Sunday, 26 July 2020

Clement Attlee: A Leader more Radical than Corbyn

When Clement Attlee became Prime Minister on this day 75 years ago, he embarked upon the most radical social programmes Britain has ever seen. It's fair to say Jeremy Corbyn's ambitions were modest in comparison to Attlee's and defied the conventional wisdom of tightening one's purse strings during difficult times.

To put things into perspective, Britain had a budget deficit of 250% in 1945 and much of the country was left in ruins from World War II. Soldiers were returning home to slums at a time when the poor did not enjoy the luxury of healthcare, and things were so bad, food and other essentials had to be rationed.

If ever there was a time for the argument that socialism is unaffordable, it was in 1945. Yet Attlee did not implement the huge cuts in services we've seen over the last decade to clear a 75% deficit, (policies which have seen the deficit rise to 86% by the way), but the man recognised the only way to fix Britain's infrastructure and social problems was through investment, so he defied logic and borrowed and spent his way out of trouble. This period of investment gave us our beloved National Health Service, the welfare state and council houses, and effectively built modern Britain. Resources like coal, electricity, gas, iron and steel were brought under state control, ignoring any hysteria about how this could be paid for. 

During this time, Attlee defied another convention, that of immigrants being a drain on our resources. He welcomed immigrants from across the British Empire on the basis that people who fought for Britain and contributed so much to it, should be considered citizens, and he understood we needed a larger workforce to rebuild. These immigrants - the Windrush Generation - were not a burden on our state, but on the contrary were essential to our post-war recovery. The next time you hear someone condemning immigration, you would do well to remember this.

But surely this post-war idealism must have come at extraordinary cost and hit our economy hard, right? Actually, no, quite the opposite in fact. Attlee achieved full employment and turned that 250% budget deficit into a surplus in just five years. That is what socialism can do for Britain. Just imagine what socialism could do today to aid our recovery from the Covid-19 crisis. 

Don't forget the right wing will use the same arguments today that social programmes are unaffordable because of the difficulties we are facing, not considering that non-investment can prove far more costly in both human and economic terms.

To conservatives and centrists, there is never a good time for socialism, and yet whenever socialism does emerge like in 1945, they are quite happy to celebrate its accomplishments. How many Tories today would dare condemn the founding of the NHS? Attlee's impact created a post-war consensus that made socialism mainstream for decades to come.

It's worth mentioning the moderates of 1945 such as Ernest Bevin and Herbert Morrison favoured very high levels of income tax and nationalisation, putting them even to the left of Jeremy Corbyn, and yet these men were often at loggerheads with the likes of Nye Bevan who they saw as too left wing. It begs the question: if ex-MPs to the left of Corbyn felt the architect of the NHS was too left wing, what on Earth would today's moderates have thought of Nye Bevan? 

Of course, Labour centrists agree with Bevan in hindsight - moderates love to pretend they supported the winners all along. But the truth is that when a socialist arrives on the scene and pushes for radical change, moderates so often push back and tell us how unrealistic those proposals are.

Take today's Blairites who sneered at the idea of universal broadband which Labour offered from a far stronger financial position than Britain faced in 1945 when Bevan created the NHS. If Attlee's manifesto was affordable so too was Corbyn's manifesto. But the instincts of today's moderates put them far closer to the Tory Party than to Labour's socialist roots.

Jeremy Corbyn's leadership style bore strong similarities to Attlee's with his humility and emphasis on collective decision making, rather than the all-knowing approach favoured by Tony Blair - a man who dismantled party democracy to place more power into his own hands. Power which ultimately led to disastrous decisions like two illegal wars which absolutely did not have the approval of the membership. Blair wanted to strip away democratic participation whereas Corbyn wanted to increase it, so who was really on your side?
Nye Bevan once famously said: "The Right Wing of the Labour Party would rather see it fall into perpetual decline than abide by its democratic decisions." I wonder what Nye Bevan would have made of Wes Streeting or Jess Phillips...
Attlee was considered to be more or less in the centre of the Labour Party, yet was more left wing than Corbyn who is described as being on the party's far left. This is a perfect example of how effectively Blair was able to build his neoliberal fifth column and marginalise those who remained true to Labour's core values. Corbyn was never the extremist, Blair was. 

Indeed if Clement Attlee was Labour leader today, those moderates who laud his accomplishments would surely have branded him as an extremist and forced him out, just like they did with Jeremy Corbyn. 

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