All Commentary
Friday, December 1, 1995

Experiencing Socialist Britain

A Personal Tale of Work in Two Nationalized Industries

Mr. Segerdal resides in Glendale, California, where he is a writer.

On September 2, 1945, World War II ended. Yet, on the economic front, Britain had little cause for celebration. Six years of war had left the country’s productive capacity in a state of near collapse. In a general election earlier that year, the majority of Britain’s so-called working class shattered the election hopes of Winston Churchill and his Conservative Party and produced a landslide victory for Britain’s Labour Party under its leader, Clement Atlee. When the final results came in, voters gave the Labour Party a majority of 145 seats over all other parties. Churchill, still flourishing his famous cigar, drove to Buckingham Palace and offered the resignation of his government to the King.

Why did the British people embrace socialism in such vast numbers? Why, for almost the next 30 years did they continue to vacillate between socialist and conservative administrations, albeit lukewarm conservatives who proved themselves incapable of breaking the power of the trade unions and the bureaucracy of Britain’s cradle-to-grave welfare state? As one who worked in three widely differing occupations during this time period, two of which—coal mining and dentistry—became the targets of socialist doctrine by virtue of being nationalized, I should like to offer some insight into these questions.

The new socialist government faced many critical tasks, and central to addressing these tasks was the doctrine of public ownership. Hence, the Labour Government’s program was nationalization on a massive scale: hospitals, medical, and dental professions, the Bank of England, gas and electricity, iron and steel, road haulage, railroads, civil aviation, Cable & Wireless and, at the top of the list, Britain’s coal mining industry. Coal production was the key to economic and industrial recovery. Therefore, as an alternative to conscription in the armed forces, young men had the choice of serving their country for two years by enlisting as coal miners. I decided to do just that. We were known as “Bevin Boys,” named after the Minister of Labor and National Service, Ernest Bevin.

In the Mines

My personal tale of those shabby yet stimulating years begins in early 1946, in my hometown in Leicestershire, a county situated in Britain’s semi-rural, semi-industrial Midlands. Despite its otherwise agricultural background and only one colliery in the town itself, the late Victorians gave it the somewhat misleading name of Coalville. There were, of course, other small collieries nearby, and one of these, Whitwick Colliery, was where I worked for two years. At that time, the views of the coal miner, though influenced by his own unique grievances, were those of most labor trade union leaders and, to a lesser extent, those of Labour voters in general.

Towards the end of the war, there was a vigorous, though subdued, word-of-mouth campaign directed at the millions of men and women in the armed forces (many of whom would be voting for the first time at war’s end) urging them to “Vote Labour and keep out the Tories!” Furthermore, there was the convincing influence of the older population who had filled the minds of their offspring with pre-war memories of deprivation, hardship, and hunger under “the bosses” and “private enterprise.” Working-class resentment of the upper class, overlooked during the war, reappeared with the collapse of Hitler’s Third Reich in May 1945. To this day, many workers tend to resent financial success.

In the 1930s, times were certainly very bad for many (though not all) working people. For coal miners in particular, things were really grim. Miners constantly reminded me, the doctor’s son, of their pitiful pre-war existence, though oddly enough, our Leicestershire coal industry was the one industrial region that suffered least of all, mainly due to its agricultural setting and the cultivation of small land allotments by the miners. Even so, my fellow workers were quick to point out the deplorable conditions of their “comrades” in the north of England, Scotland, and that dominant symbol of stagnation and distress, the coalfields of South Wales.

At my colliery, there was always some miner with enough perception of history to remind me of their lost hero—the “socialist” Duke of Windsor who, before he abdicated and married “that woman from Baltimore,” visited the South Wales coal fields and uttered those memorable words: “Something must be done.” This statement from the uncrowned Edward VIII bolstered the hopes of every coal miner in Britain. For a future king to talk like this in the 1930s was unheard of, not to mention a royal guarantee that things would improve.

