By MICHAEL BLACKBURN.
THE WORST GOVERNMENT Britain has ever had?
When you get to my age you can pass a few moments looking back over the various governments under which your country has laboured and whose policies you have personally suffered or possibly benefited from. The names of prominent and usually now unregarded politicians rise up from the morass of memory. I think, for example of John Knott, Thatcher’s Secretary of State for Defence during the Falklands War, who, being described during a television interview as a “here today…and gone tomorrow politician” by Sir Robin Day, walked out of the studio. Sir Robin himself, once a household name as a top level journalist and broadcaster has also entered the ranks of the forgotten.
My theory of government is derived from my own experiences rather than any reading. It is that the less government there is, the better. This unfortunately is not shared by politicians, who think, whatever party they belong to, that their job is meddle constantly and to be seen to be making a difference.
This commitment to making a difference occasionally does improve things but often does not. And in some cases the apparent improvements transform into their opposite. My experience stretches back to the early 1960s when, though still a child, I recall the build-up to the 1964 election, when the out-of-date, tweed-clad, grouse-shooting, posh-talking Tories were about to be toppled by the thoroughly modern, technologically-savvy commoners of Labour. Put that way it sounds rather familiar to more recent times.
I remember one schoolmate going round the playground, counting how many of us would vote for the Conservatives (because we’d “never had it so good”) or Labour. None of us, of course, has the damndest idea of what we were talking about. I do recall that as a gung-ho ten-year-old I shared many adults’ dismay that the new Labour regime cancelled the TSR2 project, thus scuppering what was Britain’s own new strike and reconnaissance aircraft and a valuable independent weapon in the Cold War.
The worst government was not Wilson’s, nor any of those that followed over the next thirty years, although the Blair-Brown regime comes a very, very close second to the one I’m thinking of. Not even Theresa May’s collection of sloppy, interventionist wets qualifies.
I’m thinking here of ‘worst’ as meaning to have had the most long-term deleterious effects on Britain at any level you care to consider — economic, social, political, personal. And it has to be the Attlee government that took power in 1945 and exited a mere six years later in 1951.
This may appear paradoxical – and heretical to many. Didn’t the Attlee administration rebuild Britain after the destruction of the Second World War? Weren’t the people rehoused, put back to work, provided with cradle-to-grave state care? Did they not receive benefits when unemployed, free dental care to fix their awful British teeth and free drugs for their ailments?
Yes, they were. And about the rehousing part I cannot complain. My parents and siblings were living in a spacious council house on a new housing estate when I was born (born in the house, to be exact, just in case any “more working class than thou” types want to get into a Pythonesque bidding war).
So what is my beef?
Twofold. The first is economic, the second political and psychological.
Labour nationalised at least one fifth of the UK economy: steel, coal, railways, gas and electricity, shipbuilding, civil aviation, road haulage, inland waterways, and telecommunications. Even Thomas Cook & Son was appropriated. This smothered innovation and competitiveness and held back investment for decades. Private and public sector unions increased their power, often enforcing rigid, unproductive working practices. Exchange controls were put in place. Rationing increased – even bread, which had not been rationed during the war.
The results of state inefficiency were evident by the 1970s when governments felt compelled to bail out increasingly unprofitable heavy industries with taxpayers’ cash. Strikes were commonplace.
In 1948, the government nationalised the health care system to create the National Health Service — on the wrong model, of course, in which the state not only funded health care but also provided it, thus establishing a truly socialist institution at the heart of British society.
By the end of its first year it was already running out of money. In 1949 Bevan had to give the NHS the ability to levy a charge on prescriptions if required. According to Attlee this was a “deterrence against extravagance, rather than as an economy.” In 1951 charges were brought in for spectacles and dentures, and in 1952 prescription charges were finally introduced (one shilling per scrip, later increased to one shilling per item).
The NHS continued as it began. Now it’s a gargantuan, over-bureaucratised, de facto monopolistic Leviathan into whose maw endless amounts of public cash have to be shovelled. It has become the National Fetish that cannot be questioned or criticised or reformed. It is a permanent suppurating sore on political discourse, automatically raised by the left during every election as a rallying point, always portrayed as months, weeks or just days away from collapse under the fantasised onslaughts of the proponents of the free market.
It is always given ample air time by the media and always talked of as “our” NHS, as if anyone of us had the slightest influence on how it is run. We don’t own it. The state owns it, the state runs it. We simply pay for it and put up with whatever service it provides – sometimes excellent, sometimes atrocious. The obsession with it is now so ingrained that even outside an election period the media will feature something health related at least once a week.
Thus it is the example, par excellence, of the moral rot instituted by the Attlee government alongside the economic, the rot being the assumption that state will take care of your every need and desire. Worse, that the state has a duty and the right to interfere in any aspect of your life if its agents deem it necessary. No cost will be too great (because you’ll be paying for it anyway).
The long term political and psychological consequences of this are debilitating. A nation can usually recover from economic mistakes, given enough time. A nation that does not shake off an ideological approach that encompasses every aspect of ordinary life and which ineluctably leads to social degradation, may never recover successfully.
The more the state promises to do and the more control it secures, the more it all costs. That requires more taxation and greater borrowing. Bureaucracy increases to cope with the demand. Legislation increases to strengthen existing regulation and to correct the consequences of what has been implemented before.
In the meantime the notion of self-reliance, resilience and personal responsibility is atrophied to the point that individuals think the state should insulate them from the results of their own bad decisions, mop up any mess they’ve made and bung some cash in their pockets. At least half the citizenry happily embrace their semi serf-like servility. It’s easier that way and they can pat themselves on the back that they’re in agreement with all the other correctly-thinking folk.
And when an election comes round the politicos enter into a bidding competition with each other to tempt everyone with more and more free stuff, better stuff, faster stuff, whether it’s nurses, broadband, wages or trees. The left will always outbid their rivals and probably promise to nationalise everything in sight while they’re at it – because the state’s commissars, having invented nothing, established no successful businesses, run nothing commercial, and having no understanding of profit and loss know exactly how it’s done, don’t they?
What the Attlee government ultimately did was embed a socialist mentality into the social, political and economic fabric of the country, so that even the Tories went along with enough of it to find themselves trapped by its ethos and industrial processes within a few years. The arrival of Thatcher shook things up economically but did not in reality break the post-war consensus, as the conventional narrative has it. Thatcher was supplanted by Major and his grey apparatchiks, the welfare system expanded, the state augmented its control year by year and enmeshed us even more deeply into the uber-state of the EU.
Now the malaise is widespread: health, education, the law, housing, immigration, the economy, the environment, everything is permeated with the state ethos. Every day the broadcasters are choosing material to promote the agenda. Something or other is wrong – what is to be done? they demand. Well, we know what they’re suggesting: the government should step in, make new laws, take control. Hardly ever the idea that citizens themselves either individually or in self-organised groups act for themselves. Or that we should be left alone to get on with our lives.
I don’t think this was the future those who signed up for the post-war consensus really had in mind.
Currente Calamo columnist, poet and writer Michael Blackburn lives in Lincolnshire. A Royal Literary Fund Fellow at Lincoln University (2005 – 2008), his poetry has appeared in numerous publications and anthologies over the years, including Being Alive (Bloodaxe) and Something Happens, Sometimes Here (Five Leaves Press). His most recent book is Albion Days (perennisperegrinator press). Sucks to Your Revolution is a collection of his Fortnightly columns.