in 1992.

No Turning Back, which offers an account of postwar Britain, does not quite meet the standards of the earlier books. Its main interest lies in Addison's blending of a chronological approach with a thematic one, the central theme being that of revolution. The author charts the course of postwar Britain as a series of peacetime revolutions. There were, he believes, three such, all liberal in nature.

The first was the economic liberal revolution of the free market, associated primarily with Margaret Thatcher. The second was the social liberal revolution of the "permissive society", initiated during Roy Jenkins's first tenure as home secretary in the mid-1960s. The third, less predictably, was the "civic nationalism of the Scots and the Welsh". This was perhaps more of a communitarian revolution than a liberal one, though Addison regards it as liberal because it resulted in the state loosening its grip through devolution.

These revolutions would have surprised the immediate postwar generation, which, under the aegis of Clement Attlee's government, embarked on an enlightened experiment in state intervention, while retaining the framework of discipline and authority that, so most believed, was essential for the realisation of socialism. As for Scottish and Welsh nationalism, Attlee dismissed it as "out of date", a throwback.

But, from the late 1960s onward, Britain began to change direction. The state ceased to supervise sexual morality, while the rise of the Scottish National Party showed that Britain was becoming a multinational country. Then the economic crises of the 1970s seemed to show that Keynesian economic management, which entailed regular state intervention, was no longer working. "We used to think," James Callaghan told the Labour party conference in 1976, "you could spend your way out of a recession and increase employment by cutting taxes and boosting spending. I tell you in all candour that this option no longer exists and that, in so far as it ever did exist, it only worked by injecting a bigger dose of inflation into the system."

Under Thatcher and John Major, and during Tony Blair's first administration from 1997 to 2001, the primary role of government became that of ensuring sound money. After 2007, Gordon Brown did what Callaghan had said was impossible and tried to spend his way out of recession. The jury is still out on whether he was successful.

It is perhaps stretching the use of language to label these changes "revolutions". They were certainly fairly quiet revolutions; and, as Addison admits, they were more limited than is often thought. In 1965 Time magazine wrote of "Swinging London" but, as he points out, "Greater London was a city of ten million people". The young may have been swinging in Chelsea, but were they also swinging in Ruislip and Hayes? It is equally easy to overestimate the force of Celtic nationalism. Plaid Cymru never attracted the support of more than 12 per cent of Welsh voters. The SNP achieved its best result - just over 30 per cent of the Scottish vote - in October 1974. Its support has fallen by a third since then. In the recent general election, more voted for the British National Party than for the SNP.

Even the Thatcherite revolution was less far-reaching than is often imagined. Public expenditure was 43 per cent of GDP when Thatcher came to power in 1979 and 39 per cent when she left Downing Street in 1990. By 1995, it was back to pre-Thatcherite levels. Nor did Thatcherism do much to increase economic growth, which remained lower than in Germany, Japan or the United States, and lower than Britain had achieved during the consensus years of the 1950s.

Addison accepts that the revolutions were "incomplete". However, what made them revolutions was, he insists, the element of dis­continuity. "In overturning or subverting contemporary assumptions they were disruptive and highly controversial paradigm shifts," he writes. The consequence was that "economic liberalism, like social liberalism", became "an almost unexamined faith, accepted as one of the facts of life against which it was pointless to protest".

After 2008, critics of Thatcherism assumed that the global financial crisis had discredited economic liberalism. The crisis should have
led to a new social-democratic moment, as it has done in the United States, where Barack Obama is the nearest that Americans have come since Franklin D Roosevelt to having a social democrat in the White House. But most of Europe continues to be governed from the right. There, Addison argues, "money and power were not about to yield to intellectual argument, still less to experience shame or regret". It is this that provides him with the central motif for his book: "There was, so it seemed to be, no turning back."

Addison surely goes too far when he assumes that the social-democratic settlement has been fatally undermined. During the 1950s, he suggests, the welfare state was "the social equivalent of the Maginot Line, a chain of fortresses designed to protect the public in general, and the working classes in particular, from the consequences of another great slump". The same was surely true in the 1980s. Thatcher sought to slay John Maynard Keynes, though he has now been restored to life; and William Beveridge has always remained untouchable.

The Attlee settlement dug deep. Indeed, the history of postwar Britain often seems a mere coda to it. The Thatcher revolution, by contrast, was more superficial. The British people voted for her - or at least two-fifths of them did - without ever fully embracing her doctrines. Thatcher was just the most recent of those prophets of regeneration who have erupted at various times in our history, urging us to stand to attention and generally smarten ourselves up. We listened politely to the sermons and then continued in our old habits. We remain what we always were, ostriches rather than lions, but ostriches that continue to yearn for a society in which money-making is no longer celebrated as the prime social virtue.

Vernon Bogdanor is professor of government at Oxford University and the author of "The New British Constitution", published by Hart (£17.95)

No Turning Back: the Peacetime Revolutions of Postwar Britain
Paul Addison
Oxford University Press, 449pp, £18.99

This article first appeared in the 21 June 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The age of ideas