Can Attlee be applied today?

Its not long before I go on my holidays, which is both joyous and sad. Joyous because I will get to relax on the beaches of la coruna, but sad because I’m giving up the internet for a couple of weeks. In fact, I was going to give it up today, and resisted much temptation, but certain, for want of a better expression, signs made me sign on and write the following entry.

The temptations all started on Saturday when reading the Guardian, I noticed a letter which had been written by Michael Bath of Rochester, Kent, which read;

Instead of interviewing four monetarist ex-chancellors, why don’t you explain how Attlee funded his programme of nationalisation, and founded the NHS, when the country had been virtually bankrupted by the second world war?

Between doing bits and pieces over the weekend I had the urge to write my own bit on Attlee, but I managed to suppress these urges.

Then I began reading over my notes on a book about my hometown of Pitsea, written by a former councillor George Ross, who was writing about two acts, New Towns Act and Town and Country Planning Acts, founded by Attlee’s government in 1946/7 – to which Churchill’s secretary, in a letter of replyto Ross, said that Churchill supported the creation of new towns, but opposed the ‘socialist Town and Country Planning Act’.

At this time I felt ravenous to fulfil my typing urges, so I decided to quickly do the rounds on the blogs, when I found this – admittedly after typing “Attlee” into Google blog search – by Howard Denton referring to an article written in the Daily Mail about Attlee. I thought here we go, some righty pouring his or her scorn. But I was wrong. Dominic Sandbrook, the historian, was actually very nice about Attlee, calling him ‘an honest politician’, during his review of a book written on Attlee by Frank Field MP (who Sandbrook was also very nice about).

It was too late for me; I was already writing it/this!

So back to Mr. Bath of Rochester’s question, how did Attlee manage to get all these excellent measures through whilst in the throes of financial instability? The long answer can be found in sterling books such as Andrew Thorpe’s A History of the British Labour Party but I will run through the short answer.

All parties at the time (Lab, Con and Libs) supported a major reform on the economy after the war. Radical measures needed to be taken because a quarter of Britain’s national wealth was spent during the war years, such proposals were met using insights provided by William Beveridge, and captured in the Beveridge Report.

Churchill, during the time of the coalition government, was the war expert, but when the war ended, the Tories could only use the image of Churchill as their political clout, when what was needed was full commitment to dealing with the economy.

Sandbrook’s article was good to call Attlee an honest politician, something for today’s politicians to look up to, but less was said about how Attlee managed to keep unemployment at bay, seldom exceeding 500,000, or 3%, of the workforce out of work. In 1946 the Bank of England and CAA (Civil Aviation Authority, anything not military aircraft) were nationalised. In 1947 many other industries and utilities were put in public ownership including coal mines, railways and road haulage, followed a year later by electricity and gas. In Attlee’s final year as PM the steel industry was nationalised, putting 20% of the British economy in public hands.

It is no irony of history lost that Labour polled more votes than ever in 1951, but lost to the Tories on account of the first-past-the-post voting system, a hot potato at the moment with those on the left, not least for Neal Lawson of Compass.

Could Attlee’s methods be a lesson for today? It depends on how history writes bank bailouts, but telling the government to keep their noses out how the banks should operate must not be met with lily-livered ambivalence.

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