The Past is a Foreign Country: They do Things Differently There

20th March 2017

By Keith Nieland-

The Past is a Foreign Country: They do Things Differently There – L. P. Hartley: The Go-Between

What is it that Clement Attlee, Harold Wilson and Tony Blair have in common? No… it is not as obvious as being the only Labour leaders to win General Elections over the last 72 years (for those interested it was 9 victories in 19 attempts but only 5 with workable majorities. The Tories achieved 10 victories in the same period with 5 different leaders and 9 of those victories had workable majorities).

Back to the Future

The answer is that each ran campaigns based on hope and aspiration for a better future. Each saw the world as it was during their time and built support by defining a better future and inspiring voters to believe in it. There was no harking back to a mythical utopia from bygone years but instead a steady focus on a different but better future.

Attlee did not paint an image of a romanticised 1930s and urge a return to the pre-war days of peace and certainty. Instead he faced up to problems of unemployment, poverty, poor health, poor housing and destitution which had blighted the country since the end of the First World War. He inspired voters to believe in a better future for themselves and their families that was a complete break from all that had gone before. Through improvements to education, the introduction of the NHS and the welfare state and a massive house building programme he was able to set in place the building blocks for greater prosperity for more citizens than ever before. This was to last until the Tories started to dismantle the welfare state in response to the 2008 economic crash.

Wilson’s 1960s platform was not a return to the relatively settled days of the 1950s but a bold vision of the future built on his understanding of the emerging technologies. He is still remembered for his “white heat of technology” speeches. He understood about the potential of mechanisation and computerisation and established the new Department of Technology. His government invested in the new technologies and introduced the Open University to give opportunity to those who may have missed out first time around. Like Attlee before him he was able to persuade voters to buy into his vision of a better, bolder but different future.

Blair in his turn avoided the lure of an attractive but ultimately false utopian world from the past and again focused on a better future for more people based on improvements to education and giving more people the opportunity to chase their dreams. Sure Start helped the very young get off to a better start in life, particularly those from deprived backgrounds. More young people went to university than ever before to the extent that going to university for every 6th former became the norm rather that the exception. He invested in public education and health programmes to a record level. New schools and hospitals were built and old ones modernised.

Labour’s three most successful leaders were social democrats. Social democracy changed the game in the 20th Century. It transformed daily life in the UK and most other advanced economies, as governments delivered virtually full employment, rising wages and access to social programmes and public services.

If Attlee, Wilson and Blair are bound together in understanding that the only way to inspire voters to support the Labour Party is to built a picture of a better, bolder but different future that people believe the party can deliver, to what extent are the main party leaders of today believers in a similar way forward?

Andy Pandy, Quatermass and Rael Brook shirts

I would contend that Theresa May’s offer to the British people is based on a romanticised vision of the 1950s. Brexit, grammar schools and the undermining of local authorities’ ability to support their local communities is about recreating an image, albeit false, of a past that exists only in the minds of many of Brexit’s core supporters. Many of these are elderly, they are my generation, and when I talked to them during the EU Referendum campaign they often referred back to days when we had little to do with Europe and, in their minds, we managed okay. Hints, such as those we had from Boris Johnson recently, of constructing a new royal yacht all play into the agenda of a future built on a past that never really existed.  Empire 2.0 as a shorthand for replacing EU trade with Commonwealth country deals is a fraud, but it does not stop it entering more and more into the conversation about post-Brexit UK.

May, driven on by the right wing of her Party, is seeking to deny the progress that social democracy has brought by focusing on a return to a mythical, utopian past that exists only in the imaginations of those who believe such twaddle. It’s as if the last 40 years never happened.

I wonder where this fascination with the past will lead us next – ration books, first, second and third class carriages on trains, forelock tugging and, more worryingly, the return of hanging?

Hoola Hops, flares, hot pants and Peyton Place

If Theresa May is all about recreating the 1950s it begs the question – is Jeremy Corbyn the heir to the social democrat tradition, taking it to a new level appropriate to the 21st century?

