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Attlee - The Ex-Communicator

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May 26th, 2009


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08:27 am - Attlee
There is some post I need to make, and it is important, and yet my ability is not up to the job. I know the Conservatives are going to win the next election, and furthermore there was always 'going to be' an election that the Tories would win. In 1997, I knew that that would happen, I can remember knowing it even as we felt the worst was over: that it would come back again. And every vote for a mainstream party is always a compromise, because my beliefs are different from the majority of British people, so parties which emerge to meet those beliefs will always be an uncomfortable fit for me.

A post today (by peake, linked by nwhyte) has helped me to frame some part of what I want to say. I think the best approach is to keep trying, and what I mean might come through in several posts, over the next few months, if that's how long it is to an election.

By the Second World War the call for planning was practically a cacophony: planning in education (the Butler Act), planning in social services (the Beveridge report), planning in housing. Attlee latched on to this, the 1945 Labour manifesto was virtually a rehash of every one of these demands for central planning in every aspect of life...
Well planning produced a lot of good: the Health Service is the great legacy of that age ... But it was still exactly the same centralising, controlling urge that characterised the Blair government. It was the control and planning of every aspect of daily life that led the post-war government not only to retain but actually to extend rationing, for instance. And if housing plans led (rather too slowly) to the eradication of slums that slum clearance programmes of the 30s had long since started, they were replaced with buildings (high rises, for example) that fit the clean and simple plans of the planners but had absolutely nothing to do with how people actually wanted to live.


This is the type of middle-class demi-libertarianism that I am seeing all the time now. Rationing was a means to ensure that limited food and fuel supplies were distributed amongst the whole population, so that this country survived a series of harsh winters and very tough times. Without rationing, all the meat and milk would have gone to middle and upper class people, and the slums would have been full of rickets like they were in the Victorian times. When I was a child, walking around Birmingham, lots and lots of old ladies had the shrivelled bow legs of rickets. You don't see that nowadays.

Which is worse - rationing or mass deformity - because that was the choice. I saw it with my own eyes. The horror of slum clearance, which peake decries, meant I was born in this house and not the central Birmingham slum that my father was born in. It was centralised planning forcing schools and Universities to open their doors to people like us that allowed my family to participate fully in society at the level of our abilities.

It's easy, if you are a person who can afford milk, to decry rationing which means you have to share that milk with a bunch of snotty-nosed ungrateful brats. It's easy to complain about a house building programme if you have a nice middle class house in a nice suburb. It's easy to say that schools should be free of control, if you aren't the type of person who would be excluded.

And that's what I want to make people see - Churchill may have been a charming charismatic guy, but if we hadn't had horrid controlling Attlee, then we would still have rickets and squalor, and I would never have had more than a basic education.

(32 comments | Leave a comment)

Comments:


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From:dfordoom
Date:May 26th, 2009 07:58 am (UTC)
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This is the type of middle-class demi-libertarianism that I am seeing all the time now.

And like all libertarianism it relies on a complete absence of knowledge of history and a terrifyingly simplistic view of the world. It worries me that people over the age of 15 actually buy this libertarian nonsense.

Having said that, governments like the Blair government do provide ammunition for the loony libertarians by trying to control too much of our personal behaviour. Planning is needed in economic matters, but left-leaning parties these days seem too little inclined to exercise planning in the economic sphere and too much inclined towards petty interference in everyday life. While Nanny is busy telling us we mustn't go outside without putting our vest on, and introducing legislation to making wearing our vests compulsory, the economy goes down the free market toilet.
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From:watervole
Date:May 26th, 2009 08:03 am (UTC)
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But there's always the other side of the coin. If you refuse to wear your vest and get pneumonia as a result - should I as a taxpayer have to contribute towards your hospital bill?

Not saying I'm totally on either side, but there are reasons why both sides exist.
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From:gfk88
Date:May 26th, 2009 08:59 am (UTC)
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Well, I moan about the nannying and interference as much as the next comfortably-off middle-class person, but a lot of this would go away if They did stuff competently. It's not about policy, it's about implementation.

Unlike 1945, there's plenty to go round now and yet the people at the bottom still don't get a fair go. I don't understand why we can't put decent schools/hospitals/etc everywhere AND free them from central control, instead of wasting huge amounts of effort on spurious choice mechanisms. All it takes is effort and ability from the people running the thing, but we're not going to get that any time soon, irrespective of who wins the election.



