By Jordan Cochrane
The idea of a post-war consensus has been used by historians and political commentators to describe a period of general agreement between the two main political parties between 1945 and 1979. While there are varying definitions of the term ‘consensus’ and what it entails, none adequately defends its usefulness as a concept to describe the post-war era. The writer who popularised the phrase, Paul Addison, later admitted that he had exaggerated the political centrism of the era. Despite this withdrawal, there has remained considerable debate as to the extent of the post-war consensus, with Kerr warning against oversimplification of the term, while Garnett and Lynch maintain that the consensus was a ‘broad agreement between the major parties on the main elements of policy’. Whichever way consensus is defined, it fails to be a useful concept for two key reasons. The first is that between the two main political parties there were innumerable confrontations, particularly during the 1960s and onwards. There is no denying that the welfare state acted as a centre-point accepted by both parties, however clashes included disagreements over foreign policy, nationalisation and British membership of the European Economic Community (EEC). Secondly, party politics is not limited to the front benches of Labour and the Conservatives. From the outset, Labour in particular suffered from party infighting and rebellions. The conservatives, while on the whole more unified, also suffered defections from their backbenchers. By restricting the concept to the elites of Labour and the Conservatives, consensus writers overlook substantial conflict. These conflicts make it clear that consensus, in any form, fails to provide an accurate representation of British post-war politics.