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Reassessing Britain’s ‘Post-war consensus’: the politics of reason 1945–1979

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In politics the way things are done matters more than what is done.

Magee (1962).

I will join you in the fight against Socialist dogmatism wherever it rears its head. But do not ask me to oppose it with an equal or opposite Conservative dogmatism.

Boyle (1971).

Abstract

Since the late-1970s, scholars have been engaged in a vibrant debate about the nature of post-war British politics. While some writers have suggested that the three decades that succeeded the Second World War witnessed a bi-partisan consensus on key policy questions, others have argued that it was conflict, not agreement, that marked the period. This article offers a novel contribution to this controversy by drawing attention to the epistemological beliefs of the Labour and Conservative parties. It argues that once these beliefs are considered, it becomes possible to reconcile some of the competing claims made by proponents and critics of the ‘post-war consensus’ thesis. Labour and Conservative leaders may have been wedded to different beliefs, but they also shared a common enthusiasm for empiricist reasoning and were both reluctant to identify fixed political ‘ends’ that they sought to realise. Consequently, they were both committed to evolutionary forms of change, and they eschewed the notion that any social or political arrangement was of universal value.

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Notes

  1. See Kavanagh and Morris (1994, pp. 4–8).

  2. For a summary of this literature, see Fraser (2000).

  3. For an alternative approach to exploring the post-war consensus, see Toye (2012).

  4. In this article, ‘Conservatism’ refers to the ideas and beliefs of the British Conservative party, while ‘conservatism’ denotes the ideological family with which it is associated.

  5. Macmillan first articulated such a strategy in 1927. See (Boothby et al. 1927).

  6. Also see Jenkins (1952, p. 72).

  7. For a discussion of conservative epistemology, see O’Hara (2011, pp. 23–51), and Dorey (2011, pp. 31–40).

  8. Magee had stood as a parliamentary candidate in the 1959 general election.

  9. It is instructive to compare the epistemology of John Strachey with that of Anthony Crosland. See Strachey (1956).

  10. It is notable that revisionists often privileged empirical evidence in their efforts to understand social problems. See Anthony Crosland (1958, pp. 86–89).

  11. Also see Jenkins (1972, p. 121).

  12. Magee wrote that Popper was the ‘biggest direct influence’ on his thinking. Magee (1962, p. 15).

  13. There was considerable overlap between Popper and Oakeshott’s ideas. See Jacobs and Tregenza (2014).

  14. One such programme can be identified in Hogg’s The Case for Conservatism. In it, Hogg (1947, p. 300) advocated ‘Social Democracy without socialism’.

  15. Also see Heath (1998, p. 576) and Gilmour (1978, p. 173).

  16. Patten was making reference to a statement by Oakeshott. See Oakeshott (1962, p. 396).

  17. See, for instance, Crosland (2006, pp. 298–299). I owe this point to an anonymous reader.

  18. Elsewhere, Durbin wrote that ‘We do not know ourselves. We are not the simple creatures of rational purpose that we think we are’. See Durbin (1940, p. 72).

  19. For Ayer’s views regarding ethical propositions, see Ayer (1952, pp. 106–110).

  20. Northam, Conservatism, p. 61. Also see Hogg, The Case for Conservatism, p. 12.

  21. Francis Pym articulated this argument in succinct terms. ‘Nothing absolute’, he wrote, ‘is right for every occasion’. Pym (1984, p. 193).

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Blackburn, D. Reassessing Britain’s ‘Post-war consensus’: the politics of reason 1945–1979. Br Polit 13, 195–214 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1057/s41293-017-0049-5

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