1 NOVEMBER 1963, Page 20

Only Yesterday

Bum these books deal with post-war Britain but, setting out from much the same starting point, arrive at very different conclusions. The Age of Austerity describes a revolution that failed, The New Look one that has not only succeeded but shows no sign of halting. Which is right and how is this divergence of view to be explained?

Both books can be criticised for the in- adequate attention they pay to the war and its drastic impact on British life. Neither the history of the Labour Government nor the decline in Britain's international position nor the social changes of the later 1940s .and the 1950s can be understood without looking further back than 1945. But Mr. Hopkins has at least avoided the other mistake, of stopping too soon. He has grasped the point which never seems to have occurred to the editors of The Age of Austerity that the years 1945-51 represent only one act in a dramatic sequence, the final act of which has still to be staged.

Whatever government had been in power after the war was in for trouble. The British people were faced with a series of shocks for which they were ill-prepared. Contrary to the expectations of a Brave New World (which Churchill, to his credit, had done his best to curb), they were confronted with a situation in which their national power and their national wealth had been sharply reduced, and they bitterly resented the circumstances in which

they found themselves. The problems Attlee, Bevin and Cripps had to deal with would have taxed any government. The Labour Govern- ment certainly made mistakes: it is by no means obvious that a Tory Government would not have made worse ones. They would certainly have had more difficulties with the unions over wage restraint (a subject ignored by the editors of this collection of essays) and if they had tried to get rid of controls, in face of the shortages of everything, they would very soon have had to restore them or risk far worse trouble than the spivs or the black market of which Mr. Hughes and other contributors to The Age of Austerity make so much. Austerity, in short, was not, as the Tory propagandists proclaimed, the result of Socialist experiments but the in- escapable condition of the transition from war to peace. It was a fortunate thing for Britain that the Labour Government, whatever its faults, had the courage to stick to a policy of 'fair shares' and not repeat the far worse mis- takes of 1918-26.

The faults of the Labour Government are fully rehearsed in the present volume of essays. Some of them are serious and well-written pieces of work : David Marquand on Cripps; Peter Jenkins on Bevan and nationalisation; Godfrey Hodgson on the Steel Debates. ,But the picture as a whole is out of balance. Take foreign policy for example. Mr. David Leitch castigates Bevin for his policy towards Israel, Mr. David Watt contributes an ingenious essay on the withdrawal from Greece in which he manages to make everybody look silly. And that is all. Nothing about the Marshall Plan, the Berlin Airlift, Bevin's fight to make the Labour Movement face the threat from Russia, NATO and the partnership with the US which, despite the anti-AMericanism of which so much is made here, provided the West with sufficient stability to make Europe's recovery in the 1950s possible.

In 1951, Labour, exhausted and defeated, -yielded place to the Tories, and the Affluent Society succeeded to the Age of Austerity. Cause and effect? Hardly. Labour had no doubt failed to establish a Socialist Commonwealth (after the first flush of victory in 1945 who seriously supposed they would?), but Tory policy in practice kept sufficiently close to Labour's pragmatic mixture of Keynes, Beveridge and Full Employment for the Economist to coin the word Butskellism. It was changed circumstances rather than a change in policy which ushered in the age of plenty: that, and the technological revolution, particu- larly the mass production and marketing of consumer goods from nylons to television sets. Both would have produced the same effect what- ever government was in power. If it had been Labour they would have claimed the new 'consumer democracy' as the fruits of Socialist planning, with about as much justification as the Conservatives claimed it for free enterprise.

Less concerned with politics and less skilful in handling them than the best of the , con- tributors to The Age of Austerity, Mr. Hopkins is none the less a far shrewder guide to the real revolution that has transformed the Britain of 1939 into that of 1963, a social and economic not a political revolution. Less hampered by the precocious disillusionment which weighs heavily on the authors of Messrs. Sissons' and French's volume, be puts the age of austerity in its true perspective as not only an inevitable sequel to the war but a necessary prelude to the brash, prosperous but egalitarian society which has