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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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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Today’s Britain was made in Downing Street, not Brussels

BREXIT CAMPAIGNERS have a long charge sheet against the EU. In fact, it sometimes seems like there’s nothing wrong in Britain today that can’t be solved by leaving the union. Whether they’re talking about NHS cuts, overcrowded schools, the decline of manufacturing industry, the shortage of housing, Islamist terrorists, rural poverty, urban poverty, unemployment, low wages, unions being too weak or unions being too strong, it’s usually “Brussels” that’s to blame. The other day, I even saw someone blaming the EU for underperforming kettles and hairdryers (not a problem I even realised we had).

If even a fraction of this were true, it would be very odd indeed that 27 other countries are still EU members and many others are clamouring to join. Maybe Brexiteers really do think that all foreigners are stupid, or maybe these things only affect Britain, leaving all other 27 member states mysteriously untouched.

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Talk to the hand

DESCRIBING YOUR OPPONENTS’ CLAIM as irresponsible is a funny way of refuting it. It implies that the claim is probably true, and the would-be rebutter knows it but doesn’t want to talk about it.

The implication is not only that the threatened thing is bad, but that the possibility of it happening should be taken so seriously that it’s better to avoid discussing it at all. We don’t want to put ideas into people’s heads. No one condemns talk about an alien invasion as “irresponsible” because hardly anyone thinks it’s going to happen. It could only be deemed “irresponsible” when a lot of people think it might. That’s the thing about not putting ideas into people’s heads: the ideas are usually already there.

So it was with John Major and Tony Blair’s claim yesterday that Brexit could put the Northern Ireland peace process in danger. Theresa Villiers, who is apparently the Northern Ireland secretary as well as a leading Brexit campaigner, condemned this as “highly irresponsible”. When people try to close down a debate like this, it’s usually because they don’t have an answer they can live with. Villiers could have just said it wasn’t true, that everything would be fine, Brexit or no Brexit. But she couldn’t. That would’ve made her look stupid.

It should be self-evident that anything that drives a wedge between the Northern Ireland and the Republic will put the peace process in peril. The peace process rests on a fragile compromise: on the willingness of Nationalists to accept closer association with the Republic as a proxy for unification, and the willingness of Unionists to tolerate the Republic being treated quite differently to other foreign countries.

Brexit will throw up a border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. A real border with checkpoints, passport control, police with dogs – the whole bit. It has to, because that is the logic of the Brexiteers’ own position. We have to control our own borders, remember? How can we control our borders if we have an open one with a European Union country whose borders are, in turn, open to the rest of the EU. Simple, we can’t.

Either we are going to have that border between the Republic, or we are going to put Northern Ireland in some sort of quarantine with an internal border between it and the rest of the UK. Either way, the fragile compromise will be shattered. Nationalists will feel they are back to square one – it will be as if the peace process never happened – or Unionists will be furious that they are not being treated as a proper part of the UK. All hell will break lose. As it will in Scotland if Scots vote to remain and are forced out of the EU by English voters.

There is another possibility, of course: I could be wrong and closing the border may not be necessary at all. But that would mean the Brexiteers were also plain wrong about the effects of the free movement of people. And they’re never going to admit that, are they?

Now, that’s really irresponsible.

Photo: Kelvin Boyes/Northern Ireland Executive/flickr.com.