Post-WWII Prime Ministers of the UK - Domestic Policies

Winston Churchill (Conservative) 1940-1945
Following the triumphant victory of the Allies in Europe (8 May 1945), Churchill called a General Election on 5 July 1945 – and lost.

Clement Attlee (Labour) 1945-1951
Atlee won the 1945 election and had to quickly rebuild the country.
Key elements of Attlee’s time in government were:
  • Implementation of the Welfare State, providing ‘cradle to the grave’ care, including the creation of National Health Service (NHS)
  • Nationalisation of coal mining, electricity, railways, air transport
  • Rationing continued (meat until 1954)
  • Much of this was funded by Marshall Plan aid from the US

Winston Churchill (Conservative) 1951-1955

Roy Jenkins: Churchill was ‘gloriously unfit for office’, even at his election
  • Accepted the ‘Welfare State’ reforms
  • Minimal impact on domestic policy
  • Resigned due to ill-health 1955, succeeded by Eden

Anthony Eden (Conservative) 1955-57
Despite increasing the Tory majority from 17 to 60 shortly after becoming PM, Eden’s term as PM is always tainted by Suez, after which he resigned in Jan 1957. suggests Eden left economic and domestic policy to Richard Butler, Deputy PM, to focus on foreign policy (at an uncertain time of the Cold War, with Britain’s last vestiges of Empire seeking independence and too costly to maintain).

Harold Macmillan (Conservative) 1957-1963
Domestic success revolved around economic planning, determined to avoid Depression-era mass unemployment. Was able to ride the 1950s boom, declaring Britons ‘had never had it so good’.
Macmillan resigned in October 1963 with health issues, after a year of balance of payments problems and the sacking of six ministers.

Sir Alec Douglas-Home (Conservative) 1963-64
Only spent a year at No. 10, coming at the end of a thirteen year, four PM Tory reign. The key domestic success of Home was the abolition of resale price maintenance (the agreement between retailers and distributors on a price for a product. Its abolition meant the beginning of ‘discount sales’ – a great thing!!)

Harold Wilson (Labour) 1964-1970
  • liberalised laws on censorship, divorce, abortion, and homosexuality
  • abolished capital punishment
  • steps towards tackling discrimination against women and ethnic minorities, and
  • created the Open University
  • after big balance of payments deficits, devalued the pound (£1=$US2.80 à£1=$US2.40 – obviously, this is in the days when govts fixed the exchange rate rather than the market)

Sir Edward Heath (Conservative) 1970-1974
A time of economic and industrial strife, after continuing unemployment rises faced major industrial disputes after the passing of the Industrial Relations Act (1971) which allowed voluntary unionism. After a number of strikes, especially the Three Day Week strike (1974) where electricity was limited to three consecutive days, Heath lost the Feb 1974 General Election 297 - 301 (318 majority) to Wilson.

Harold Wilson (Labour) 1974-76

Wilson hung onto the Labour leadership through four years of Opposition (no mean feat) and ‘won’ the Feb 1974 election with a minority government. With the Liberals not holding enough seats to make a majority in coalition, Wilson called another election in October, and gained a majority of three seats. Domestic policy initiatives included:
  • social reforms in education, health, housing, gender equality, price controls, pensions, provisions for disabled people and child poverty.
  • As a result, income tax on top earners increased to 83%.
  • Job creation remained an issue – by 1975, unemployment had reached 1 million.

James Callaghan (Labour) 1976-1979
As Chancellor of the Exchequer, Callaghan was responsible for devaluing the pound in 1967 and was Home Secretary as violence increased in Northern Ireland. Despite these earlier issues, when Wilson resigned, Callaghan won the leadership of the Labour Party and became PM in 1976. Having lost the majority, Callaghan had to rely on the Liberal Party (1977-78) then the Scottish National Party (1978-79).
  • Housing (Homeless Persons) Act 1977 – local authorities are responsible for housing homeless;
  • 1976: inflation 17%; unemployment 5%. Tried to tackle inflation by wage restrictions of public employees – strikes in the ‘Winter of Discontent’ 1978-79.
  • Vote of no confidence passed House by one vote; Thatcher won subsequent election.

Margaret Thatcher (Conservative) 1979-1990
The first female British Prime Minister was initially hampered by the same economic problems which befell Callaghan, but introduced the Thatcherism economic strategy:
  • Lessen government involvement in the economy
  • The restriction of trade union leaders' de jure (legal) powers and the breaking of those trade union leaders' de facto (actual) power.
  • The privatization of nationalized enterprises in coal, iron and steel, gas, electricity, water supply, railways, trucking, airlines and telecommunications.
  • The privatization of public housing.
  • The reduction of income tax rates.
  • The institution of monetarist monetary policy with a strong emphasis on controlling inflation.
  • The restriction of local government spending and the reform of local government finance
  • The closer integration of the British economy with those of the European Community (

Thatcher resigned in November 1990 after internal party disputes over European policy, with one leadership ballot showing considerable unhappiness with her leadership (although she did win with a majority).

John Major (Conservative) 1990-1997
After taking over from Thatcher and winning the 1992 General Election, the Conservative Party began to unravel, principally over Europe.
Major’s key achievements were to oversee an improvement in the economy and lay the foundations for Northern Ireland peace, which was concluded in 1998 under Blair.

Tony Blair (Labour) 1997-2007
After nearly twenty years in Opposition and divisive infighting, Blair led “New Labour” to landslide victories in 1997 and 2001. In his first term (the scope of this unit), key achievements included:
  • Scottish and Welsh devolution (and Northern Ireland following the peace)
  • 1998 Good Friday Agreement with the political parties of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland Government
  • Reform to the House of Lords
  • Human Rights Act
  • Freedom of Information Act - which he later regretted:
    • "Freedom of Information. Three harmless words. I look at those words as I write them, and feel like shaking my head till it drops off my shoulders. You idiot. You naive, foolish, irresponsible nincompoop. There is really no description of stupidity, no matter how vivid, that is adequate. I quake at the imbecility of it.
      Once I appreciated the full enormity of the blunder, I used to say - more than a little unfairly - to any civil servant who would listen: Where was Sir Humphrey when I needed him? We had legislated in the first throes of power. How could you, knowing what you know have allowed us to do such a thing so utterly undermining of sensible government?"
      Tony Blair, A Journey, Hutchinson, September 2010 (