There is no question that Britain’s coal industry had been neglected over the years, and miners had endured far greater hardship than any other segment of society. Although a good number of incoming Labour Party parliamentarians held capitalism responsible for this sort of pre-war economic instability, it never dawned on any of their more philosophical brethren that maybe, just maybe, something on the other side of the Atlantic called the Smoot-Hawley tariffs might have had a hand in decimating world trade.

Against this backdrop of lost promise, the miners always cherished an enduring vision—nationalization of their industry. The Coal Mines Act finally fulfilled the miners’ dream on January 1, 1948. The official transfer from private to public ownership was at 11 a.m. that day, and down below at Whitwick Colliery, the anticipation was like a countdown to a moon landing. Seconds before the hour arrived, the coal-carrying machinery and electric power stopped, and started again on the dot of eleven o’clock as miners cheered and placed colored bunting on the coal tubs on their journey on to the surface. Prime Minister Atlee said, “The day would be remembered as one of the great days in the industrial history of our country.” At one colliery in South Wales, whole families were up before dawn as miners and their pit lamps formed a cavalcade of light over the Welsh valley. A brass band played the Last Post as the night shift arrived at the surface, and when the blue flag of the new National Coal Board was raised, the whole valley cheered as someone shouted into the microphone: “Private enterprise has had it!”

Similar celebrations took place all over Britain on that winter’s day, and reveal, as no economic treatise could reveal, the commitment, not only of miners but of millions of other unionized workers to the socialist agenda. They also give a clue as to why Britain’s coal industry was lifted out of the doldrums and into high production during the first few years of public ownership: it wasn’t socialism that was working, but the miners’ dedication to both their own success and that of the Labour Government. In striving to reach daily production targets, they would say to me, “Come on lad, we’re doing this for Labour!”

Worker Shortages

In 1947, and for years afterwards, most of British industry was undermanned. With employment vacancies everywhere, one could leave one job and walk right into another, prompting The Economist to write that socialism and the welfare state had removed both “the stick and the carrot.” The three most powerful and devoted Labour Party leaders of that time were Prime Minister Clement Atlee, Ernest Bevin, and Sir Stafford Cripps. Ernest Bevin, who became the astute and perceptive Foreign Secretary, was markedly anti-Communist, and worked exceptionally hard, as did the church-going Minister of Economic Affairs and Chancellor of the Exchequer, Sir Stafford Cripps. Cripps, with his unbecoming stern features, unjustly nicknamed “Britain’s Economic Dictator,” was an extremely compassionate man with high moral values. In fact, looking once more at why so many Britons embraced socialism, it is important to realize that the post-war leaders of the movement nursed a sincere though misguided desire to improve the lot of working men and women in Britain. Unlike various politicians in other lands, they never sought self-aggrandizement or enrichment at the expense of the population. With its background of Nonconformist Methodism, corruption and greed were not hallmarks of the Labour Party.

The first post-war Labour government held office from 1945 to 1951, but by the end of this period people were starting to question socialist policies. I recall one little episode which poignantly symbolized the offensive and dreary nature of this doctrine. A very successful local haulage company had always proudly displayed the owner’s name on the front of its building. The day after nationalization of all road haulage companies in 1947, a cheap-looking sign with the words “British Road Services” was crudely nailed over the company’s elegant lettering, a melancholy message to capitalism that, in the socialist maxim of the period, “We are the masters now.” Even so, with the exception of the extreme left, many in the Labour Party were concerned about Communist influence in the trade unions. Arthur Homer, for instance, as General Secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers was a prominent Communist Party member. Although there were only a handful of Communists in the Labour Party itself, Labour Members of Parliament always sang “The Red Flag” on official occasions! Due to funding of the Party by the unions (an arrangement legalized by the Trade Union Act of 1913), a unique institutional feature existed which, perhaps even more than Labour’s inherent socialistic creed, was to inhibit Britain’s economic growth for the next 30 years after 1945.

