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‘Responsible’ Capitalism and the “Industrial Charter”

6 February 2012

Drawing on the ideas of Eden and Macmillan outlined in a previous post the Industrial Charter was published in May 1947. It remains the clearest example of 1940s ‘responsible’ capitalism. A reaction to Labour’s 1945 election victory, it aimed to provide a clear statement of policy that was both progressive and Conservative. Many academic historians see it as representing a seminal moment in the history of post war Conservatism. However, beyond this, the Charter has been mainly forgotten (keep posted for an updated Wikipedia page).

Like Cameron’s more recent vision, the Industrial Charter was based on a principle of fairness. It also adopted a fairly conciliatory tone: containing a ‘Pledge to the Consumer’, a ‘Woman’s Charter’ and a ‘Workers Charter’. Throughout, the emphasis was placed on the role of individuals within a society. It called for a cutting of state red tape and urged that a ‘sense of realism, free opportunity, incentives and justice’ should ‘inspire all industrial policy’ (p.4). Drawing a clear line between itself and the Labour Party, it declared that ‘men cannot live by economics alone’ and argued that economic incentives had been removed and replaced by a ‘rigid straight jacket of doctrinaire political theory [and] unnecessary controls’ (p.1).

The Charter was generally well received and sold relatively well. It was well placed to capitalise on growing popular disillusion with Labour and a popular hostility towards state ‘controls’. However, this was not an entirely positive story. Despite its favourable press, the historian Andrew Taylor contends that the Charter should be regarded as a propaganda failure as it failed to reach its intended audience. In fact, a report conducted by the social research organisation Mass Observation found that eighty per cent of one sample had no knowledge of the Charter whatsoever and that there was an ‘almost complete ignorance from all groups’ when asked about Conservative policy.

More worryingly, the Charter had not removed internal party divisions. When put to Winston Churchill, the party leader’s initial reaction was to exclaim ‘but I do not agree with a word of this’. For Taylor, this can be attributed to an inherent weakness within a Conservative policy that argued for both ‘responsibility’ and ‘freedom’. Whether Cameron’s vision is any more successful remains to be seen.

For more information see:

Andrew Taylor, ‘Speaking to Democracy: the Conservative Party and Mass Opinion from the 1920s to the 1950s’, in Mass Conservatism: The Conservatives and the Public since the 1880’s, eds. S. Ball and I. Holliday (London, 2002), pp. 78-99

Mass Observation, File Report 2516, ‘The Industrial Charter’ (1947)


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