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18 September 2023

Who makes history?

A study of postwar British politics overstates the influence of its leading personalities.

By Freddie Hayward

The nationalisation of the steel industry in 1951 exposed the cavities in the postwar consensus. The Conservatives re-privatised most of the sector in 1953 before Labour nationalised it again in 1967. The industry’s profitability under private ownership forced advocates for nationalisation to make a case beyond efficiency. The divisions within Labour over nationalising steel as early as 1947 presaged the divisions that contributed to Clement Attlee’s ejection from office four years later.

In Turning Points: Crisis and Change in Modern Britain from 1945 to Truss, Steve Richards renders the period thus: “Speedily, the railways, coal, electricity, gas, iron and steel were taken into public ownership.” What follows is a journalist’s political history that makes you distrust the author’s prognosis of the present.

The 1945 election is the first of Richards’ ten turning points. The others include the 1979 and 1997 elections, the Suez Crisis, Harold Wilson’s social reforms, the 1973 oil price shock, the Iraq War, Brexit, state intervention during the financial crash of 2008 and Covid, and the administrations of Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak. That might not be all, however: Richards also writes that Margaret Thatcher caused “multiple turning points”, Tony Blair’s “approach to leadership” was a turning point and the 2007 smoking ban was a “major turning point”. A coherent definition of the book’s title eludes the author. On page three, he admits the “technological revolution, demographic trends and climate change” drive history but because they cannot be condensed into a “single year or event” they are ignored. By page five, it is clear that what Richards means by “turning point” is no more precise than an “important moment”.

[See also: Hobbes was wrong]

Richards also has no unifying theory about why these events occurred. Instead, he explains the 20th century almost exclusively through the personality traits of cabinet ministers. We can thank Aneurin Bevan’s “spectacular flourish and determined focus” and Attlee’s “striking persuasiveness” for the NHS, Thatcher’s “assertiveness” for her hegemony, and Anthony Eden’s desire to “excite the Daily Telegraph” for the invasion of Egypt in 1956. What might be intriguing portraits of key players become sweeping explanations for seismic events.

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Turning Points is not without merit. For instance, Richards makes the acute observation that social and constitutional reform (take the legalisation of abortion and homosexuality in the 1960s or devolution and the creation of the Supreme Court under New Labour) are usually more attainable and enduring than reforms to the economy. The pendulum between social democracy and free-marketism has swung more times than that between social liberalism and repression.

Likewise, Richards uses his experience of reporting from inside the New Labour movement to make sharp comparisons with Keir Starmer’s Labour, such as the latter’s more ruthless treatment of the party’s left. Yet there is no reason to read this book over, say, Phil Tinline’s The Death of Consensus, which shows how collective nightmares drive politics, or David Edgerton’s The Rise and Fall of the British Nation, which recentres capitalism in the 20th century.

The more interesting question is why the book was even written. Perhaps a real turning point is imminent, particularly if Labour manages to upend the Thatcherite consensus that has reigned since 1979. The 2016 EU referendum and the 2019 general election were fractures in that consensus. Starmer’s Labour has flirted with both continuity and change. The deciding factor lies in whether the dire public finances force the party to rethink taxation and state borrowing. Starmer could be the midwife of a new era, or a pallbearer for the last.

Steve Richards’s book reveals a problem with political journalism: the conflation of politics and personality. Its symptoms are unmistakable: when Brexit is blamed on Boris Johnson’s perfidy without reference to austerity or mass migration, or when Rishi Sunak is defined by his work ethic over his fiscal conservatism. Party leaders become symbols for entire political movements. Yet “Keir Starmer” is not synonymous with “Labour”. Politicians might be history’s lead actors but they don’t always write the script. Sometimes there are undercurrents forcing them in directions their temperaments cannot change. A glance at the past should remind one of that.

Turning Points: Crisis and Change in Modern Britain, from 1945 to Truss
Steve Richards
Pan Macmillan, 416pp, £22

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[See also: The strange rebirth of Sinn Fein]

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