Health Care

Prior to the introduction of Britain’s National Health Service on July 5, 1948, no one went without health care. Patients paid only a few pence per week for this benefit and, as the eldest son of a busy medical practitioner, I was able to observe decent care firsthand. For example, my father made house calls every day (as did other doctors) and during my late teens I would often accompany him on such visits. He would also be called out in the middle of the night, no matter what the weather, handling emergencies and delivering babies. Would faceless bureaucrats of a government-run scheme be likewise capable of delivering benefits superior to my father’s service? They would not. Medical practitioners were dedicated, and often underpaid, but the system worked.

The medical profession had always supported the concept of health care for all, but the majority of its members did not like the restrictions outlined in the government-run scheme (such as a ban on the sale and purchase of practices).[1] They liked even less the scheme’s overlord, the Minister of Health, Aneurin Bevan. In 1939, this former Welsh coal miner was expelled from the Labour Party for eight months for seeking a Popular Front with the Communist Party, and expelled from the Parliamentary Labour Party in 1955 for breaches of party discipline. Though self-educated, intelligent, and a very persuasive speaker, Bevan was so far to the left that many Labour MPs wanted him expelled from the Labour Party itself. Such was the nature of the man the British Medical Association had to reckon with, and they arranged several meetings in order to hear what he had to say. My father attended one of these meetings, and told me how members of his profession sat in silent contempt as Bevan waved his hands over the panorama of fine furnishings and silver tableware, boasting, “I’m going to do away with all of this.”

The fiery Welshman may not have done away with fine furnishings, but he did pound into reality what was probably the most revolutionary social program ever undertaken in a modern democracy. With enormous public support for the health scheme, resistance from the medical and dental professions dwindled. Finally, the British Medical Association reluctantly recommended that its members deliver themselves into socialist bondage, and by the time the day of inception arrived, most doctors had signed up into the service. On that warm July Monday morning, Britain’s top-selling Daily Mirror proclaimed: “The Day is here!” From this moment on, all adults had to pay their weekly National Insurance contribution which entitled them to free medical and dental treatment, hospitalization and surgery, artificial limbs, wheelchairs, hearing aids, and other medical appliances, eye-testing and spectacles, even free wigs! Doctors continued to work as they had always worked, but now they were doing so by permission of the government.

However, dentists in the National Health Service did not continue to work as before. There was an insatiable demand for both “free teeth” and “free glasses,” and the rush for dental treatment was exceptionally great. By the time I graduated from dental school in 1955, and for many years afterwards, there was no let up in the demand for dental treatment. “The British are well known for their bad teeth,” Hitler once said, a regrettable truism made worse by an ongoing shortage of dentists, a fact not unnoticed by young Australian dental surgeons who flocked to the mother country by the hundreds. I, like the rest of the dental profession, continued to be booked weeks in advance, and late night appointments were not uncommon. As servants of the state, we were also kept busy with form-filling, but unlike the medical practitioners who received a fixed salary for the maximum-allowed 4,000 patients, whether seen for treatment or not, dentists were paid per item of treatment completed. In fact, the government set no limit on the number of patients a dentist could take on.

As a result, dental incomes started to rise beyond the socialist acceptance level and by 1949, incomes over and above a certain sum per year were cut in half, and further fee-cutting continued well into the 1950s. When new dental innovations such as the revolutionary high-speed air-drill arrived, more dental restorations done in less time became grounds for cutting fees once again. Increased production lowers prices in a free market, but with the state ordering price cuts for all dentists, this was no free market.

