The Age Of Consensus refers to a time in British politics, broadly speaking between 1951 and 1979. This holds over the course of three decades, both the Labour and Conservative parties held broadly similar political views and policies. While this view is not universally accepted, it is often used as shorthand for the period between wartime Britain and the “Thatcher Revolution” of the 1980’s.
It is important to consider that in British politics, at least a degree of consensus exists between the two major parties. Over the course of the twentieth century, extremist ideologies have never dominated parliamentary politics, and thus the major parties share a common ground. This has rarely been more true than in the period from 1951 to 1970. As a period which saw both Conservative and Labour parties, the continuity of policy is quite remarkable. Perhaps the key to this convergence was not due to the disappearance of extremism, but its diminished role in party politics. It could be argued that while the Labour party of this time was led primarily from its right wing, the Conservative leaders were to the left of their supporters. As a result of this, both would often hold similar principles on the same issues. In the 1950’s, the term “Butskellism” was coined to describe the essentially homogenous political attitudes of Hugh Gaitskell (Labour) and R.A. Butler (Conservative). There are numerous practical examples of this. Many of the initiatives and policies put in place by the Attlee government went on to survive long into the next two decades. The National Health Service is perhaps the greatest example of this, in that it represents a popular institution that no government was willing to radically alter, for fear of public backlash. This is indicative of a wider acceptance of the “mixed economy”, and the adoption of the Keynesian style of government. The parties also shared largely similar views on other economic issues, such as employment. Even the trade unions, while certainly not always well liked by governments, were tolerated. On a broader scale, successive governments would continue the work of their predecessors. In terms of foreign and imperial policy, policy towards NATO, empire and the Commonwealth would be generally consistent throughout the “Age Of Consensus”.
In spite of all these common causes of consensus politics, by the early 1970s divisions were beginning to appear. Within the parties themselves, the more radical elements were becoming more vocal. The increasingly powerful presence of the left within Labour, and the first stirrings of what would become the Thatcherite movement were emerging within the Conservative party. This led to both beginning to draw away from the consensus that had held them together for the preceding two decades. However, this interpretation cannot be taken as the sole reason for the breakdown of consensus. Edward Heath essentially defined what Conservative politics was to become with the concept of “Selsdon Man”. Essentially, this contained all the ideals that we would later come to associate with Thatcher, such as self-reliance, lower taxation, less government intervention and a rejection of Keynesianism. Heath proposed that “market forces” would govern the British economy, and the government would not prop up “lame duck” companies. Soon into his government, however, it would become apparent that Heath was incapable, due to both circumstance and the failings of both himself and his government, to bring about such radical changes. Thatcher however, after becoming Tory leader in 1975, would go on to fulfil many of these early promises, as well as introducing a scheme of privatisation and reduction of the welfare state. Policy differences were also beginning to manifest themselves between the Conservative and Labour parties. The issue of comprehensive education was perhaps not a matter of national outcry, but it does serve to underline the growing differences between the two parties. It could be argued that these differences were always there, but in the relative prosperity of the fifties and sixties, parties felt more inclined to ignore them. The increasing economic problems of the seventies, unemployment, oil prices and inflation for example, exacerbated the political divides in the country. This is perhaps made most clear when we examine industrial relations. If the “Age Of Consensus” had seen a degree of tolerance toward trade unions, this was surely coming to an end. On the one hand, Heath was taking a much tougher approach to industrial unrest, particularly with the 1971 Industrial Relations Act. This of course had two consequences. Firstly, that the opposition of the unions to the Conservative party would perhaps come to define the 1980’s for many people, but it secondly served to divide the Labour party. There were still those consensus politicians, such as Harold Wilson, who believed that Labour should be a party of government. On the other hand, the increasingly visible left wing of the party, personified by the likes of Michael Foot and Tony Benn, who were sympathetic to the unions, made Labour seem increasingly extreme, which damaged their public image greatly.
From this evidence, we can then ask a simple question, to which we must almost inevitably provide a complicated answer. How valid is the term “Age Of Consensus” for the period between the defeat of Clement Attlee in 1951 and the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979?
This question is essentially a matter of interpretation. Perhaps the main point to consider is the point in time upon which one focuses in these three decades. Of course, it is very easy for a person to argue that the 1950’s was a time of consensus, because for nine of its ten years, Britain was under Conservative governments. It is not surprising that the nature of politics remained largely unchanged over this period, especially considering the success the Conservatives were enjoying. Once we move into the 1960s, the issue becomes more contentious. Certainly similarities could be drawn between Macmillan and Wilson, but the changing styles of government and politics cannot be ignored. Additionally, we must question whether to flurry of social changes that took place under Labour would have occurred under Conservative rule. By the 1970’s, the case for “consensus politics” becomes very hard to make. If Edward Heath set out to end consensus in the first half of the decade, then Margaret Thatcher would truly do so in the second. These changes were so dramatic that by 1983, the two parties were perhaps the furthest apart politically than they had been in over fifty years. So obviously, the differences between the government of Winston Churchill in 1951, and that of James Callaghan in 1979 cannot be ignored. One can also draw different conclusions depending on which aspects of British society are examined. In economic terms, many similarities are common to both Conservative and Labour governments, such as the acceptance of the welfare state and Keynesianism. However, in terms of social policy, the differences could be quite pronounced. Labour, despite being in government for less time over this period, actually introduced more important social reforms, and Heath’s treatment of the trade unions went beyond what the Labour party were willing to do (which they had made clear when they abandoned the controversial white paper “In Place Of Strife”). Therefore, the answer to this question has no definite answer and is based in individual judgement.