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28 July 2003

Mr Blair, you’re no Clem Attlee

Francis Beckett compares a government that made a revolution with one that merely tinkers

By Francis Beckett

It’s Tony Blair himself who keeps flagging up the anniversary. On 2 August, he will have occupied Downing Street for as long as Clement Attlee, Labour prime minister from 1945 to 1951. And he invites us to compare their records.

Attlee’s achievements are reminders of what Labour government is supposed to be about, which is why Blair’s creepier ministers try to diminish them. Attlee “ran out of steam”, they say; his government’s welfare state and nationalisation measures had faults; Attlee failed to win a full second parliamentary term.

Does it make sense to compare two governments separated by half a century? Oddly, it does. People join the Labour Party, campaign for it, and often vote for it, not because they think its leaders are efficient managers, but because they think Labour is instinctively on the side of the poor and the powerless; because it is less in thrall to big business and the rich than are the Conservatives. Labour Party people still want to fight the five giants identified in the 1942 Beveridge Report: want, disease, ignorance, squalor and idleness.

In the Attlee years, want was attacked by family allowances and by the 1946 National Insurance Act, which insured everyone in the land for sickness, unemployment and retirement, as well as providing widows’ benefits, maternity benefits and death grants. The intention was that no one would ever again fall below a basic subsistence level.

Disease was confronted by the National Health Service, which provided free treatment for rich and poor alike. A universal system of free education, with a huge school-building programme and the raising of the leaving age to 15, aimed to overcome ignorance. A vast new council housing programme aimed to defeat squalor, the child of the slums. As for idleness, the government started with ten million people in wartime jobs that were no longer needed, yet it managed to stop unemployment ever going above 3 per cent.

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The difference all this made to the lives of ordinary people was staggering. By the mid-1950s, almost all Britain’s 14-year-olds went to school; 20 years earlier, only four in ten had done so. The dole queues of the 1930s ended, and those few who could not work no longer starved. NHS doctors reported seeing thousands of women with prolapsed internal organs that had been like that for years, and men with hernias and lung disease who had never been examined because they could not afford it. Before the NHS, people regularly died of curable illnesses because treatment cost money. Within a month of the inauguration of the NHS in 1948, 97 per cent of the population had signed up for it.

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Aneurin Bevan’s new council houses were built to strict and generous standards of space (long since abandoned) because the government was determined not to create new slums. Years later, when Margaret Thatcher sold off council houses, Bevan’s were the first to be bought because they were the best.

After six years of new Labour, hundreds of schools are making teachers redundant. One state school in five asks parents to pay extra money so it can buy essential equipment and employ enough teachers. This option is not open to the schools teaching the poorest children; these schools rot instead. Millions are about to discover that pensioner poverty is back with a vengeance. The gap between rich and poor is wider than it was six years ago.

Attlee’s government nationalised the railways; Blair’s promised to bring them back under public control, but discovered that this would be too complex and expensive and make too many powerful enemies. New Labour has created nothing new: it has tinkered with what it inherited. Foundation hospitals, city academies, specialist schools – all represent a restless need to take the springs out of the engine and put them in the other way round to see if that makes it go faster. Ministers behave like children with attention deficit disorder.

True, the national minimum wage was brought in – but at the stingiest possible rate, and not for under-18s.

Attlee and Blair were both products of public school and Oxford. As students, neither took an interest in politics. Both were trained barristers; neither practised much. But the first came to politics by seeing poverty in the East End of London and vowing to change the system responsible for it. The second seems simply to have decided on politics rather than the law as a career. His core beliefs consist of feel-good babble cribbed from fashionable management textbooks.

Attlee became prime minister when Britain was bankrupt, with a war-ravaged economy and infrastructure, made worse by the US’s abrupt withdrawal of lend-lease and the harsh terms of the American loan. The press was bitterly hostile from the start, because proprietors such as Beaverbrook saw him (rightly) as a real threat to the status quo. Attlee didn’t care. When his press secretary brought him an especially unfair attack, he just grunted: “Suppose they’ve got to say something. Circulation slipping, you think?” He would have fired anybody with so poor a sense of priorities as to devote himself to pursuing an Andrew Gilligan.

Blair can claim to have won a full second term, while Attlee got a hung parliament in 1950 and lost narrowly in 1951. Attlee faced a Conservative Party led by a national hero, Winston Churchill, which had renewed itself in opposition. Blair faces nothing so formidable.

Attlee’s was a government of giants who made a revolution. At some level, Blair and his ministers know that, which is why they feel the need to belittle men whose boots they are not fit to clean.

Francis Beckett’s Clem Attlee is published by Politico’s (£12.99)