Seventy years ago today, Labour MPs mounted the biggest rebellion of the second world war against the wartime coalition government’s reluctance to implement the Beveridge report. The overwhelming majority of the parliamentary Labour Party voted against its own leadership – coalition cabinet members Clement Attlee, Herbert Morrison and Ernie Bevin who had pleaded with them not to do so.
Herbert Morrison wound up the debate for the government, in what Tory diarist described as “a balanced, clever, eloquent speech which revealed his increasing Conservatism.” His biographers, Bernard Donoghue and George Jones, nevertheless recognised that in his own party he paid “a political price for his parliamentary triumph”.
Amongst the arguments he deployed in favour of the Government’s line of welcoming most of the Beveridge report in principle but avoiding commitments was one eerily familiar today: “There has been too much of parties in Opposition or semi-detached Opposition giving reckless undertakings and making, rather wild promises and then not carrying them out when they are in power.”
James Griffiths, future Minister for National Insurance, opened the debate on the rebel amendment calling for “early implementation of the plan.” The Beveridge plan has become … a symbol of the kind of Britain we are determined to build when the victory is won, a Britain in which the mass of the people shall be ensured security from preventable want.”
He had little time for the Government’s prevarication on financial grounds: “We have called for sacrifices, and that is our responsibility. The response of our people has been wonderful, beyond praise, and I hope we shall remember that we owe these people a debt that we must honour and that we shall begin to honour that debt to-day.”
The rebels included recent Coalition cabinet member Arthur Greenwood and chief whip Charles Edwards, future Minister of Health, Nye Bevan and Manny Shinwell. Altogether 97 Labour MPs – almost everyone outside the government – together with assorted independents, ILPers, Common Wealth MPs, Communists and the odd Liberal including David Lloyd-George voted for Griffiths amendment.
We know the outcome. In spite of the highest level of public sector debt in 1945 since just after the battle of Waterloo — about four times today’s level as a proportion of GDP — the Labour Government did implement the Beveridge plan to create an HS and welfare state. We can learn from it. Promise what’s needed and keep our promise.