First Thoughts: No time for Attlee, Jeremy Clarkson’s jet boat and a new home for Prince Andrew

Voters no longer believe that governments can achieve large-scale change. 

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Labour’s £82.9bn manifesto is compared to the programme of Clement Attlee’s 1945-51 Labour government. It quotes from the 1945 pledge to launch a housing programme “with the maximum practical speed” to give every family “a good standard of accommodation”. So why are today’s voters apparently unattracted by the kind of ambition their forbears endorsed three-quarters of a century ago?

The answer is not so much that they distrust politicians but that they no longer believe governments can achieve large-scale change. In 1945, the state had organised food supplies, controlled prices, allocated labour, kept industry running and won a war. Now politicians are associated only with botched schemes: Brexit, the Iraq War, Universal Credit, rail privatisation, multiple NHS reorganisations. The last comprehensive transformation of Britain happened under Margaret Thatcher; that didn’t work well for most people and its guiding ideology collapsed in 2008.

In this campaign, the Tories’ almost comically modest proposals – £34m for “physical literacy and competitive sport” in schools, £14m to check voters’ identity at polling stations – are, I fear, in tune with the public mood.

More for the middle

Labour promises free personal care, free higher education, free prescriptions, free dentistry, free school meals and free broadband. All except the last are already free if you can’t afford to pay. Around half the party’s planned extra spending (I include the pledge to compensate women hit by the increased state pension age) will go to what Americans call the middle classes. As the Resolution Foundation think tank points out, Labour’s proposals wouldn’t restore most Tory benefit cuts or reduce child poverty levels below the present four million. Say what you like about New Labour – and I often have – it set exacting targets for cutting child poverty and, though it fell short, made a significant dent in the numbers.

Parking’s not the problem

Another freebie on offer, in both Labour and Tory manifestos, is hospital car parking. But for most people, paying is not the problem. The other day, my wife and I drove to a large hospital and queued for nearly an hour to find a parking space. If parking were free, queues would surely grow. Wouldn’t the £99m cost (the Tories’ figure) be better spent on shuttle buses between hospitals and public transport hubs? And wouldn’t the queues come down anyway if NHS resources allowed a faster turnover of patients awaiting attention?

Not mankind’s fault

Jeremy Clarkson, the Sunday Times and Sun columnist and self-described “petrolhead”, says he accepts the “genuinely alarming” reality of global heating after failing to drive a jet boat down a dried-up Asian river. But he doesn’t “blame mankind” and scoffs at Greta Thunberg’s campaign to rapidly phase out fossil fuels. Climate change sceptics such as him are subtly changing their positions. The Daily Mail, for example, is running a campaign, endorsed by Boris Johnson, to persuade us all to plant trees. This, we’re assured, will “combat climate change”. True enough, provided we plant a trillion trees across the planet which would, at best, store carbon dioxide at roughly a third of the rate we currently belch it into the atmosphere. The sceptics concede that climate change is happening but expect nature to give them a free lunch rather than contemplate abandoning their cars.

New digs for the duke

Prince Andrew is not the first Duke of York to be embroiled in scandal and forced to “step back”. In 1809 Prince Frederick – the “grand old Duke of York” who marched men to the top of the hill and down again – resigned as the army’s commander-in-chief because his mistress, Mary Anne Clarke, allegedly sold army commissions with his knowledge. Though the duke was later exonerated, Clarke fled London for Loughton, Essex, where she lived quietly and unfashionably, as I have done (though not as a result of scandal) for many years. Perhaps Prince Andrew could take advantage of Loughton’s distance from the metropolis.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article appears in the 29 November 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The English Question