While May is fascinated by the 1950s, the decade of fascination for Corbyn is the 1970s. In his world there is a longing for pits, mills and factories and mass trade union membership. His personal manifesto is more relevant to the distant past than the challenges of the early 21st century. I suspect his sweet dreams are about shouting down a megaphone to Leyland workers in a car park before calling them out on strike. He stresses about issues long settled in the minds of voters. Issues that still obsess Corbyn and his circle:

  • nationalisation – a long ago discredited organisational form that has little appeal to voters. But his manifesto calls for the nationalisation of the railways and energy companies. Putting aside the cost of such moves there is no appetite for having the Treasury run essential national services. The railway franchise system needs sorting out and the energy companies need to be held more to account, but the solution is not putting civil servants in charge.
  • collective bargaining – Corbyn wants a return to this and apparently is prepared to legislate to achieve it. Now I doubt if the majority of working people know what it is and that is because workers are increasingly self-employed or working for small scale employers. It might have had relevance in the days of mass mill and factory employment but there is no evidence of a call for its return by those in the modern world of work.
  • NATO – as part of Corbyn’s foreign policy he has long called for the abolition of NATO. This is another non-issue for voters who, from all the evidence, have been long content with the arrangements for defending North America and Western Europe.
  • Nuclear power – Corbyn, we are told, is a man of principle who has long campaigned against nuclear power and weapons. Well, that is fine by him but like NATO this is an issue long settled in the mind of voters. They may not be wildly enthusiastic but they accept the important link between the nuclear deterrent and the UK’s role in the world. They also accept the role of nuclear in the country’s energy portfolio as well as being a large scale employer. John McDonnell has said a Labour government would start to dismantle nuclear weapons within its first 100 days. 

This is a good read on the unworkability of Corbynism and, therefore, its irrelevance.

Reading Corbyn’s 10 pledges is like going on a journey back to the 1970s and 1980s and are as about relevant to today as May’s 1950s back to the future project. Corbyn and May have much in common. They have both taken the easy route by appealing to their core supporters with a tempting re-creation of a past they believe to be better. The reason May is in power with a nearly 20 point lead over Corbyn is that her offer is built on the Tories’ reputation for economic credibility. It may be undeserved but that is what voters believe.

Social Democracy Mark 2

Voters deserve better than conflicting offers of a return to the past. Labour needs a leadership that is interested and prepared to put in the hours of work on identifying the problems not just of today but the challenges of the coming decades.

  • globalisation – the benefits need to be praised and greater world trade encouraged but work needs to be done on sharing the benefits more widely so that communities do not feel left behind.
  • artificial intelligence – an opportunity but also a threat to many existing ways of working. What will we do when AI takes over most of the jobs people do? How do we embrace the benefits to create more wealth while ensuring that wealth is shared?
  • changing demographics – as the age structure of the world population changes, how do we embrace the opportunities it provides and how do we prevent whole sections of society being seen as problems?
  • recreation – there could be more time for this so how do we create the opportunities?
  • liberal values of equality and universal human rights – how do we ensure these survive following the potential creation of a massive new class of individuals who are economically useless?
  • democracy – how will democratic elections survive when Facebook, Google, Twitter, Whatsapp etc know our political preferences better than we do?

(I referenced Yuval Noah Harari’s On the Rise of Homo Deus for assistance with bringing together this list of strategic challenges).

These are the real but difficult challenges of the first half of the 21st century. Social democracy can make itself relevant again by facing up to them and working on strategies that deliver the traditional social democrat values of equality of opportunity, wealth creation, wealth sharing, human rights and access to social programmes.

This would be a much better use of time than re-creating grammar schools, nationalising the commanding heights of the economy and building a new royal yacht. Oh, and negotiating a hard Brexit.

By Keith Nieland

Please note: articles and posts on ‘Middle Vision’ reflect the views of the individual authors and not of all involved in ‘Middle Vision’

        Sign up to Middle Vision