Complete classes from the CAB & PREM series in the Public Record Office
Series Three: CAB 128 & CAB 129 - Cabinet Conclusions & Cabinet Memoranda, 1945 and following
Part 1: The Attlee Government, August 1945 - October 1951
(CAB 128/1-13 & CAB 129/1-20)
CAB 128 and CAB 129 represent the highest level of British governmental documents recording the minutes and memoranda of the weekly Cabinet meetings held by the Prime Minister and his senior Ministers. These documents form the apex of the whole governmental and Civil Service structure; of the thousands of documents generated by the machinery of government and its many departments, only the most important and highly concentrated reached the Cabinet. As a result the material in CAB 128 and CAB 129 provides an excellent and unique resource for scholars; providing material that represents the core issues facing the government of the day, stripped down to the bare essentials and free from superfluous detail. This clarity of purpose and the succinct nature of the documents will be especially useful for academics studying Post-war Britain and the problems faced by the Attlee government.
After the Labour Partys election victory in 1945 Attlee put into practice his stated wish to alter the structure of the Cabinet by reducing its direct role in policy making in favour of its administrative tasks. Rather than have ministers involved in the day-to-day detail of policy making, Attlee delegated ministers to oversee broad issues of policy on his behalf. He also established what was in effect an Inner Cabinet of his three most trusted ministers, Ernest Bevin, Sir Stafford Cripps and Herbert Morrison, to deal with as much business on their own as they could, in order to reduce the number of items that needed to be brought before the full Cabinet. The result of Attlees reorganisations, according to the Prime Ministers Public-relations Advisor, meant improved efficiency whilst the full Cabinet still got to discuss all major matters of policy:
"...the establishment of this system of a small group of functional ministers responsible for directing broad issues of policy in their particular spheres has greatly increased the efficiency and speed of government and very much reduced the size of the agenda which has to be brought before the full Cabinet."
By utilising this system Attlee managed to keep overall control of his administration, imposing a sense of coherence on the wide ranging set of policies with which the Labour Party hoped to combat the huge problems facing Post-war Britain.
The nature and scale of these problems are reflected in the Cabinets Minutes and Memoranda; as wide ranging as they are numerous the documents in CAB 128 and CAB 129 reveal much, not only about the enormity of the tasks faced by the new administration, but also the self confidence that the government had in the ability of its policies and of central planning to rebuild the nation.
The scale of the problems facing Britain in the summer of 1945 were truly monumental. Five long years of war had materially, financially and mentally drained the country, many cities and industrial centres lay in ruins, and the prospect of long-term rationing of food and consumer goods remained. Nevertheless the new Labour government was ready to meet the challenges with its unique brand of middle way democratic socialism and dynamic sense of purpose.
Included within the Minutes and Memoranda are discussions that touch on all the main areas of Government policy, including:
- The Occupation of Germany
- Colonial independence
- The National Health Service
- The surrender and occupation of Japan
- The United Nations
- The iron and steel industries
- Investment programmes
- The North Atlantic Pact and the Western Union
- Industrial disputes and wages policy
- Foreign and Commonwealth relations
- The Cold War and international relations
- National and international economic problems
- European reconstruction
- Balance of payments and the Sterling Crisis
- Housing, new town developments, and town and country planning
- Agriculture and food
- The Council of Europe
- Military affairs and National Service
The first two years of Attlees administration witnessed a tremendous rush of governmental innovation and legislation as the Labour Party took full advantage of its first Parliamentary majority to introduce its socialist policies. By 1947 more than a fifth of British industry had been nationalised, the foundations for the National Health Service were laid, a National Insurance scheme put into place, more public housing being provided, unemployment low, and despite the granting of Indian independence, Britains status as a world power seemingly assured. Nevertheless, despite the energy of the government and enthusiastic support of much of the population, huge problems remained, particularly in relation to the economy.
The first major crisis to hit the government was the balance-of-payments crisis in the summer of 1947; exacerbated by a fuel shortage the previous winter, and the introduction of the convertibility of sterling (a condition of American loans in 1945). The huge balance-of-payments deficit proved a major setback for Attlees administration and public confidence, forcing reductions in Labours public spending. From 1948 until their defeat in the 1951 General Election, the Labour Party, would never be able to summon up the same levels of enthusiasm, content instead to adopt a policy of consolidation. Whilst the latter period of the Labour governments period in office did have its high points (such as the outstanding 1948 export figures, the Festival of Britain, the reduction in rationing, and participation in the Berlin Airlift) it never managed to recapture the spirit or energy of the early years. By 1950, the party hierarchy was worn out and serious factionalism threatened its position; the danger of the situation manifested itself in an open power struggle between Bevan and Gaitskell who took advantage of Attlees absence from Cabinet for hospital treatment. The result of this conflict was the resignation of Aneurin Bevan, Harold Wilson and John Freeman from the government and the polarisation of the Parliamentary Labour Party into opposing factions.
It was a tired Labour Party that contested the General Election of October 1951. Although the economy had been steadily improving during 1950, and many of the war time restrictions had been lifted, a new balance-of-payments crisis in September 1951 emphasised the precarious nature of the British economy and did nothing to improve the governments or the countrys confidence. Nevertheless, in spite of all the problems assailing the Labour Party, the Conservative majority in the House of Commons of only fifteen seats underlined the large bedrock of support that Labour still enjoyed in the country, and the results were by no means regarded by them as a total disaster. The new administration, under Churchill, did not usher in a radical set of Conservative policies, but was content to follow a similar middle way that had characterised the latter years of Attlees government. Some of the major reforms of the early post-war years, in particular the establishment of the National Health Service, were to become fully integrated into Conservative policy.