When a patient arrived for examination, the dentist was required to fill out a chart detailing all treatment required, and this was then submitted to an official body, the Dental Estimates Board, for their approval. In other words, government-appointed officials would decide if a gold inlay was necessary or not. Unlike today, very few people chose to pay privately for dental or medical services. Administrated by regional Executive Councils, dentists were required to follow rules such as posting notices in their office telling patients how to complain about their dentist! Another factor which dentists had to endure was that of random inspections by a Regional Dental Officer. In signing for treatment, patients automatically agreed to possible inspection on completion of that treatment. The officers were dental surgeons themselves, of course, but if they decided a dentist’s work was unsatisfactory, it had to be done again at the dentist’s expense. However, the dentist could request a visit from the dental officer if he or she didn’t agree with some aspect of the Dental Estimates Board’s decision. Quality control is desirable in any type of work, but in the dental health service it was often used to question the clinical diagnosis of the dentist. In many cases, it forbade an operative procedure in favor of some cheaper, less expensive treatment which was not necessarily clinically sound. I remember one instance where a young girl was refused a porcelain crown, and though clinically required for this particular case, she was told she must make do with an acrylic crown. The dentist in question had his medical defense lawyer defend the case to a successful conclusion. This and similar cases were then presented to Parliament by the Medical Protection Society, resulting in favorable changes to the relevant regulations.

British hospitals and doctors’ offices were dreary places, but up to the early fifties, most of British life was dreary anyway. Throughout that time, we envied the affluence on the other side of the Atlantic as socialism continued to inhibit an expansive private sector. Rationing of candy, clothing, and fuel continued for a varying number of years, and food didn’t come off the ration until 1954, nine years after war’s end. When complaints were made about the standard grade of rationed cheese, the Minister of Food, Dr. Edith Summerskill, retorted: “Cheese is cheese. What do you want with variety.” I remember going on a day trip to Belgium in 1953, and was amazed at the unrationed availability of consumer goods. As for health care, it certainly improved, but I did not see socialism as the source of this betterment. Great strides were made in diagnostic and laboratory facilities, but this was the result of medical progress, not Labour Party embellishments. The dramatic fall in cases of diphtheria, pneumonia, and tuberculosis my father had to treat was due to the advance of science, not the advance of socialism.

Although the Conservative Party was elected to office in 1951, they only had a 17-vote majority, not enough to dismantle the vast implementations of socialism, many of which had become an integral part of British life. In 1953, they did succeed in denationalizing iron, steel, and road transport, and in 1955 the Conservatives won again by a slightly larger margin. From here on, alternating with Labour governments under Harold Wilson, the Conservative Party tried to dismantle socialist programs, but tended to assume that their legislation might be dismantled by the next Labour government. However, by the late sixties, damage to Britain’s economy was less to do with the Labour Party, and everything to do with the trade unions who were now initiating strikes on the slightest pretext. Because of the geographic nature of the British Isles, a rail strike, a coal strike, a fuel strike, a dock strike, any one of these could, and did, bring the country to a halt. The Conservative administration of Edward Heath from 1970 to 1974, had to call an election in order to offer the Labour Party the chance of winning and thus handling the devastating “three-day week” which the unions had brought about. One essential service after another was shut down as employees in one industry were intimidated by the unions to strike in support of strikers in another industry. If workers didn’t oblige, noisy unemployed youths were recruited as “pickets” and rushed to wherever they were needed.

Unemployed youth? Socialist doctrine had established a new category in Britain’s class system, namely thousands of overwelfared and under-educated youngsters from which was spawned a subculture of untalented youth, personified at their worst by beer-swilling soccer hooligans. And by the early seventies, we had another fad to contend with, the so-called “New Left,” a strange amalgam of hippies, nihilistic intellect, political crackpots, and their cult-like guru, Herbert Marcuse. Endless protest marches for vague, undefined causes created traffic chaos week after week in London.

By 1979, the British electorate had had enough. Margaret Thatcher was elected on a platform that promised privatization and the reversal of most Labour’s policies. The lessons of socialism must have run deep in the minds of the electorate, for they have continued to elect Conservative administrations to this day. What of the Labour Party? Under their new leader, Tony Blair, they have decided to drop the party’s constitutional commitment to nationalization, thus affirming their claim that they have finally broken away from their traditional socialist past, a past now lost on the winds of history. []

1.   Ed.: See the interesting discussion by David Green, Reinventing Civil Society: The Rediscovery of Welfare Without Politics (London: IEA, 1993), pp. 88-120, on the crowding out of private-sector medical institutions and medical aid because of government policies in Britain.