Clement Attlee and Margaret Thatcher

I first voted in a general election in 1970. Some have been closely fought, others were more predictable. As far as I can remember, every one has been proclaimed as the most important for a generation.

This one does feel different, as the growth of smaller parties represents disillusionment with the two big ones.

The main reasons for the disillusionment are well described by Who Is My Neighbour?, a letter from the Church of England’s House of Bishops in February. I commented on it here.

It argues that since the Second World War two governments have ‘changed the political weather’ – Attlee’s and Thatcher’s. Attlee’s established the Welfare State. Thatcher reduced state control to facilitate individual enterprise. Both changes represented the mood of the age. Today, however, ‘neither vision addresses our condition’:

The way in which state welfare and market economics have been polarised in political debate has obscured an important point on which both Thatcher and Beveridge might well have agreed. Both understood that their approaches to the well being of the nation could not succeed unless social relationships were marked by neighbourliness, strong voluntary commitment and personal responsibility. We would add that these virtues must be practised, not just in pursuit of one’s own well being, but for the flourishing of the communities in which one is set (§40).

Today we are witnessing – and many are suffering – the inevitable results of an ideology that conceives of humans as self-centred individuals, and offers a morality dominated by the acquisition of wealth. The gap between rich and poor continues to increase, with no sign of a movement strong enough to reverse it.

What were the failings of Attlee’s system? For this I turn to a very different document, Maurice Glasman’s 1945 And All That, a lecture defending ‘Blue Labour’ in July 2013. Glasman sees much to commend in Attlee’s government:

Elected with a landslide majority in 1945 it enacted a series of laws that transformed the lives of British workers and established Labour as a party of government. It nationalised coal, rail, water, electricity and gas. It created a National Health Service and executed the Beveridge Report which established unemployment benefit. Keynesian economic thought ruled supreme. It didn’t stop there. The Labour Government passed the Town and Country Planning Act which protected the Green Belt around London and other major cities as well as the National Trust. In terms of foreign policy, Labour was an active founder of the United Nations, NATO, the World Bank and the IMF and effectively helped establish the post-war settlement in the international sphere.

However it was of its time. It emerged from the war economy with its central planning, and continued in that vein. The model of nationalisation was managerial and unilateral. This over time led to problems with pricing, innovation and efficiency.

Citing Hayek, Keynes and Marx, Glasman argues that unfortunately many leading economists have treated the state/individual dualism as the only options.

If you see the market as the sphere of freedom then the state is necessarily closed, authoritarian and a threat. The market, however, has been voided of all ethical or vocational considerations.

Morality then gets left to the state:

This was very pronounced under New Labour. Over the past decade the state was going to make the fat thin, teenagers chaste, bad people into good parents, to increase everyone’s capabilities. But this was an overburdening of the state.

As an alternative to this state/individual dualism Glasman appeals to Germany. After losing the war it developed a Social Market economy, with

a set of decentralized institutional arrangements that underpin reciprocity, relationships, trust and knowledge that are not captured by the state/market distinction.

On this point it seems to me that Glasman is agreeing with the Bishops. We might summarise that too much state control leads to one set of problems, too much individualism to another. A healthy society needs a variety of intermediate institutions with real power, and local communities in which members can invest in ways which need no assessment from outside.

The slogan ‘think globally, act locally’ therefore has real strength. In general, decisions should be made at the most local level that is practicable. Since 1979, unfortunately, there has been a continuing trend for power to be centralised at Westminster. It is a weakness of human nature that those with power seek more.

For the nation to flourish, real power needs to be devolved to communities which can set limits to both state and individual.

We humans, at our best, are neither slaves of the rulers nor self-centred individualists. We are social beings. We are at our happiest when we are making our neighbours happy.