Thursday, 6 December 2012

In praise of the post-war consensus.


In a previous blog I described my privileged upbringing. In 1964 I left school. The year I left school was also the year Labour were elected after 13 years of Conservative governments. Harold Wilson it was who said that Labour was nothing if not a crusade. In those days the crusade was readily understood. The Atlee government had established the National Health Service and developed the foundations of the Welfare State. So great were these achievements, so entrenched in voter psyche that all major political parties to varying degrees 'signed up' to a post-war consensus. It was that consensus that Thatcher was so intent on breaking, but that was yet to come. Labour had shifted the centre of gravity of British politics, they had mapped out the centre ground.

The centre ground was much larger than it is now; it was more inclusive of left and right. The Left represented by Michael Foot, for example, had no difficulty being heard. Harold Wilson came from the Left but led from the right as almost all leaders of the party do. Today the 'centre ground' is the size of a pin head and 'major' differences are nuanced rather than fundamental. Was there really that much difference between any member of Tony Blair's cabinet? Perhaps little that would have brought about a fundamental shift in direction. The differences between Brown and Blair were not about the fundamentals.

In Wilson's time that was not so. Crossman and Crossland were poles apart; Michael Foot and Denis Healey; Barbara Castle and Roy Jenkins. Each had distinct views about what they wanted to achieve and how. Cabinet discussion was a true debate. Today we have the ludicrous attempt to label Ed Miliband as 'Red Ed'. Yet his position today would have been on the right of Labour's centre of gravity in the 1960s. Silly politics; there is little Red about Ed.

But in the 1960s the language was different in many ways. We talked about society a key ingredient of the 'post-war' consensus; there are functions best achieved together. Indeed there are objectives that could only be achieved effectively by working together. We argued about the balance of private and public and not whether there was a role for either. There were certain needs and functions that even the Tories, or at least their leadership would not have dreamed could be or should be 'privatised' - although health was not one of them!  All that was set to change. There were Tories in those days who worked with an understanding of society. Rab Butler was one of them.

Rab Butler had chaired the war-time coalition's reconstruction committee preparing for post-war social reform. He steered through the 1944 Education Act creating a free secondary school system. He raised the school leaving age to 15 (the age I left school). These changes did much to contribute to social mobility.

Tory and Labour  adopted a Keynsian approach to economics;  full employment through social intervention was a major objective. Employment was a major goal and a means to growth. Labour and Tory 'spoke the same language of Keynsianism'. Employment was a means to an end, today it is a consequence of monetary policy.  We try to influence rather than direct the economy.  Rather than consider the function of the engine itself we only control the 'fuel' - money.

Back in the 1960s we tried to steer the ship with a hand on the tiller; now we stick a finger in the water in a vain attempt to alter the tide!

(too be continued...)

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