Wednesday, 12 December 2012

You couldn't beat mum's damson jam


You couldn't beat mum’s damson jam; damson jam doesn't taste the same now, but that is what reminiscences do; they alter your taste. Sunday roast has never been the same since either. So many differences! We didn't have a television for most of my childhood. I used to watch Popeye at a friend’s house whose mum gave us bread and jam for tea.  We never had it so good! Or at least that is what Harold MacMillan told us; and in so many ways he was right. The Tories didn't taste the same either!

Not that it cut any ice with mum; she was staunchly anti-Tory; didn't think much of the Liberals either. Labour had set up the NHS and developed the welfare state.  The Tories, if you believed the propaganda, were ‘setting the people free’ from Labour’s state control.  Of course they were not; what was happening was that people felt better as war-time rationing came to an end. People had become frustrated at how long it was taking, and the Tories had been able to capitalise on it.

There were more goods to buy and a developing consumerism. Now we were consumers rather than simply citizens. Labour lost the election in 1952 although they increased and had the majority of votes. It heralded 13 years of ‘Tory rule’. The 1950s boom would of course end in a kind of ‘bust’; but nothing like the financial collapse we have had today. Boom and Bust, or ‘Stop-Go’, was the order of the times; the ‘go’ would usually last for about 4 years; the economy would ‘over-heat’, inflation would rise, costs would rise, exports would fall, imports would rise and a balance of payments ‘crisis’ would bring it all to an end. Too much money follow too few goods. And that was it in 1964 when Labour won the election and Harold Wilson became prime minister.

I had started work as a temporary clerical assistant in a branch of the Home Office. I can’t recall anyone at work who was pleased that Labour won; most were Tory.  Labour had barely a majority and the economy was in a mess. I recall a lady at work telling me it would all end in bankruptcy; Labour she told me had bankrupted the country when last in power under Atlee. It was as if the world war hadn't happened; Labour it seems was to blame -a bit like the collapse of the banks now; convenient to blame Labour for the mess. Propaganda is a powerful tool!

"Really?" I replied, "but Labour had created the NHS." That is why they left us bankrupt she responded.  That is how I had my tooth pulled, I thought to myself, and my eye test and my glasses, and my measles jabs etc, and my arm fixed when it was broken.  If that was bankruptcy, then bring it on, I thought, and smiled. She was a nice enough lady. That’s when I learned there were a lot of nice people who didn't see the world as I saw it.

The Tories had been forced to accept the welfare state; although it was clear from their manifest in 1964 that they would begin to dismantle it. Had they gained another term, rent controls would have been eroded further and private practice in the NHS would have been  developed.  They talked of ‘fair’ or ‘market’ rents for council housing determined by supply and demand rather than subsidised rents families could afford. In London in particular that had meant a lot.  So-called ‘market rents’  would mean  that many would no longer be able to afford the decent social housing.  Thankfully the Tories lost. But it was a warning; a marker laid down, and when the Tories won in 1970 it was one of the major pieces of legislation, The Housing Finance Act, that would compel Local Authorities to charge ‘market rents’. I remember it well because by 1971 I had become a member of Wandsworth Borough Council. 

But in 1964 the Tories adopted a social language, and for Butler and MacMillan society mattered.  Alec Douglas-Home the Prime Minister and Tory leader wrote in his forward to their manifesto:

“The Conservative purpose is clear from our record and from our programme. It is to raise the quality of our society and its influence for good in the world.”

To raise the ‘quality of society’! This wasn't some Big Society nonsense of David Cameron. I haven’t met a Tory would can tell me what 'big society means; and most will dismiss it as nonsense. At best it means you cut public services and benefits forcing the poor to depend on charitable hand outs and food banks and the good will of blue-rinsed charitable ladies; big ladies for the big society.

In 1964 we all ‘believed’ in society. We just argued over what it was for and how it should be. Labour and Tory (although to a less degree) believed that for many of our problems there were social solutions. Society was more than an aggregate of individuals; people behaved as members of families, of communities and of society. And economic policy mirrored this view. Even the Tories believe in economic planning of sorts. The Tories had set up a major planning committee, the National Economic Development Council, bringing together representatives of government, businesses and unions.  They attacked Labour’s proposals for a national plan and central planning,  yet they adopted many of the same planning approaches themselves. Neither party at that time would have thought the only economic policy was to control the supply of money through interest rates.  ‘We were all Keynesians’ as the Tory Rab Butler would say. And this was not surprising. MacMillan and Butler had been genuinely shocked by the ravages of unemployment in the 1930s and were determined not to see it again. 

Then like now you had those who dismissed the parties as ‘being all the same’.  It clearly wasn't the case.  So much was different in the manifestos.  One of those differences I have already referred to would raise its head again when Labour lost office in 1970 – housing and rents. It is still a fundamental difference today. 

Full rent control had been reintroduced during the war (The Rent and Mortgage Restriction Act 1939).  After the war the Labour government had introduced the Landlord and Tenant (rent control) Act in 1949 empowering rent tribunals to determine a reasonable rent. These controls had been dismantled by the Tories in the 1950s, ushering in the scandals of unscrupulous slum landlords forcing tenants out of their homes.  Labour had promised to restore controls and repeal the Tory legislation and Harold Wilson’s government rapidly moved to pass the Protection from Eviction Act in December 1964 and the Rent Act in 1965 providing security from eviction.  It was a major promise kept and was to transform the lives of many. 

The Tories remain wedded to the idea of markets determining rents. But it was they who created the absurdity of a system of rent allowances that allowed landlords to hike up rents above the market. It all started with the 1988 Housing Act deregulating the rented sector, removing the rights to tenant protection and assessment of 'fair rents'. It meant landlords could increase rents subsidised by housing benefits. It introduced  distasteful exploitation in the rented sector with rents inflated by the subsidy. The rented sector became a gravy train; and with the decline in social housing, increasing private sector rents  meant that the housing benefit bill would spiral out of control.   Now the Tories are forcing people to move by restricting the housing allowance. But it was a mess they created in the first place. It was they who 'sold the family silver' as MacMillan put it. Don't let anyone say there is no difference between the parties.  

Nothing tasted as good as mum’s damson jam.  (to be continued). 

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