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Nick Thomas-Symonds reviews 'Age of Hope': Labour, 1945, and the Birth of Modern Britain

July 1945: new prime minister Clement Attlee celebrates with supporters after labour's surprise general election victory | Image by: Trinity Mirror / Mirrorpix / Alamy Stock Photo

4 min read

Although not always convincing in its assertions, Richard Toye’s comprehensive history of the Labour Party is a useful and accessible read

There is no shortage of writing on Clement Attlee’s Labour governments of 1945-51. In the introduction to Age of Hope, Richard Toye points to three fine, comprehensive books: Kenneth O. Morgan’s Labour in Power (1984), Peter Hennessy’s Never Again (1992) and David Kynaston’s Austerity Britain (2007). Toye’s purpose is “not to overthrow existing interpretations but to explore and enrich them, and to show how they emerged over time”. Indeed, Age of Hope is best seen as an up-to-date concise history of that transformational post-war period, a successor to Henry Pelling’s The Labour Governments 1945-51, a compact book published 40 years ago in the same year as Morgan’s authoritative work.

There is no doubt the Attlee administrations enacted great reforms at home: from the foundation of the National Health Service by Aneurin Bevan to the creation of a comprehensive social security system. However, as Toye observes, this was not always clear at the time: the term “welfare state” was used by the Conservatives who “applied it to the Attlee government’s social policies as a term of abuse”. Still, the approach of public ownership of major industries and keeping unemployment rates low shaped British governments until 1979. 

In foreign policy, from decolonisation to the founding of Nato in 1949, the Attlee governments had a lasting impact on international relations and world security. Toye is right to contest existing interpretations, but some of his contentions are less convincing than others. For example, he argues that foreign secretary Ernest Bevin’s creation of a “Western Union” defence pact – the United Kingdom, France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg – was, at the time, not a step towards founding Nato but a “sincere attempt… to develop a power bloc that could compete with the USSR and the United States (albeit with the expectation of friendly support from the latter)”. Yet, six days before the five nations of the Western Union signed the Brussels Treaty on 17 March 1948, Bevin had already sent a message to US secretary of state George Marshall about establishing a transatlantic security framework. Tying the USA to the defence of Europe was crucial.

Toye… has an eye for the telling detail

Toye offers useful, illuminating portraits of the governments’ major figures, and has an eye for the telling detail about their personal lives and habits. For instance, he recounts how, as the government approached the devaluation of the pound in 1949, the chancellor, Stafford Cripps, and Bevin crossed the Atlantic together on Cunard’s ocean liner Mauretania. Yet it took a few days for civil servants to bring them together for a discussion: the highly disciplined Cripps woke every day at 5am before going back to bed 12 hours later when Bevin, his health by now failing, was getting up. Eventually Cripps was persuaded to stay awake a little longer. 

Age of HopeToye also introduces the reader to his paternal grandmother, Adele Toye, who wrote articles for a Connecticut newspaper, The Middletown Press. She reminds us that the 1945 general election victory was not a complete shock: “though people were dumbfounded by the scale of Labour’s win, a good electoral performance by the party had been expected by many”.

As we approach another general election, Toye’s central challenge in this readable, accessible book about securing and sustaining power is pertinent. For all the Attlee reforms, it was the Conservatives who were in power for 13 years from 1951: “Labour, in office, had altered the political landscape, but it was its opponents who dominated the new terrain.” Yet Toye ends on an optimistic note: “Though it would not be without its trials, perhaps a new Age of Hope is just around the corner.” Let’s hope so. 

Nick Thomas-Symonds is Labour MP for Torfaen

Age of Hope: Labour, 1945, and the Birth of Modern Britain
By: Richard Toye
Publisher: Bloomsbury Continuum

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