Saturday, 5 January 2008

Was the 1945 Conservative Manifesto a blueprint for Thatcherism?

It is customary at this time of year (though I plead guilty to being a little late) to look back on the year just passed and reflect upon some of the more outstanding events it witnessed. To many, of course, the Government's monumental train of failures and descent into PR hell shortly after Gordon Brown took the reins is going to be up there with the best of them. But whatever your opinion on the matter, all the kerfuffle about Lady Thatcher's visit to the prime minister late last year confirmed in stone what a lot of us have suspected for a long time [1] - namely, that a new consensus has come to pass in British politics. However, with the last real remnant of the old one celebrating its 60th anniversary this year (the NHS, to those not in the know), it seems an appropriate junction to look back and ask ourselves: why did it take so long? Perhaps more importantly: could we have avoided the wasted thirty years between Attlee and Callaghan?
It is to my mind that sadly, the answer is yes, we could.

I have in the past touched on the idea that, to get technical, Thatcherism was not so much a philosophy in itself (and much less an ideology, as many mistakenly claim), but a mission that came into being for the sole purpose of 'fixing' Britain. The fact that increasing divisions within the party and Margaret Thatcher's own inner circle seemed to be index-linked to their own success certainly lends credence to this view. But there is further supporting evidence in that the circumstances surrounding the Conservatives' 1979 election victory are not so dissimilar to those surrounding the writing of the 1945 Conservative Manifesto. The task ahead of both Labour and the Tories at the time was to develop ideas on how best to reconstruct an economically and, in many cases, physically destroyed Britain. It was a plan of action, an operation - a mission, so to speak. And it needed to be - financially, the nation was on its knees. From being the world's banker, Britain had emerged victorious from the war bankrupt and at the tender mercies of our American creditors (this debt was only fully paid off in 2006). Cut to 1975, and Britain was once more staring at the abyss financially - indeed it was to be only another year before we were again to be bailed out by an outside party (this time, the IMF). But that is not the only parallel to be made here - most striking is the actual content of the thing. It sounds a hell of a lot like Thatcherism.

Can this be? The nation's 'Greatest Briton' and its 'most unpopular prime minister since records began' proposing the same thing? The thought may not come as any great surprise to many on the right, but to the chequered mosaic of proud Britons that all claim Churchill as their own, it may appear somewhat alarming. Not least, I am sure, to the 'One Nation' Tories who served under Churchill and his protégés after the war, and subsequently fought Lady Thatcher's policies nail and tooth throughout the 1980s. But I challenge anyone giving the time of day to actually read the document in question [2] to deny its almost identical nature to said policies. It contained a now very familiar cocktail of liberal economics, a focus on the wealth-creating importance of entrepreneurs, individual responsibility and low taxation - all imbued with a strong emphasis on the vitality of family values, fierce patriotism, and a firm sense of Britain's historical role in the world at large. Indeed, as Lady Thatcher later proved, the 1945 Manifesto correctly identified that 'Only a Britain that is strong and ready to fight in defence of Freedom will count in the high councils of the world'. It was to be Britain's intolerance of Argentine aggression, her swift and merciless dealing of Islamic terrorism, and her resolve in confronting Communism on a worldwide scale under the Thatcher premiership that renewed our place in these 'high councils'.

Yet despite the many similarities in their beliefs and policies (more of which will be addressed below), there remains a huge divergence in the reputations of Sir Winston and Lady Thatcher. Indeed it would be difficult, certainly in many areas of Britain, for them to be further apart. The reason for this rather peculiar state of affairs lies in two fundamental differences in circumstance - and they speak volumes about how public opinion is formed this country. First, as we well know, Churchill was never able to implement his vision of British revival. In the evening of his years, and in respect to the wishes of a people that had endured so much, Churchill and his party chose not to reverse the Attlee reforms once they returned to office in 1951 - seeking instead to make the best of the new consensus that had almost annihilated them at the last election. Second, though almost identical to the Thatcher years in both policy and ethos, the 1945 Manifesto was a mission to rebuild. And this is the clincher - the Thatcher government did not have this luxury. In Oliver Hirschbiegel's seminal film Downfall, Adolf Hitler muses to his chief architect Albert Speer that the Allied destruction of Berlin had come as a blessing. It would be far easier, he said, to clear away the scattered rubble of Berlin for the new Welthaupstadt (World Capital) Germania than to tear it down first. Yet this is exactly what Margaret Thatcher had to do. From her first round as 'Milk Snatcher' in the early seventies to the closure of loss-making pits and the muzzling of union power a decade later, she bore the unenviable burden of being someone who was seen as taking things away. The idea that a prime minister can, for this reason, be so overwhelmingly unpopular yet simultaneously so successful may appear strange, but then nobody who signs into rehab is going to be under any illusions regarding its pleasantness.

