Britain was pretty skint in 1945, but our grandparents managed – even after six years of war and the ‘Hungry Thirties’ – to build the NHS, replace bomb-damaged and decaying Victorian slums with new homes, open up education to all, establish a welfare safety net and nationalise industries into models of occasional efficiency. (Quibble on that last one if you like, but taxpayers pay more for the ‘private’ rail companies now than they did under the not particularly well-loved British Rail.)
It wasn’t perfect, but social mobility and equality was at a more even level than it is 70 years later. Of course, today’s Tories hate their achievements and are seeking ways to dismantle that society at every turn. Their intention was always to punch so many holes in the welfare state that campaigners wouldn’t know which part to mend first. And so we see the NHS – which they call a ‘mistake‘ – attacked. The seriously disabled and terminally ill being told they are fit for work. More children living in a poverty that won’t even be acknowledged any more. Meanwhile, corporation taxes are only for the little companies. This is no accident, this is by design.
My grandad once told me, as he gave me a copy of Robert Tressell’s The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists to read, that this was the book that won it in 1945 for Labour. Although everyone knew that Churchill had been an immense leader during the War, they feared a vote for the Tories would mean again losing the peace as their fathers had done after the Great War. Promised ‘A Land Fit For Heroes’, instead they returned to unemployment and poor housing.
The country has preferred to do without Mr Churchill rather than have him at the price of having the Tories too.
It’s a terrible shame that we are having to learn again that, for the weakest in society, that price is always too high. So, as my grandparents’ generation passed a copy from hand to hand, so I pass on to you a (free!) copy of Tressell’s masterpiece. More than a mere political tract, it is a very human story of the tragedies that ensue when work doesn’t pay and unemployment is fatal. Far more radical than any Labour Government – even Atlee’s – ever managed to be, it is a call to action as well as a cracking read. One that the Labour leadership contenders could do with reading in celebration of today’s anniversary.