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From the NS archive: The politics of austerity

3 May 1974: Hard political choices mean being honest with the voters, and Labour was the party to do that.

By Christopher Price

In 1974 times were hard for many people. The choices for a government of any hue, thought the Labour MP Christopher Price, were limited. The best option was to be honest and rebuild trust between the electorate and the elected. “I believe that Labour is now the natural party to rein back from the growth-mania of the 1950s and 1960s,” he wrote in this analysis in the magazine, a few months after his party had returned to government in the February 1974 general election. “In other words part of Labour’s task now is to point out limits to growth and affluence, rather than endless future vistas of expansion.” Pie-in-the-sky politics, he said, had damaged trust and made necessary cutbacks unpalatable. If Labour could show that everyone was, in all honesty, “in it together” then the ideological battle was half won despite the hardships of the time.

The Labour Government has started well. Better than in 1964. It has learnt that there is a great deal to be said in politics for stating in modest terms before an election what you are going to do and then simply doing it afterwards. But it is not only what Governments do that matters – it is also how they do it. Style, in politics, is half the battle. It is only when both the policies and the ministers who introduce them are consistent and recognisable to the voters that governments succeed. The recent verdict in the Poulson corruption trial [the bribing of officials in the awarding of public building contracts], following the Milhench saga [the forging of Harold Wilson’s signature for a property deal], make it all the more important to get the style right.

Styles change. In 1964, when socialism and technology were said to be walking hand in hand, a certain brashness was de rigueur among ministers. All that seems to have disappeared now and a more recognisably socialist moderation is in the air. In 1973, as Peter Walker unveiled endless mirages of untold prosperity to come, Denis Healey in particular was reacting with puritanical noises and accusations of profligacy. Seed corn was being squandered and retribution would soon be at hand. So it was to some extent as careful husbandman and true prophet that he assumed the mantle of Sir Stafford Cripps in March.

Now I can understand that the prospect of Labour as harbinger of austerity sends shivers down most people’s spines. But it is one I would like to recommend, partly because this is the prospect we have before us whichever party forms the government, and partly because I believe that Labour is now the natural party to rein back from the growth-mania of the 1950s and 1960s. In other words part of Labour’s task now is to point out limits to growth and affluence, rather than endless future vistas of expansion.

This task, a supremely difficult one in a democracy, demands a special sort of credibility in political leadership. Precedents within the Labour movement exist. For my first paradigm of leadership style, I turn to local government. To some, this may come as a surprise. Some newspapers would have us believe this week that local politics is rife with corruption, a morass of wide boys on the make. The past behaviour of Andrew Cunningham and Dan Smith gives some credence to this view. But the general truth of English local government is quite the reverse. Take Dame Grace Tebbutt, leader of Sheffield Council from 1962 to 1966, under whom I served my political apprenticeship. An indifferent speaker, not particularly clever as a politician, sartorially unremarkable. (She wore the same Ena Sharples-type hat for five years: and no wonder – her sole remuneration as leader of a city of half a million was an old-age pension.) But in the rock-hard integrity of her political style she represented that combination of solidarity and trust which has kept Sheffield Labour-controlled for all but two of the past 48 years. Such examples could be replicated many times over on other councils, including many of the new ones.

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My second paradigm is the leadership of the 1945-51 government. They too maintained the same bonds between elector and elected which took them through critical years with a string of by-election victories. Here the bond was of a slightly different kind. Mr Attlee never had to live on an old-age pension: he came from a family of middle-class solicitors, a gulf away in lifestyle from the working-class support which sustained him: and Cripps was even wealthier. But between them, along with Ernie Bevin in his crumpled suits, they preached restraint and they got it. They made austerity respectable. Attlee’s arrival, after the 1945 general election, in his Standard 10, as Churchill departed in his Rolls, set the scene for the whole government. It continued until he resigned as Leader of the Opposition, still commuting daily on the tube from Great Missenden. However socially removed, his life in some ways was all of a piece with that of his predecessor, George Lansbury, who lived all his adult life in Bow and died there.

A by-product of this austerity was a moral authority, which became positive Old Testament retribution against those who fell from grace. John Belcher, the railway booking clerk, was visited with the full panoply of a public inquisition for accepting a case of whisky. Until last week’s verdicts, and the slag-heap rumpus, Belcher’s punishment always seemed unnecessarily brutal: now there’s a nostalgic yearning in some quarters for a bit of the Attlee steel.

The Attlee-Cripps era of austerity was washed away in the Tory lotus years of raging growth. [Hugh] Gaitskell replaced Attlee and along with the Bevanites (who were never enamoured of Crippsian austerity) plumped for growth as an essential prerequisite of socialism. [Anthony] Crosland, Gaitskell’s acolyte, wrote a book about what dreary people the Webbs were and how we should all go for gaiety. The spirit of affluence spread. Bevan set the trend and bought a farm. A new exciting generation, schooled at Alamein and Oxford, was entering into its inheritance. “Just you wait till they take over,” we were told. How much better they would do than all that dreary Attlee lot. Well, they didn’t, and they’re older now and some of them are a little wiser: and when they have finally made up their minds that another white-hot dash for growth is out of the question, they could well have a look in the Attlee cupboard and dust off some of the Labour Party’s pre-Gaitskellian ancestral virtues.

The objections to all this are understandable: a new era of smugness and hypocrisy. Now it is true that ever since the Emperor Augustus hired Horace to write poems about his modest Sabine farm – “a little house, a little stream, a bit of wood beyond” – official encouragements towards modesty in lifestyle have been suspect. As someone once mistranslated Horace, “a cottage in a lane – Park Lane for choice”. But the truth is that faith in a new age of affluence is now badly shaken: and the only viable alternative is a philosophy of limited, modest aims. This only makes sense to socialists if accompanied by massive, genuine redistribution and an open society under which the voters can satisfy themselves that leaders are not cheating the system and living it up. Which may, incidentally, involve some loss to our leaders of precious privacy.

As it happens, Labour is particularly well placed at the moment to provide this credible leadership in straitened circumstances. There may be little that either party can do in the long run to loosen Britain’s economic straitjacket. But Labour can do much by telling the truth, showing solidarity and easing the transition from inflated expectation to a genuine understanding of the problem.

Those who saw Michael Foot’s hour-and-a-half seminar with the teachers’ demo on Monday went away convinced that they had heard at least one minister in the Government with Crippsian moral authority. On the other wing of the party, Mr Prentice had a stab at honesty among the teachers’ conferences over Easter and did not come off half so badly as the papers made out. It is important in these escapades to guard against charges of hypocrisy: but it is equally important that they take place and forge a new respect for that essential political leadership which alone can take a more socialist, though perhaps less affluent, Britain into the 1980s.

Read more from the NS archive here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as Statesmanship (Weidenfeld & Nicolson).

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