The Politics of Decline and the Leadership Factor

Anyone born after 1965 may now scarcely realize just now pervasive the idea of socialism was for over half a century after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. Western adoration of Marxism-Leninism dwindled in the post-1945 Cold War years, but a broader faith in ‘social democracy’ did not. The New Left of 1965-75 brought some new adoration for Castro and Mao, but that soon faded. Western economic troubles of the 1970s, rather than encouraging further statism, reduced confidence in the ‘mixed economy’ policies widely adopted after World War II, and the influence of free-market economic thinkers gained wider and wider acceptance.

In the 1980s, Thatcher and Reagan triumphed over Soviet Marxism, and restored domestic prosperity through deregulation and privatization. They were emulated worldwide, and in the following decade, Tony Blair and Bill Clinton largely endorsed the new dispensation. Today, five years since the worst financial crash since 1929, socialist ideas are scarcely making a roaring comeback, beyond stumbling Obamacare in the U.S. There is little sign of a re-appearance of the much broader ideological and legislative current of the first half of the century. But understanding that current can still offer insight on the present.

‘Social democracy’ transformed Britain in 1945-51. in some ways permanently, and with worldwide influence. Its practical implementation owed a great deal to the ‘planning’ long prepared by Fabian intellectuals, and to British ‘Chapel’ Christianity, ‘owing more to Methodism than to Marx’. Almost all the early Labour party leaders displayed this background, many first honing their political oratory as lay preachers.

However, Labour’s greatest leader, Clement Attlee, Oxford graduate and Gallipoli veteran, was an agnostic. Pipe-smoking and unassuming, he was a reassuring anchor of his party in the tumultuous two decades from 1935 to 1955. Even Margaret Thatcher admired him in her memoirs, as ‘all substance and no show.’ In the 1945 general election, the first in ten years, Attlee led Labour to a landslide victory, taking almost double the number of seats retained by Churchill’s Conservatives. The victory came not only from working-class voters, but from a substantial proportion of the middle class. Then and afterwards, the majority of voters were less attracted to the party’s more radical firebrands, like the fiery Welsh journalist, Aneurin Bevan. Attlee brought with him several capable lieutenants, Bevan included. Labour leaders in 1940 had provided necessary support to Churchill, who had given them major offices in his wartime administration, while he concentrated on the war. Attlee had been Deputy Prime Minister, and the stolid trade unionist Ernest Bevin had been indispensable as Minister of Labour.

The new government had not only a five-year apprenticeship in the exercise of power, but had no sympathy for Soviet Communism, and little more for domestic Marxist or quasi-Marxist intellectuals. It also had the advantage of dealing with a general population already familiar with years of state controls, and holding widespread belief, even among many Conservatives, that a decisive ‘collectivist’ change was both morally desirable and practically achievable. Despite a disintegrating Empire, and finances in ruins, Labour had no hesitation in launching a highly ambitious socialist program. Aneurin Bevan, drawing on a wartime plan, launched the still-existing National Health Service, and the Bank of England was swiftly nationalized. More gradually, nationalization was imposed on coal, iron, steel, railways, and airlines. Punishing taxes were applied to high incomes, over 90% in the top bracket.

The changes brought improved working conditions for millions of labourers, but no improvements in wages. Crippling strikes did not disappear. Other severe problems also proliferated, many the now familiar ones produced by peacetime giant state monopolies. By 1950, Attlee and his colleagues were tired and becoming more and more divided between Attlee-like moderates and radical Bevanites. The country did not enjoy coercive egalitarianism, by then associated with years of dreary austerity. In 1951, Churchill, although by then old (he was born in 1874) and ailing, returned to power, promising to ‘make Britain great again’.

Aristocrat-led Conservative governments followed for well over a decade. The old industrial working class declined steadily in numbers, so that the Labour Party needed more and more voting support from the middle class. Later Labour governments gradually shed even the rhetoric of 1945. In 1964, Harold Wilson campaigned on a promise of a ‘white-hot technological revolution’, meaning in practice mostly an expansion of universities. Post-Tony Blair ‘New Labour’ has lacked even that much of a slogan, and is not far from post-Thatcher Conservativism. Even the travails of British and world capitalism since 2008 have not produced many renewed calls for more statism. But the confident pro-capitalism of the Thatcher era has faded. The long collectivist turn in British politics, reaching back to the start of the 20th century, may be petering out, but with capitalism no longer much celebrated either, even on the right.

The Britain of 1945-51 showed that a parliamentary and non-violent leftist political movement could gain power, under a war-elevated and capable leader like Attlee. But even he and his best ministers hardly built a new ‘Jerusalem’ by attempting to run ‘the commanding heights’ of the economy through state monopolies, applying suffocating levels of taxation, and trying overall to make people behave in ways that most did not really wish to behave. Early doubts were heard: Friedrich Hayek’s Road to Serfdom had arrived in wartime (1944). and was soon followed by the early postwar Ordeal by Planning by John Jewkes. But free-market arguments had only gradual impact, even with Conservatives, led by noblesse oblige aristocrats until the 1970s.

Bankers, doctors, and other professionals largely disliked the new dispensation, some emigrating, but most stayed. However, even the enduring varieties of statism generated a host of new and enduring problems. As in the U. S. and Canada, libertarian thinktanks now press for more privatization in health services and schools. The current Conservative/Liberal coalition has made a few moves in that direction, but without Thatcher’s zeal and determination.

The ‘quiet revolution’ Attlee government had many conservative aspects. It gently adjusted the nation to the disappearance of long years of imperial power and overseas opportunities, and the painful acceptance of a secondary world role to the U. S., which it joined with it in resisting Soviet Communism and adopting its own nuclear weapons. Its welfare-state policies produced at least tolerable institutions, while its nationalizations unintentionally demonstrated empirically the follies of more utopian hopes. Margaret Thatcher made a necessary correction to the direction taken by Attlee, but her triumph came only after severe splits in both her own party and Labour’s, brought to a head by impassable crises. The postwar British economy, even if subjected to horrendous class conflict, might have done far better with policies more like hers, but for a time, that was not what most of the people wanted, and they had good reasons. The final irony of the mixed inheritance of Attlee’s 1940s collectivism and Thatcher’s 1980s individualism has been the subsequent arrival in both major British political parties of purely professional political leaders with no idea at all of where to go. In that, too, much of the world continues to emulate Britain.

PAH Second 2014 Article