To Churchill, Britain's greatness had been 'built on character and daring, not on docility to a state machine' - and this is very much how he intended it to continue. This 'spirit of independence' which we are now still struggling to re-introduce was something that Churchill sought to preserve 'at all costs'. Like Margaret Thatcher sometime later, Churchill saw as 'first essentials' a strong 'confidence in sound government - mutual co-operation between industry and the State rather than control by the State'. There was an instinctive affinity, reminiscent now of Thatcherism, with 'the small man' in business - Churchill recognised, as Lady Thatcher always saw in her father - that in pursuing his dreams, the entrepreneur 'adventures all he has...his independence of spirit is one of the essential elements that make up the life of a free society'. The Manifesto sought to drive home the legitimate concern that after the war 'other men may have jobs to go back to, but the businesses of some of these men are gone, or hanging by a thread'. There is even an early recognition of the inefficiency inherent in Britain's coal industry - a worrying reality that disappeared under the veil of denial manifest in Labour's nationalisation. Though for the next thirty years the industry’s perpetual decline was frequently cited as a result of under-investment, the 1945 Manifesto correctly identified state-owned coal as 'a wasting asset'. Citing the Reid report, the Conservatives observed how the industry had 'fallen behind some its competitors overseas' and that 'Adequate supplies, as cheap as possible, must be available to our homes [and] to our factories'. Margaret Thatcher's entire policy regarding taxation as well her own deeply-held suspicion of state power too, finds a very clear voice within the 1945 Manifesto. It identifies the state as having resources of its own. It can only spend what it takes from the people in taxes...Britain is now a nation of taxpayers...[this] drastically restricts the ability of the ordinary citizen to satisfy his personal desires. It is discouraging to his enterprise and his efforts to better himself by doing a bit extra

In addition to this, the Conservatives naturally pledged to 'preserve the incentives of free enterprise and safeguard...industry from the dead hand of State ownership or political interference in day-to-day management'. Somewhat ironically, there are also many things proposed in the Manifesto that have, in subsequent realpolitik only been possible relatively recently under New Labour. These include, within the Conservatives' plans for a 'comprehensive health service' pledges to protect 'the patient's free choice of doctor' as well as voluntary trust hospitals that have 'led the way in the development of hospital technique'. In education, too, the Conservatives promised that 'parents will be able to choose the school they like and to play their part with the educational authorities in the physical and spiritual well-being of their children' - a policy begun under the Thatcher government and carried on under Labour. There were familiar calls, seen later in the sale of council houses and the extinguishing of inflation, to 'see property widely spread...we rejoice that the savings movement, which must go on, has now made almost everyone a property-owner'.

Sadly of course, this movement died a quick death under the welfare state for those it served most - the working class. With the self-reliance that saving fostered replaced now only by a vulnerability to creditors and debt, there is good ground to argue that it was the Attlee welfare state and not Margaret Thatcher's premiership that has effectively made 'the poor poorer'. It robbed them of the need for friendly societies, the need to plan ahead financially, and experience in the rewards that hard work and thrift can bring. It robbed them of the thing most precious and sacred to every human being - their very independence. Resistance to Thatcherite policies culminating in the 1984/85 miners’ strike may have given the illusion of traditional working class solidarity at work, but this had effectively been destroyed years earlier by the state reliance Butskellite consensus fostered. Take away the nationalised industries that allowed this reliance and the veil was lifted. Traditional working class values forged through blood, sweat and tears in the sweltering forge of nineteenth century life – thrift, saving, financial solidarity, family values – all gone within a generation. Nationalisation and distorted trade union power had steadily eroded these values by eliminating risk and flexibility from the workplace. The two became irrevocably tied, and so effectively perished together.

To my mind, out of the many failings of the post-war consensus, this has to be the most remorseful waste of all. Thirty years of precarious financial management (estimated at around £40 billion in 1982 from capital write-offs and grants alone - not to mention wasted productivity) was readily, if not painfully remedied by fiscal squeezes, tax reform, and privatisation - London is, after all, once again the banking capital of the world and leaders of the Labour Party now speak enthusiastically about globalisation and private enterprise. But the underlying tragedy, not so easy to correct, is in the human cost of those wasted years. By making the wrong decision in 1945, by taking the easy road, and - as even Keith Joseph confessed to doing - kidding ourselves that there were 'short cuts to utopia' only to realise the error of our ways at barely the eleventh hour, we have left behind us dire social consequences that have become deeply rooted in the national psyche. With broken homes, teenage pregnancies, benefit dependency, massive debt, and undisciplined children now endemic in this country, there is more than a touch of irony in having rejected a manifesto so strongly identifying Britain as 'a country built on family life [and] the love of home' - a 'precious asset to be defended at all costs'.

The now almost alien tone of this sentiment in the context of political vocabulary is why I will continue to support David Cameron’s policy encouraging marriage as an institution and an ideal. It stands always as the essential foundation from which everything else is built - financially, emotionally, and educationally. As we’re still clearing up the mess left behind by the post-war consensus, with many of the things that were taken for granted when the 1945 Manifesto were written now gone, sound economics are simply not enough. Cameron’s Conservatives are right to tackle the social agenda, and it by no means indicates that they are shifting to the centre ground - far from it. What it means is that like all good Conservatives, they are being pragmatic. Solid social values regarding family, citizenship, discipline and respect are essential to the functioning of a healthy free-market liberal democracy and this is why Labour, with its vast army of bleeding heart lefties, will never be the party to tackle it. We can say in all confidence that the economic war is won. Liberalism is triumphant across the floor. But if the values that Churchill identified as the source of Britain’s greatness are not re-introduced one way or another - if the social war is not now won - then we shall be facing some very deep water indeed.