. 1945 | London Progressive Journal
A non-partisan journal of the left.


Mon 28th Aug 2017

1945 is a sacred year in Labour mythology, although there has never been any mystique encompassing the taciturn Clement Attlee. Only now is Attlee acquiring the heroic status he did not seek in his lifetime. It is a given that the government he led [1945-51] laid the foundations of a social democratic state that is the template for all reforming governance in Britain since then. A tidal wave of social legislation harnessed to the principle of public ownership of key economic and industrial sectors was a quiet and painless revolution.

This view has been challenged, notably by Anthony Howard in an important essay, We Are the Masters Now. [The title is ironic]. Howard’s thesis is that the governing principles of capital and class remained in place, and readily adaptable to the meritocratic world of postwar reconstruction. Howard’s dissenting voice was not alone, but it never gained much of a hearing within or beyond Labour circles. No, the mythos remains that 1945 saw a dramatic transformation in society that the left welcomed and the right accepted until global capitalism signalled the possibility of a reversal.

However we view 1945, the curious absence in Labour mythology is any mention of 1964.

Harold Wilson is almost never given any credit. He is barely even referred to. So successfully has he been airbrushed out of the picture that Labour’s golden age was under Attlee. There were the tarnished years of New Labour under Blair.

Before that there was Churchill, Macmillan, and then Thatcher. No, wait a moment, wasn’t there the disaster of the ‘winter of discontent’, a sordid interval of the Callaghan government’s mismanagement. As for Harold Wilson, well we don’t talk about him.

We need to talk about Wilson. Labour under Harold Wilson won four election victories in exactly ten years between October 1964 and October 1974. Those governments saw a timely expansion of higher and further education, and a reorganisation of secondary schooling. Welfare reform lifted the fear of poverty with renewed social security, pension and healthcare provision. The infrastructural investment in these areas and others was massive. Highway and rail projects transformed public transport, most of which came under public ownership. By the time of Wilson’s retirement in 1976 the majority of manufacturing industry was publically owned. There were workers’ co-operatives in fact and experiment in mind. Everywhere organised labour ensured that the workforce had a voice in decision-making even at the highest levels of social governance.

Wilson, it should be noted, was no Cold War goon. His commitment to international peace was demonstrable in his skilfully even-handed dealings with the White House and the Kremlin. His attempts to broker a peace deal in Viet-Nam were closer to success than might have been thought possible. He was inches away from the Nobel personally and a new era of co-operation internationally. If only….

It sounds remarkably radical, yet such was the temper of the times that Wilson was not regarded as especially to the left. He was often castigated for his moderation and compromise. The mood among thinking people was for a fundamental revaluation that was to be both indelible and irreversible. In place of fear and in place of strife new social relations were being sought as a necessity.

The urge was to go further and faster.

Anyone in 1970 who had predicted what Labour would be like in 2000, or what Britain would be like now would have been laughed into shame and oblivion. No such predictions were made because they were considered out of the question. It couldn’t happen here. Modern Britain wasn’t Salazar’s Portugal. Only very right-wing fantasists could think that the welfare state could virtually disappear and that laissez-faire economics would become the new norm, the new centre. It was to become an intolerant, authoritarian centre.

Little wonder, then, that Harold Wilson is never mentioned. Attlee belongs to the remote past where selective nostalgia can be daydreamed. The Wilson years, too, are past, but their memory is too dangerous not to be eradicated. Collective amnesia is not an act of conspiracy, merely one of collusion, of things that are understood. There are things that you don’t question if you know what’s good for your career.

The dynamic of transformation was broken wilfully by an assenting consensus within the governing classes, including the media. The anti-Thatcherism attending on personality can be seen now as a charade. The headmistress was mocked, but loyalty to the school was never in serious question.

Attlee sought to infuse existing conditions with radical change, only to find himself subsumed by the very establishment he had hoped to persuade. Blair and Brown sought to harness market forces to invest in society. They found themselves subsumed by international capital’s meretricious phantasms of wealth and power.

In marked contrast Harold Wilson proposed the Social Contract that would see industrial democracy takes its place within the social fabric as an estate of the realm.

The road from there could only lead one way. Co-operative values were to take the leading role in society. And so they had to be broken by the power of media, by the mediocrity of piecemeal reformers, and by the neo-imperial philistinism of the Tory right. The consensus was for an artificial centrality where market forces could be tempered by social concern in a see-saw of the pseudo-democratic charade.

And so it might have been for ever were it not for the capability of people who read and think to do exactly that, especially when the ineptitude of the consensus lets everyone down with war after war, recession after recession, lie after lie.

Sentimental attachment to Aneurin Bevan is not enough. Rhetoric about community is not enough. Nostalgia for a working class life you never really knew is not nearly enough. Nothing less than a credible social polity will be enough. And that means a change of heart. The failure of repeated ‘modernising’ projects is electorally self -evident. Labour wins when its agenda is radical. Even New Labour once looked and sounded progressive. Caution and compromise detract from the message. It is time for the consensus to apologize and explain. It is time for a new social contract in place of chaos. If not this year, then soon. Very soon.

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