Skip to main content

Hello. It looks like you’re using an ad blocker that may prevent our website from working properly. To receive the best experience possible, please make sure any ad blockers are switched off, or add to your trusted sites, and refresh the page.

If you have any questions or need help you can email us.

Britain’s greatest mistakes

How could a Labour government confront the disastrous decisions of the past?

Labour party leader, Sir Keir Starmer delivers the leader's speech, covered in glitter after a protestor stormed the stage on the third day of the Labour Party conference. Photo: Ian Forsyth/Getty Images

We can almost all agree that we live in dystopian times. Young people going through a mental health crisis, the middle-aged trapped in big mortgages and insecure jobs overshadowed by the inexorable advance of AI, elderly people alienated in an ever more high-tech, impersonalised world – these are familiar riffs, but that does not stop them being essentially true. All this and the climate crisis, which rather like the concept of infinity is almost too momentous in its potential implications for most of us even to try to get our heads round.

My own dystopian preoccupation – in my early 70s, almost half a century after my first book on British history was published – comes out of a concern that, unlike in the early decades after the second world war, we appear, in the understandable but narrow managerial preoccupations of much of our political discourse, increasingly to have stopped thinking about what the good society means. 

Of course, when pressed, we all have our own definitions of what that might be. For me, it is a society above all where individual self-advancement, not necessarily a bad thing in itself, is tempered by an awareness not only that most people’s destinies are determined by the luck (or ill-luck) of the genetic-cum-environmental draw, but also that, to coin a phrase, we are all in it together.

Is that possible? After all, America in 2024 does not seem a remotely cohesive society, with the real possibility, once unimaginable, of a civil war by the 2030s. In Britain, just to glance at a front page of the Daily Mail or to sample a few minutes of GB News is to hear the grim, ominous, intolerant drumbeat of the culture wars, as we start to slip down that fateful American path. 

Yet somehow, with at least a degree of emotional empathy, we need to re-learn how to live together. It is what one might call the Gareth Southgate lesson.

What follows does not remotely pretend to be a full historical explanation of why and how we have got to where we are. But it does highlight some particular mistakes, together with unhelpful casts of mind, that are worth reflecting on now, given that the future is still to be made. 

And I start by going back 60 years, to 1964, when Harold Wilson’s Labour Party came to power amid a widespread sense of relief that an almost interminable and increasingly futile period of Tory rule had at last drawn to an end.

Sadly, it was a government that over the next six years (including after being re-elected in 1966) failed in three crucial areas, as much as anything through a mixture of lack of nerve and lack of imagination. This collective failure really mattered because unlike in 1997 – when no one seriously expected radical policies from New Labour – this was a moment of high expectations.

The economy

The mistakes began on day one with the economy: namely, the decision taken by Wilson and those closest to him not to devalue the pound, despite all the clear evidence that this was what British exporters needed and was at some point going to have to happen (as indeed eventually proved the case in 1967). Afraid of Labour being labelled the party of devaluation, and keen to cultivate the image of sterling “standing strong” in relation to other currencies, the decision effectively scuppered the central plank of Labour’s economic vision: the growth-oriented National Plan, drawn up by George Brown, the deputy Labour leader. 

The very concept of planning would soon become a dirty word; yet whether to face down sectional interests, or to equalise the regions, or to ensure that policy initiatives and priorities focus on the long term, strategic planning can – if done in tandem with a market economy and not micro-managed from the commanding heights – be a key weapon in fostering a society’s health.


The second area was education. Not the shift in state secondary education away from selection (in the form of the 11-plus) and towards a comprehensive intake, for which an obviously good case can be made in terms of social cohesion. Rather, the abject failure to tackle the question of public (ie private) schools – despite the glaring unfairness of their continued presence with resources way greater than those for children in the state sector, despite their manifest contribution to social division and the unequal distribution of life chances, despite the egregious sense of entitlement of many of their alumni. 

Finland at around this time was preparing to abolish private education, with what would turn out to be wholly positive consequences; we held back. And today, in this era of blithely self-confident privately educated politicians, with little or no instinctive grasp of what life is like for the great majority of people, our ruthlessly protected educational apartheid remains a weeping sore.

The unions

Industrial relations completed the hat-trick. In 1969 a minor tragedy played out after one of Wilson’s bolder ministers, Barbara Castle, had issued a White Paper – In Place of Strife – seeking to reform the trade unions, including through pre-strike ballot provisions, and generally trying to bring them into the second half of the 20th century. But her initiative, taken from an essentially pro-union position, failed, as an alliance between the antediluvian big unions and Jim Callaghan managed to pressurise Wilson into backing down.

The sequel to that episode followed with, in retrospect, a certain inevitability. In the 1970s the unreformed unions became the proverbial overmighty subjects of the land, eventually leading to the “Winter of Discontent” and the downfall of the last Labour government for 18 years.

In the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher and Norman Tebbit between them more or less destroyed the trade union movement, through a mixture of deliberately high unemployment and repressive legislation, as well as being unwittingly helped by the vainglorious Arthur Scargill to vengefully inflict defeat on the miners. A key pillar of civil society thus became a shadow of itself; the relationship between capital and labour was shifted fundamentally in favour of the former; and we continue to live in a low-pay, high-insecurity, poor-productivity economy.

