In the course of a recent conversation on the margins of a public function, a prominent UK businessman suggested to me that British academics are ‘mostly the intellectual disciples of Clement Attlee’. I thought this an interesting comment, made more interesting to me because, in my family, we have recently had lively discussions about the impact of the Attlee government of 1945-51. I suspect that few would disagree that this government represented a watershed in British political history, but was its influence as great in the academy as my friend had suggested? And even if so, does any such influence still persist?
Perhaps the basis for such an assertion lies in the fact that, in the light of the economic convulsions of recent years and in particular of the reckless behaviour by banks that helped unleash the storm, some commentators (including academics) have been calling for policy responses that would not have looked out of place on the agenda of this post-War British government. Or would they?
As many readers will know, Clement Attlee’s Labour Party was elected and secured a large majority in Parliament in 1945, much to the surprise of many political observers who had expected an easy win by Winston Churchill. However this election outcome was heavily trailed by the interest shown in the Beveridge report of 1942 (Social Insurance and Allied Services). That report identified what it called the ‘Five Giants’ that stood in the way of social progress – Want, Disease, Ignorance, Squalor and Idleness – and recommended a system of universal social insurance that would produce universal entitlements to benefits and service, without means testing. The report had been an instant bestseller (most unusual for a paper published by government), and this suggested that there was an appetite in Britain for more radical economic and social reform than was likely to be offered by the Conservatives.
In the event the Attlee government did a number of significant things, the most important of which in domestic policy were probably the large-scale nationalisation of utilities, public transport companies and key industries, and the fundamental reform of health and welfare (including the creation of the National Health Service, and the commitment to universal benefits). Its actions in foreign and defence policy were also significant, though they might look counter-intuitive to a present day audience: the strengthening of Britain’s defence structures, including the development of nuclear weapons, and some contradictory moves affecting the ‘Empire’ – independence for the Indian sub-continent, but the reinforcement of the African colonies. The Attlee government also initiated the programme leading to the development of nuclear power in energy generation.
How much of this is influential today? Wondering about the extent to which today’s academics (and others) are aware in any detail of Attlee’s policies, I conducted some totally unscientific surveys on Twitter and amongst those I have recently met in university life. A good few know nothing at all of Attlee or his government, except perhaps his name. Others express strong support for him, but seem to link him (or his government) solely with the NHS. Others indicate admiration of a wider range of his policies, while stating they were right for their time but perhaps would be less so today. Others are clearly committed followers, and some committed opponents.
It could be argued that today’s Britain is what it is as the complex legacy of both Clement Attlee and Margaret Thatcher, with maybe a little Tony Blair. Indeed Margaret Thatcher herself was known, at a personal level, to be an admirer of Attlee (which she confirmed in her autobiography). It is indeed hard to deny that the actions of the post-War Labour government changed many things, not least in that the number of those living in poverty declined dramatically between the early 1930s and the early 1950s. The government undertook the kind of major structural changes needed in post-War Britain to ensure that it had an emancipated, educated, healthy population.
Ironically, perhaps the least successful Attlee project, but the one that still has the greatest resonance in Britain, was the NHS – which perhaps produced better levels of public health, but over time left Britain with an over-bureaucratised health service offering visibly lower quality of care than in almost any comparable country; but that would be strongly denied by a large proportion of the population, making health reform very difficult, no matter what ideological direction it comes from.
The other major project – nationalisation – has not had such a lasting impact, and was fairly successfully reversed by Margaret Thatcher. The idea expressed in 1945 in a phrase borrowed from Lenin, that the state should own ‘the commanding heights of the economy’, would not now be endorsed by any major political party. But something of the spirit may have survived in the view that still finds significant resonance, that the state and its agencies should regulate a good deal of economic activity; the suggestion being that much more regulation would have avoided the recent recession, an assertion that may have a good bit of popular support but actually not a whole lot of real evidence to back it.
But back to the academy: is it full of Attlee’s disciples? It’s not perhaps a question that can be answered in any useful way. There is no shortage of articles by key academics suggesting there was something heroic about the Attlee government. But that doesn’t make the universities ideological reservations for 1945-style socialists. What might be more interesting would be to ask whether analysts of British society today believe that the issues facing the United Kingdom are structurally similar to those that obtained in 1945. Clearly they are not. The UK, and its constituent parts, has problems it needs to address, but they are not the same as those that prompted the Beveridge report. Attlee, and his ministers, remain important figures in the history of change after the Second World War, and they undoubtedly still attract academic interest, as indeed they should. But are we all Attlee’s children? No, not really – the academy is more diverse than that, and in the end also more modern. I doubt we are together and in uniformity the disciples of any particular person or movement; and that is how it should be.