“Economics, said Mr Stanley [Oliver Stanley, then President of the Board of Trade], is 50% psychology … What we need, apparently, is not statesmen but hypnotists, not scientists, but witchdoctors, not confidence born of scientific prediction of the future, but confidence created by a political confidence trick. There is nothing surprising in this. It is the kind of mystic mumbo-jumbo to which capitalism is driven when austere reason pronounces sentence of death upon it.”
Aneurin Bevan, Tribune, 5th November 1937
Research for last month’s post on health turned up the little gem above. It’s striking for the parallel with current conditions. And equally for the contrast. Because while the practitioners of voodoo economics are as evident today as in the tense run-up to World War II, advocates of an alternative are not. Our rulers, from all London parties, raised on a diet of market mysticism and hero-worship drawn from Adam Smith and Ayn Rand, now appear incapable of imagining bold solutions that cut through the nonsense in the way that Bevan advocated.
The nonsense that says that care homes and children’s centres have to close so that a parasitical financial class don’t lose interest. The nonsense that says that our environment has to be sacrificed to massive, destructive development to kickstart ‘growth’. The nonsense that says that private property rights, no matter how acquired, are more important than rational, democratic collective action.
But there’s another quote from Bevan we can approve of even more heartily: “The purpose of getting power is to be able to give it away.” That’s something Old Labour signally failed to do. It had proposals for Scottish and Welsh devolution in its manifesto from 1918 to as late as 1945. Arthur Henderson, its first Cabinet Minister and the co-author of that policy, wrote that: “The Labour Party is pledged to the widest and most generous measure of home rule that can be devised.” Its generosity soon evaporated once it calculated possible consequences for its Westminster majority. Home Rule for Wales was repudiated in 1952, Scotland following in 1958. And for decades it even looked as though the initiative would pass fully to the Conservative & Unionist Party.
Bevan’s soundbite, if considered at all, turned out to be about handing power to a new class of managers and excluding everyone else, because many of the policies Labour did implement concentrated power even more tightly in the hands of a London-focused elite. That was one reason why the Conservatives went on to do so well in Scotland. Scots saw nationalisation drain decision-making out of their country. The Conservatives, when they returned to office in 1951, not only reversed some of Labour’s nationalisation measures but they implemented a policy of decentralisation within the nationalised industries they retained. The Conservatives’ reward was to be the majority party in Scotland until the end of the decade. Today, after taking Scots’ loyalties for granted, they have just one MP north of the border.
The fate of the Scottish Tories is a fascinating example of how a political orthodoxy can implode within a generation. It’s fascinating for us because it shows too that the Tory majority in Wessex is not set in stone either. Often we are urged to adopt more right-wing policies to appeal to Wessex as it is today, rather than as we would wish it to be. But the fact is that we aren’t interested in maintaining the current direction of travel, because it’s doing our region irreparable harm. We are the heirs to a noble tradition, from the Clubmen to Common Wealth, that aims to keep the best of what we have inherited AND build a better, more secure future for all. We are even the natural home of those Tory-inclined voters who actually care about the environment. Anyone under 30 should certainly join, as it’s their future our policies are anticipating.
The Tory majority in Wessex has been with us since 1924. At the 1923 election Wessex, like Scotland, Wales and Cornwall, returned a non-Conservative majority. It’s hard to imagine now but that is our radical heritage and in the long run it is a heritage to which we must return. The practical point of studying history is to recognise that where things have been different in the past, so there is the possibility of them being different in the future. Orwellian regimes of all political hues aren’t keen on us knowing our history. Which is all the more reason to study it.