That is not, though, my central charge against Thatcherism. Rather, the truly malign legacy of the 1980s was that of “financialisation”: not just affecting the economy, as manufacturing declined precipitately and financial services became all-powerful, but society as a whole. We lost our old puritanical guilt and constraints about money, and greed was allowed to become, if not actually good, certainly far more acceptable than it had ever been. 

The old Oscar Wilde aphorism about knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing was never more applicable; and, in a horrible way, almost as if a kind of psychic shift was taking place, we became a society ever more sharply divided between “winners” and “losers”, with winning and losing judged by almost solely materialistic criteria. It was a dreadful legacy, destructive of public service as well as much else, and again we continue to feel the consequences.

Still significantly under-appreciated, we had a real chance in the mid-1990s to change tack, but failed to take it. In a context of the near-certainty that Labour would form the next government, there took place a key battle between two rival doctrines: on the one hand, shareholder capitalism, as propagated by the City of London, insisting that the only thing that mattered to a business was increasing its value to shareholders; on the other, stakeholder capitalism, as propagated by Will Hutton in his bestselling The State We’re In, arguing that businesses had much broader, longer-term responsibilities, both to their workforces and to society at large. 

Just for a moment, in a speech in Singapore a year ahead of the 1997 election, Tony Blair flirted with the latter vision. But a brief dalliance it was, and in the end New Labour opted for a sober, reassuring marriage with Britain’s mighty “market state” and its much narrower, bottom-line values.

All this was against the background of an increasingly globalised economy – a febrile, restless economy, in response to which New Labour in government did little more than make subservient obeisance. My own moment of epiphany came 10 years on, in 2007, as a fellow guest with David Blunkett on Start the Week.

He had recently made a TV film about how post-industrial Sheffield needed to reinvent itself, ruthlessly and unsentimentally, in order to flourish in the new globalised world; and it suddenly struck me, thinking aloud, that politicians generally ought to take much more into account the attachment that most people have to the familiar, even that they should positively seek to limit the amount of change that people have to go through in their daily lives. 

Blunkett gave that idea short shrift; but for myself, the events of the last decade and a half have only strengthened my sense that progressive-minded politicians need to work with, not against, the grain of human nature.

A year after that exchange came the financial crisis, as we all paid the price for the greedy, hubristic, irresponsible behaviour of the bankers. I have often played in my head a particular counter-factual: namely, what would have happened if Gordon Brown in October 2008 had gone on TV and said something like, “I made a mistake, I trusted the bankers, they betrayed that trust, now they’re going to pay for it and work for us,” before then fighting a general election on that basis?

A win for Labour, no needless Cameron/Osborne austerity, no Brexit – and the bankers would not have got away scot-free, with their only expression of gratitude being to damage so many of our communities by closing so many of their branches.

As for Brexit itself, undeniably a huge mistake in all sorts of ways, I would argue that a key reason for it was the apparent inability or unwillingness of the better-educated, more outward-looking, more European-minded sections of society – in fact, “People Like Us” – to make a sufficiently clear distinction between patriotism (which can be a decent, even benign emotion) and nationalism (loathsome and dangerous almost by definition). 

That has certainly applied to me over the years. Because of my hatred-cum-fear of nationalism, going back I guess to when I first found out about the horrors of the mid-20th century, I have often even found it hard to support England in sporting contests (the Ashes the major exception) for fear of what a prevailing patriotism might turn into. 

Yet the two phenomena are fundamentally different; and even seven years after their cathartic vote, there would surely be less inclination from Leavers to stick two fingers up at Remainers if we could find it in ourselves to remember the salutary example of George Orwell and get behind a modest, quietly celebratory, non-demonising, non-othering patriotism.

But if I could have in 2024 only one specific wish granted? Just one thing that might potentially lay the ground for some kind of national renewal? Well over half a century since the great American economist JK Galbraith spoke of private affluence and public squalor, since when the divide between the two spheres has become immeasurably wider, it would be for the restoration of our increasingly under-resourced, dilapidated and marginalised public realm – all those hospitals, schools, libraries, parks, railways, roads and so much else that we use in common.

Of course, this would require huge investment; and my worry is that Labour, by ruling out a wealth tax on assets (as opposed to income), is misreading the popular temper and making a mistake comparable to, perhaps even greater than, the decision back in 1964 not to devalue.

I was impressed by Rachel Reeves when I met her some years ago. She struck me as a sincere and serious politician, combining pragmatism and common sense with a distinct radical edge. In my imaginary conversation with her, I would urge the restoration of our public realm on the grounds not only of providing huge daily benefit but of having major symbolic value in an increasingly demoralised as well as fractured society; and it might even make us proud – but proud in a good, uniting, inclusive sort of way – to be British.

A Northern Wind: Britain 1962-65 is the most recent book in David Kynaston’s Tales of a New Jerusalem series.

Hello. It looks like you’re using an ad blocker that may prevent our website from working properly. To receive the best experience possible, please make sure any ad blockers are switched off, or add to your trusted sites, and refresh the page.

If you have any questions or need help you can email us.