Nye Bevan launching the NHS

Ian Bullock reflects on the mixed legacy of the Attlee government

I can’t really remember much about 1945 and Attlee’s Labour government that was its surprising result. No wonder really. I was only four in 1945, and 10 when Labour managed to lose the 1951 election in spite of winning more votes than their main opponent. This was due, of course, to our barmy electoral system which most of the Left – with some notable exceptions, such as Ramsay MacDonald – had rejected in favour of some form of PR by 1914. Where did that disappear to?

What I can remember are some odd, disconnected things from those years: walking past prefabs and, quite nearby, a huge area being turned into a new estate of what were called ‘council houses’; the failure of the ‘Groundnut Scheme’, which seemed to be being blamed on Stafford Cripps because he was Chancellor of the Exchequer although he wasn’t its main promoter.

My parents weren’t very interested in politics and, growing up in a very Conservative town (Sutton Coldfield), the only overt bit of combative party politics I can recall is seeing some blokes wearing little silver-coloured badges with a picture of a rat on them after Nye Bevan had called the Tories “lower than vermin”. One thing that did capture my imagination (paradoxically, as will become evident later) was the brainchild of Herbert Morrison: the Festival of Britain. I never got to London to see the Dome of Discovery or the Skylon, but looking at them on our new TV was exciting.

Of course, in subsequent decades I came to have more appreciation for the achievements of the Attlee government. Clearly, the most almost universally appreciated – well before the pandemic – is the NHS. It became a cliché to say that it was the nearest thing we have to a religion in Britain. What’s always struck me is how little public support, in comparison with the NHS, there was for the other excursions into public ownership of the Attlee government. The 70s and 80s saw lots of sympathy and support for the miners – but there wasn’t much, to put it mildly, for the National Coal Board.

Then in the 90s we had rail privatisation – now very unpopular, but I can’t recall much of a widespread public resistance at the time. Certainly I, and I imagine all the people reading this, were totally opposed. But I do remember arguing with a British Rail employee at Brighton Station who was quite unperturbed about whether privatisation came or not. The NHS was ‘ours’ in a way that none of the other nationalisations ever became – not even to a lesser extent. Why? The NHS – even though there’s quite a flourishing private health sector and NHS dentists are rarer than hen’s teeth – is different in that nothing is more personal and important to us all than our health. But why didn’t other nationalised industries garner at least a bit more support?

Back in the 70s, when I was lending a hand on Walter Kendall’s Voice of the Unions, I would have put this down to the lack of any kind of workers’ self-management. I’d only dissent from that now by saying that that’s important, but it’s a lot more complicated.

I do find it a little strange that this happened under Attlee’s premiership. In the early 20s, as an activist in the ILP, he had been the promoter, together with Clifford Allen, of the ‘Allen-Attlee’ version of that party’s new programme, which is often described as being inspired by guild socialism. Their version wanted “clearer recognition” of “the principles of ‘workers’ control'”. They urged that the ILP should unequivocally take a stand “for political and industrial democracy and for devolution by locality and function as against the theory of the all-controlling State.”

So Attlee was at least aware of alternatives to the public corporations associated with Herbert Morrison. But I guess the social and economic crises of the later 40s – the Berlin airlift, the advent of the Cold War, the Palestine problem, the Marshall Plan and the rest of it – discouraged contemplating anything more radical in the style of public ownership during those years.

So if and when Labour gets another chance, I hope it will go for forms of public ownership which do have at least a chance of becoming ‘ours’, and not just in a purely formal sense. As far as railways go, I think in Chartist we can leave it to Paul Salveson to get us thinking about how this might be done.

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