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From:communicator
Date:May 26th, 2009 09:12 am (UTC)
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Would it be great to have quality without central quality control? Yes. But that would be something way different from modern society.

Would it be great to have better quality control, with greater lattitude for variation within quality? Yes, and that actually might be achievable. That's a plan worth making.
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From:sallymn
Date:May 26th, 2009 10:59 am (UTC)
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... I think the saying about "easy to despise what you've always had" rings rather loudly these days...
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From:communicator
Date:May 26th, 2009 11:05 am (UTC)
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Yes. I know people would say that also applies to freedoms. I'm glad there are people worrying away about things like, but I think there is a danger of throwing baby out with bathwater.
(Deleted comment)
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From:communicator
Date:May 26th, 2009 04:15 pm (UTC)
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It's boggling to me to suggest that the Attlee reforms amounted to 'the control and planning of every aspect of daily life'. But this is just the smear that will be used again.
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From:hafren
Date:May 26th, 2009 03:28 pm (UTC)
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I know the Conservatives are going to win the next election

That's a dangerous thing to think and say, IMO - and anyway, something I'd never bet money on. No election is ever decided until the votes are counted and as The Man said, a week is a long time in politics. But the best way to make a thing happen is to tell yourself it's inevitable.
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From:communicator
Date:May 26th, 2009 04:18 pm (UTC)
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I think it's better to face the facts. It's better for people to realise that's what we are on the brink of. Though I hope you are right.

ETA - sorry if that sounds grim and cross, I'm not cross at what you said, I just feel very gloomy right now.

Edited at 2009-05-26 04:19 pm (UTC)
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From:hafren
Date:May 26th, 2009 05:32 pm (UTC)
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Churchill may have been a charming charismatic guy

This puzzles me - when was he that? He was a good war leader but hadn't been popular up till then, not surprisingly since he was a rampant snob, racist and ultra-right, and after the war he was drunk most of the time.
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From:communicator
Date:May 26th, 2009 07:06 pm (UTC)
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I am guessing he was charismatic, from the way people reacted to him at the time and since. Sometimes god-awful people can be charismatic.
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From:mraltariel
Date:May 26th, 2009 06:52 pm (UTC)
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I know we don't agree politically, so I'm not going to try to persuade you otherwise!

But it is worth noting that the Butler Education Act was passed in 1944, under Churchill's National Government (and steered through parliament by Butler, a Tory). And all parties were signed up to the NHS and extensions to the National Insurance scheme in their 1945 manifestos.

The extension of this to 16-18 year olds and the legal requirement for parents and LEAs to ensure that children went to school was also brought in under Conservative governments in the 50s and early 60s.

All parties have steadily improved access to education since the 1940s, until the Tories replaced the HE grant with loans in the 1990s (which, although I think it was a retrograde step, as it happens, didn't impact on statistics of access to higher education), and Labour introduced tuition fees in the 2000s (which I also think was a retrograde step, and as it happens, has shown some negative impact on accessibility for the poorest).
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From:communicator
Date:May 26th, 2009 07:19 pm (UTC)
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It's true that the Tories from the mid-forties to the seventies largely went along with a consensus which had it roots in the necessities of war. As Orwell pointed out in 1940, the war could not be run or won on free-market capitalist principles. The cross-party war government therefore did indeed introduce socialist measures, to keep the country going, which then came to full fruition under Attlee.

I think the various post-war Tory governments' implementation of socialist welfare policies left a lot to be desired - but they didn't launch all-out assault on social welfare until Thatcher.

Just as the Conservatives partly went along with the welfare state, so the current Labour party has partly gone along with Thatcherism. I totally disagree with them about that decision. But, the alternative is not to go back to full-on social dismantling. However, unlike hafren, I think that is going to happen.
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From:iainjcoleman
Date:May 26th, 2009 08:19 pm (UTC)
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See, this is why more people should read Machiavelli. Different forms of political organisation are appropriate for different times, as exemplified in Machiavelli's account of the institution of dictatorship in the Roman republic.

A senior figure in the Scottish architecural heritage establishment once passionately defended high-rise towers to me on the grounds that they were a temporary, pragmatic solution to a pressing problem. He was right. While high-rises have had some negative social consequences, at least they got a roof over people's heads. However, what we're now doing is blowing up all these high-rises, and replacing them with much more human-friendly, low-rise housing. We're doing this because we now have the resources to do these things.

