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The Establishment of the Post-War Consensus, 1954-64

Published in History Review

Andrew Boxer explains why party political strife lacked real substance in the period after 1945.

In February 1954 The Economist invented a new word – ‘Butskellism’. The magazine thought that the policies of Chancellor of the Exchequer of the day, the Conservative R.A. Butler, were so similar to those of his Labour predecessor, Hugh Gaitskell, that they had been devised by a ‘Mr Butskell’. The name caught on – there really did seem to be no difference between the economic policies of the two main parties. ‘Butskellism’ outlived both Butler and Gaitskell because successive Conservative and Labour governments appeared, not only to tackle Britain’s economic problems in the same ways, but to share a wide range of policies and attitudes. Most historians today accept this view and argue that, for 30 years after the Second World War, there was a widespread agreement among the British people and their political leaders about the policies and style of their government. This is known as ‘the post-war consensus’ – and, it is claimed, it remained in place until it was dismantled by Mrs Thatcher’s governments of the 1980s.

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