July 31, 2010 Leave a comment
Two new books Atlee: A Life in Politics by Nicklaus Thomas-Symonds and What did the Baby Boomers Ever Do for Us? by Francis Beckett have thrown the spotlight both on the remarkable social reforms Atlee introduced in the UK in the six-year Labour Government from 1945 to 1951 and the consequent erosion of these reforms. Beckett blames one single generation – those born in the years just after the war – for their dismantling, but the worse effects were achieved (if the Atlee generation was their grandparents) by the baby-boomers’ parents, the generation that included Margaret Thatcher - amongst others. Some of the younger Labour politicians around at the time of Atlee’s Government were already less than idealistic, with Hugh Gaitskell introducing prescription charges in 1951, something James Callaghan did again in 1967 following their abolition in 1964. With Thatcher in power in the 1980s, the country had shifted so far to the right that the Labour Party effectively panicked and saw itself as terminally unelectable unless it too changed. I remember at the time saying to a friend that I did not believe that the Labour Party would ever be in power again, and so far I have been proved right.
Contrast, then, the truly progressive modern Government of 1946-1951 with the New Labour Government of 1997-2010 and its programme of ‘modernisation’ (a code word for privatisation), and some of the baby-boomers are to be blamed as well. Atlee introduced his reforms when the country was poor and at a low ebb, whereas Blair removed maintenance grants for students in higher education at a time - in 1998 - when the country was supposed to be booming. Yet there were two major waves of post-war reforms in Britain (as indeed elsewhere in Europe) and those in their twenties and thirties in the sixties and early seventies were also responsible for important changes in social attitudes in the shape of campaigning for civil rights and against racism, gay rights, feminist campaigns and much else, and what has been achieved in this respect is here, one hopes, to stay.
Nevertheless, as a baby-boomer myself, I am dispirited by what successive governments - not just in Britain but in other parts of Europe – have done to make us less of a civilised society in many important respects. The difficult part now is that the most radical progress is to be achieved by first going backwards – backwards in order to go forwards. To nationalise much of what has been privatised. To remove private companies from the ‘clutches’ of the NHS. To ensure that everyone in the country whoever they are and whatever their income have more than enough to live on. To make higher education free again throughout the whole of the UK. To replace everything that charities do in the UK with government intervention so that charities are effectively put out of business … The list – a huge list – carries on, but already I realise that I am mentioning things that were outside Atlee’s compass. It is not just that progress has to be seen in the light of a world so different to that of Atlee’s – it is also that the development of the ideas of socialism itself have not stopped, as though the position where we should now be is already a long way down a road that branched off many miles back …
How can this tortuous route backwards and forwards now be taken? In terms of party politics it can be taken now only by a government whose party does not treat itself or society in an oligarchical manner – a party that does not believe in ‘-ocracies’ of whatever type. This is a big ask – and such a programme needs aspects of both the former waves of reform to succeed: it needs a huge change in social attitudes away from an overriding belief in the ‘market’ to a belief instead in the world, a world where the ‘paid working person’ is also just one element within a much larger framework. This has to be combined too with the effective administrative zeal of an Atlee Government. But crucially it needs something else as well. It needs a younger generation to throw off the still continuing charge of being ‘Thatcher’s Children’ and for them to say, and to say loudly, ’We will change this’.