Rethinking 'Set the People Free': Neoliberalism and Freedom Rhetoric in Churchill’s Conservative Party

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Abstract

It is often assumed that ‘Hayekian’ or ‘neoliberal’ influences lay behind Conservative attacks on socialism in 1945 and subsequent calls to ‘set the people free’ in 1950 and 1951. This assumption has had consequences for our understanding of late-1940s Conservatism and for wider interpretations of post-war politics. Heeding recent calls to reconnect the inter-war and post-war parties and to pay closer attention to how opponents and contexts generate arguments, this article revisits senior Conservatives’ rhetoric between 1945 and 1951 to break the link between neoliberal influence and freedom rhetoric. First, it argues that the rhetoric of 1945 was derived from a distinctly Conservative lineage of interwar argument and reflected strategies developed before the publication of F. A. Hayek’s ‘The Road to Serfdom’. Second, it demonstrates that senior Conservatives’ emancipatory rhetoric in opposition after 1945 was neither a simple continuation of these themes nor primarily a response to the public’s growing antipathy towards rationing and controls. Rather, such rhetoric was a complex response to Britain’s immediate economic difficulties and the political challenges presented by austerity. Finally, the article sheds new light on the strategy that governed the party’s campaigns in 1950 and 1951. Churchill and others’ calls to ‘set the people free’ stemmed from a belief that the rhetorical opportunity lay in reconciling liberty with security. In that sense, the leadership had moved beyond begrudging compromises with the ‘Attleean settlement’ and was instead attempting to define a new identity within the parameters of the welfare state.
Original languageEnglish
Article numberhwx050
Number of pages25
JournalTwentieth Century British History
Early online date19 Sep 2017
DOIs
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 19 Sep 2017

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