On Clem Attlee and patriotic socialism

FOR A BOOK REVIEW, I’ve been plunging into John Bew’s excellent 600-page biography of Clement Attlee, now out in paperback. The book, with its cover depicting a jaunty-looking Attlee in a trilby has induced some shrugged shoulders and puzzled looks in the cafés and pubs of Stroud. For my younger reader, Attlee was prime minister of this country from 1945 to 1951, and his Labour government set up the National Health Service and the modern welfare state, nationalised the railways, the coal and steel industries and the Bank of England, and granted independence to India. Attlee was also deputy prime minister in the wartime coalition government, alongside the rather better-known Winston Churchill.

Attlee’s government is revered on the left and many Labour activists see it as the only really radical Labour administration (I would argue that Harold Wilson and Tony Blair’s governments achieved more than they are given credit for – but that’s an argument for another day). But Attlee himself is less well known. He was an uncharismatic politician, a mediocre speaker and was easily overshadowed by the bigger personalities in his cabinet, most notably Aneurin Bevan, the “founder” of the NHS. Attlee isn’t seen as a great thinker either – his government may have been hugely influential in both shaping the Britain we know today and the British idea of democratic socialism, but no one ever talks about Attleeism.

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Review: A Woman’s Work, by Harriet Harman

harrietALTHOUGH HARRIET HARMAN never held a front-rank cabinet job, she is probably one of the most influential politicians of recent decades. “I knew exactly what I was coming into Parliament to do,” she writes of her arrival at Westminster following the 1982 Peckham by-election. “I was there for women… we wanted equality, in work and in politics. We wanted childcare, maternity rights, for domestic violence to be taken seriously and for women to play and equal part in political decision making.” Harman has stuck to her agenda for 35 years, with a measure of success that puts most male politicians in the shade.

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Never mind the workers

musical chairs_colourSTPs ARE THE FLIPSIDE of the Five Year Forward View. The 5YFV’s broad vision for the NHS was breezily optimistic, but STPs are – or will be – all about the grinding detail of realising it. In these 44 hastily cobbled-together “footprints” the stark reality of what £22bn in efficiency savings really means for the NHS will play itself out.

As the King’s Fund recently observed, STPs started out as being all about new care models, integration and public health but “the emphasis from national NHS bodies has shifted over time to focus more heavily on how STPs can bring the NHS into financial balance (quickly).”

Most STPs have now found their way into the public domain one way or another. But it’s as clear as mud what they mean for people working for the NHS. Most of the STPs I’ve read have little to say about the impact on the NHS workforce, and engagement with staff and their trade unions – as with patients and the public – seems to have been minimal at best.

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Use it or lose it

SUCH HAS BEEN was my sense of déjà vu this summer that, reading the results of this poll in the Independent, I didn’t immediately clock that it dates from last year’s leadership contest, not the 2016 remake. Still, I don’t see any compelling reason to think the poll’s findings – that the public actually agree, by quite large margins, with many of Jeremy Corbyn’s policies – will have changed much if the questions were asked today (as long as you don’t tell people they’re Jeremy’s policies, of course).

This has been true for a very long time; people are, on some things at least – the old core Labour things, like wages, public transport, fair taxes, free education and so on – more left wing that the media gives them credit for, or the public’s voting record would suggest. It only tells half the story of course: voters have quite a few policy positions – on welfare, immigration and crime, for example – which Jeremy wouldn’t like at all.

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What’s wrong with grammar schools? Two words: secondary moderns

11-plusI’ve nothing against grammar schools; it’s the secondary moderns I don’t like. For younger readers, secondary moderns are the schools you go to if you don’t get into a grammar school. You can call them what you like, but secondary moderns is what they are: every child there has either failed the 11-plus or not even been entered for it. “A grammar school in every town” automatically turns all other schools in the area into secondary moderns.

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Three words that won it

vote-leave-take-back-control

LOOKING BACK on last month’s EU referendum, my hunch is that the “take back control” message probably swung it in the last week. As a political message it had everything, all packed into three words. I don’t know if this was a stroke of genuis on the part of someone at Vote Leave or just a happy (for them) accident. Although they never actually used these three words on their publicity material, here’s ten reasons why “take back control” was probably the most devastatingly effective political slogan of modern times.

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May shuffles and leads with the joker

THE APPOINTMENT of Boris Johnson as foreign secretary is either a very smart move by Theresa May or an incredibly stupid one. I can’t make up my mind which.

It’s certainly a gamble of some sort. Until now, even May’s own supporters weren’t claiming that she was much more than “a safe pair of hands” – Westminster-speak for “boring and cautious”. Boris’s surprise elevation, the sacking of Osborne, Gove, Whittingdale, Crabb and Morgan, and the hospital pass of DEFRA to her vanquished rival Andrea Leadsom, were bolder moves than anyone expected. This could be the brisk radicalism of someone who has acquired power quickly and confidently. Or it could be a streak of Cameroonian carelessness.

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Crushed!

WATCHING EVENTS UNFOLD post-Brexit reminds me of the scene in the original Dad’s Army movie when a streamroller “driven” by Captain Mainwaring and Corporal Jones accidentally crushes a line of tents at a training camp. Mainwaring says sorry for destroying the tents, only to be told: “You will be. It was you that was gonna be sleeping in ‘em.”

No one can stop Brexit, and no one can steer or control it either. The hapless Brexit leadership, stuck in the cab like Mainwaring and Jones, have been reduced to shouting “don’t panic” in a grim parody of their campaign strategy, which was simply to ignore facts and shout louder than anyone else. This is a self-inflicted disaster pressed on us by politicians who are simply out of their depth.

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Because it’s worth it

I WANT TO MAKE a final appeal to you to vote for Britain to stay in the European Union in tomorrow’s referendum. And I want to do it by addressing the issue of migration head on.

Let’s not pretend leaving the EU won’t give us more control over migration. It will. We may not want to do it, we may not need to do it, but we would have the power to limit migration from other EU countries. Of course, It won’t do anything about migration from outside the EU, which accounts for more than half of net migration into the UK.

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