I think there's a political equivalent of Maslow's hierarchy of needs. Brutal dictatorship satisfies the most basic political needs - ending anarchy. As we move up the scale of needs, we need increasingly more democratic, more liberal forms of government if the higher needs are to be satisfied. We've moved up since 1945 - a good bit of that was due to the Atlee government, which is rightly renowned, but it is precisely because of their good work that we don't need that kind of government any more.

The decisions of the Atlee government left a legacy of problems for us to deal with, however necessary those decisions were at the time. The high-rises are one example. Another is the centralised form of the NHS. At the time the NHS was being founded, there was a debate within the Labour government over whether to follow a centralised model or a localised, distributed model. The centralisers won. Looking at the performance of the NHS compared to less centralised public healthcare models in Europe, it is at least arguable that if the Atlee government had made the opposite decision then we might have a better NHS now than we do. At any rate, whatever their reasons for making that decision then, there is no reason why we can't reorganise things to suit us better in the present day.

I normally hate analogies in poitical argument, but I'll indulge myself in this one. Computing in the present day is becoming ever more distributed, with ad hoc arrangements of applications linked by light interfaces. This has resulted in an explosion of new ways of using computing power that were unheard of a few years ago. In the seventies, there were good reasons for putting everything on great big mainframes: but if you tried to argue that we should stick to mainframes because they worked in the seventies, people would think you were mental. Indeed, the analogy goes further: some people at IBM are arguing for a return to mainframe-style computing, as it does offer certain advantages, but they are doing it by partitioning mainframes into lots of little virtual machines, so as to take advantage of modern distribted computing techniques. Perhaps an analogous approach to health or education would be optimal?

Finally, here's a concrete example of the harms of centralisation. There are national targets for treating heart disease and cancer, as these are the biggest killers in the UK. But they are much less of a problem in Cambridgeshire, where mental health problems are a much bigger issue. But, due to the national targets, health care in Cambridgeshire is skewed away from the real priorities. Mental ilness kills people, usually a lot younger than cancer or heart attacks. Wouldnt it be nice if the health care system in Cambridgeshire could set its own priorities?
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From:communicator
Date:May 26th, 2009 08:41 pm (UTC)
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Your architect friend was right - I moved from a situation where there were five of us living in one room to a high rise flat. That was the optimal solution at the time. Obviously the situation could have moved on - it has in some ways - but in fact decisions which were made under Thatcher have reduced and degraded the supply of council housing. So, change is not always in good faith. Sometimes it is an undisguised effort to destroy.

So this is the problem - there needs to be movement, but we are like those people in 28 Days Later, trying to change the tyre, while ravening hoards are coming ever closer and closer. They aren't coming to fix the car.
From:peake
Date:May 27th, 2009 09:18 am (UTC)
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Just to point out - as I did in my original post - I did not decry the slum clearance programme. The slum clearance programme, begun in the 1930s and substantially delayed by the effects of the war, was absolutely essential. What I did decry was the manner of the programme, which put a lot of effort into creating buildings and put no thought whatsoever into the quality of life of the people living in them. Within a short time of the building of the high rises, the people moved into them were vociferously complaining that their quality of life was worse than it had been in the slums. That is not a well thought out housing plan.

As for rationing, the simplistic dichotomy between food and deformity was simply not the case. During the war, when there were absolutely no imports of food, less food was rationed than in the post-war period. At the same time as rationing was being extended after the war, food exports from Britain increased.
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From:communicator
Date:May 27th, 2009 09:57 am (UTC)
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Well, would a decentralised free market system have led to adequate nutrition? And what are you saying here, that post-war rationing was not really needed, but it was imposed for purely authoritarian reasons? That there was plenty of food and fuel, but the government just couldn't stop themselves from imposing rationing? Even though it gave them a perpetual public relations headache?

What's happening in your post, in your comments, and in the political climate of this country, is summed up in an old adage: 'The best is the enemy of the good'. If we destroy anything that is not optimum, then we inevitably destroy the good. For some people this is the point - and you must have seen it - 'Oh the NHS has waiting lists so let's scrap it'.

On the other hand, making positive criticism and proposing improvements can only be a good thing. But which is being exhibited in any given case?

So, to my mind, it boils down to good faith. I do not believe that the Tory assault on public welfare since Thatcher is a good faith effort at improvement. The role of privileged Whiggish fellow-travellers in all this worries me a great deal. People in your comments thread comparing Attlee to the gestapo. It's nonsense.

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