Mr Attlee’s children in the academy

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.

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5 Comments on “Mr Attlee’s children in the academy”

  1. V.H Says:

    What tends to be forgotten is just how easy it was to do it. Most of the structures were in place for the war effort.

    • I think that’s an important point. The British war economy was accustomed to central planning and controls, so that the changes were easily accommodated. It would be much more difficult to introduce some of these measures now.

  2. Anna Notaro Says:

    “A prominent UK businessman suggested to me that British academics are ‘mostly the intellectual disciples of Clement Attlee’”.

    This comment reminds me of what is said of American academics, often defined as mostly liberal (interesting comparisons could be drawn with the American context where Obama is an anti-Attlee in terms of charisma and celebrity status but often accused of being a ‘socialist’) and is indicative of the current ‘Two Cultures’ debate, (not the old Art & Science one) but one that has raged since the economic crisis began within the discipline of economics, between a Keynesian view and another which, rather simplistically, has come to be identified with Hayek. Your comment

    ‘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.’

    would deserve itself some evidence, or at least taking into account the fact that opinions range from putting the blame on the regulators themselves (Friedman) or on the banks (Stieglitz), in case anyone is interested Friedman’s book What Caused the Financial Crisis
    gives a detailed accounts from several perspectives of the factors most likely to have contributed to the crisis.

    The fact that Margaret Thatcher was an admirer of Attlee is one of the ironies of history, if one considers her role in creating a widespread anti-state and anti-collectivist sentiment which reached its apotheosis in her notorious remark that “There is no such thing as society” (a sentiment that resonates most loudly these days in the pronouncements of the American Republic Party).

    As far as the academy is concerned, during Attlee’s government state scholarships to universities were increased and university scholarships awards were supplemented to a level sufficient to cover fees plus maintenance – hard not to see some relevance of this in the current debates concerning university fees and universities autonomy..
    The policies which regarded the welfare state and the NHS (few would disagree about the benefits that came from the creation of the welfare state and the NHS, replacing a patchwork of local municipal voluntary provision and providing comprehensive services at a scale previously unknown) stemmed out of a sense of the ‘public good’ to which academics are particularly sensitive. To my mind this is so because most of us still believe that the ‘business’ we are in (knowledge) is *for* the public good. Defining what exactly the public good consists of in relation to the powers of the State and the Church has always been complex, the whole of universities history could be read through such a perspective.

    Personally, I am not advocating an implementation of Attlee’s policies today, of course, as the post argues the issues facing the United Kingdom are not *structurally* similar, I would argue though that there is some comparability in the scale of the challenges and in the ethical options we are faced by. What one could gather from looking back at Attlee’s time and his policies is the need for a ‘consensual’ approach to government (Attlee’s style) a more balanced approach, one which values a strong and effective civic society thriving alongside markets and the public sector; one in which the two were not set against each other, but were in a sense complementary. This involves a credible and radical view of responsible citizenship, and a new perspective on the state as an enabling state. My fear is that the state of current political discourse is heading towards the opposite direction.

  3. Eddie Says:

    Atlee’s policies were for a short post war time. Atlee is largely forgotten today in his constituency of Stepney in London. His grandon is Lord Atllee, a Conservative Party member of House of Lords and a government minister now. That says a lot.

  4. Anna Notaro Says:

    I wonder whether the failure of this excellent post to generate many comments – so far – is in itself indicative:
    1) the complete irrelevance of Attlee’s policies
    2) a gap in historical knowledge

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