In 1945, contrary to expectations, Labour won a landslide victory at the General Election and with an overall majority in Parliament there was nothing to stop the new government from carrying out its manifesto programme. Quite simply, the British public believed that a Labour government would be more likely to pursue a vigorous programme of social reform. Labour’s reforms were based on the Beveridge Report so it could not claim that it had created the ideas itself and it began tackling the five giants identified by Beveridge.
So, what were these five giant problems?
Poverty was seen as the key social problem which affected all others. In 1946 the National Insurance Act was passed which extended the Liberal Act of 1911 to include all adults. This provided comprehensive insurance against most eventualities.
It provided sickness and unemployment benefit, retirement pension and widow and maternity benefit. It was said that social provision was made for citizens from the ‘cradle to the grave’, catering for their needs from their time of birth to their death. However, the scheme was criticised for the large number of officials needed to operate it and others argued that the Act did not go far enough as the benefit was restricted to those citizens who had made 156 weekly contributions.
In the same year the Industrial Injuries Act was passed. The act made insurance against industrial injury compulsory for all employees. Under the terms of the act, industrial injury benefits were to be paid at a higher rate than for ordinary sickness.
In 1948 the National Assistance Act was passed which provided benefits for those not covered by the National Insurance Act. National Assistance Boards were set up to help citizens whose resources were insufficient to meet their needs. However, benefits were set too low which resulted in many citizens remaining below the subsistence level.
In 1946 the National Health Service Act was passed and for the first time every British citizen could receive medical, dental and optical services free of charge. Treatment by GPs and in hospitals was free also. These benefits were free at point of use, no patient being asked to pay for any treatment.
However, the development of the NHS was hampered by the number of old and out of date hospitals. Costs were high and by 1950 the idea of free treatment for all was undermined when charges were introduced for spectacles and dental treatment.
Most of Britain still had slum areas and overcrowding was a serious problem made worse by bomb damage during the war. To deal with the problem of squalor the government concentrated on the building of decent homes for the working class after the war. The government aimed at building 200,000 houses a year and many of these were prefabricated houses which were assembled quickly onsite. The New Towns Act passed in 1946 laid the plans for 14 new towns in Britain, including Glenrothes and East Kilbride in Scotland. However, the Labour Government’s record in this area does not compare favourably with pre-war levels of house building or with the achievements of the Conservatives in the 1950s. There was still a serious shortage at the end of their period in office.
In 1944 the war time Coalition government passed the Education act. The act was actually proposed by the Conservatives, but after the 1945 general election, it was the Labour government that implemented its measures.
The act made secondary education compulsory until the age of 15 years and provided meals, milk and medical services at every school. An examination at age 11 years (called the ’11+’) placed children in certain types of school, according to their ability. Those who passed this exam went to senior secondary schools and were expected to ‘stay on’ after 15 years and possibly go to university and get jobs in management.
Children who failed the exam were not expected to stay at school after 15 years and they were expected to get the unskilled types of employment. This did nothing to create more equal opportunities for working class children. Furthermore, the building of new schools concentrated on the primary sector to cope with the baby boom; the secondary sector was largely neglected.
After the war, there seemed to be work for everyone as Britain rebuilt itself. The Labour Government succeeded in its commitment to maintain high levels of employment after the war. By 1946, unemployment was reduced to 2.5 % and this was in spite of huge post-war problems such as shortages of raw materials and massive war debts. One way in which the government kept almost full employment was through nationalisation.
Following the principles of economist John Maynard Keynes, the government took control of certain industries such as iron and steel manufacture. Under this managed economy the government could use tax money to keep an industry afloat even if it faced economic difficulties.
It is important to note that even before the wartime Coalition Government had come to an end work had started on some of Beveridge’s ideas. For example, in 1943 a ministry to supervise insurance was set up and in 1945 family allowances were agreed. Temporary homes were built, at state expense, for some of Britain’s homeless and in 1944 a new Education Act was passed.