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The 1945 Rising: What Labour can learn about winning a majority after a crisis

NEW DAWN: Prime minister Clement Attlee celebrates with supporters after Labour's surprise 1945 General Election victory. Photo: Getty Images - Credit: Mirrorpix via Getty Images

FRANCIS BECKETT on the 75th anniversary of the UK’s most transformative ever election.

Seventy five years ago on Sunday, Britain elected the most transformative government we have ever had, with a massive 135-seat majority. Britons didn’t know what they had done for another three weeks – the count was held up so that the armed forces’ ballot boxes could be brought home – but they cast their fateful votes on July 5, 1945.

In the next three years, Clement Attlee’s Labour government set up a complete welfare system designed to look after its citizens ‘from the cradle to the grave’, including a National Health Service and unemployment pay.

It abolished homelessness with a massive council house building programme, and ensured that everyone went to school. It made sure there was work for everyone, including one-and-a-half million demobilised soldiers, and it nationalised key sections of the economy including railways, mines and the Bank of England.

It was, of course, accused of attacking freedom. During the election Churchill warned that Attlee’s proposals would lead to ‘some sort of Gestapo’ and later the leaders of the British Medical Association said doctors would not work in the government’s ‘concentration camps’ and would not bow to ‘Hitlerite coercion’.

Some religious leaders felt the state was trespassing on their territory. Cardinal Bernard Griffin, leader of England’s Catholics, complained: ‘It will be a sad day for England when charity becomes the affair of the state.’ Cardinal Griffin also negotiated the opting out of Catholic hospitals from the new NHS.

But Attlee could ignore these voices, because the lesson Britain had learned in wartime was that in a really great crisis, the state has to take control of much of the economy. The state works when the market cannot.

So the Attlee government was able to create a strong and confident public sector, and give it a lot of responsibility. Local councils had more power than they have ever had, before or since; they were the engine of the government’s housing policy. The market ruled in the 1930s – but when it came to a great crisis, the market couldn’t deliver. Throughout the war, industry and the economy were bent to the needs of the state.

It took a while, but by 1979 the state was back in its accustomed place as the pantomime villain of politics. We learned to despise what Margaret Thatcher called the nanny state. We listened to Ronald Reagan: ‘Government is not the solution to our problem – government is the problem.’

Even when we had a Labour government, Tony Blair only talked of the public sector in terms of the ‘scars on my back’.

Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek preached to adoring audiences here and in the USA that – in the words of the Washington-based Mises Institute – ‘the only viable economic policy for the human race is a policy of unrestricted laissez-faire, of free markets and the unhampered exercise of the right of private property, with government strictly limited to the defence of person and property within its territorial area’.

And yet here we are, in the most serious crisis since the war, and the lessons of that conflict are being learned again. This year the most doctrinaire Conservative government ever, with an 80-seat majority and purged of all the moderate voices in the Tory party, has brought the state right into the centre of the lives of its citizens.

We have learned once again the lesson Britain learned during the war – that when you’re up against it, the market can’t deliver. People are saying, as they did in 1945: we have not made these sacrifices just to go back to the same unfair society we knew before, with its grotesque inequalities of wealth and power.

Boris Johnson is determined to ensure that the end of the virus emergency is not a 1945 moment. That’s why, in his first speech after his return from illness, he went out of his way to make sure we understood that making creative use of the public sector was strictly temporary.

He said: ‘Without our private sector, without the drive and commitment of the wealth creators of this country, there will be no economy to speak of, there will be no cash to pay for our public services, no way of funding our NHS.’

In this crisis, he was saying, we have to make use of the public sector, but in the long term, the market is all that matters.

The greatest fear I have is that he will succeed where Churchill failed; that the public sector will be safely put back in its box, and we will return to an even more brutally unfair society than we had last year.

Johnson has time on his side. In 1945 Labour was able to force a general election. Since Johnson was gifted a huge parliamentary majority, he cannot be forced to go to the country until 2024 – plenty of time to recreate the old mantra that the state can only do harm, especially if by then we are out of the EU with no deal and entirely dependent on whatever Donald Trump chooses to give us.

Meanwhile, the government is taking care not to let people feel too beholden to the state. Covid tests may be paid for by the state, but they are carried out by people with a company logo on their lapels. The government is supporting businesses and charities to the tune of billions of pounds during the crisis, but local authorities have been told by Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick that they will get no extra support to compensate for the additional strain on services caused by the pandemic. Nor will they get anything to replace their income from airports, public transport, parking, leisure and other charges.

They are being given responsibility for controversial areas that the government has failed to solve, but without the necessary powers or funding. The easy bits of testing go to the private sector, but local authorities have been handed the huge problem of delivering it in care homes.

And the state will feel more than ever like an oppressor now that the government has refused to sign up to human rights safeguards. The EU wants a commitment that Britain will continue as a signatory of the European Convention on Human Rights as a condition of a trade deal.

The government has refused to give such a commitment. The only other European country which has not signed this convention is Belarus.

But the government’s biggest weapon is that the idea of government running things effectively is hard to sell when, despite controlling so much of the means of production, exchange and control, the government is making a complete shambles of managing the crisis.

There is a horrible, wrenching irony in this. Johnson’s best ally is his own louche incompetence.

• Francis Beckett’s Clem Attlee: Labour’s Great Reformer is published by Haus

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