Phil Taylor is a Conservative activist and former councillor in Ealing.
I caught up this morning with Newsnight’s hagiography of Clement Attlee’s 1945 Labour government, with its talk of “Labour Titans”. (Follow this link and move slider to 36:00.)
The big omission in the piece was any mention of the failure of nationalisation – a policy that has been roundly discredited in succeeding years.
Attlee nationalised an amazing 20 per cent of the British economy, including the coal industry, electricity and utilities, railways and long-distance haulage.
The journalist narrating the item talked of “Labour’s creation myth”, and the programme’s myth maker-in-chief was veteran Labour MP Denis Skinner.
You might think he’d be old enough to know better, but he was in fact only 13 at the time of the 1945 election. He said:
“I mean when you think about what they did: a National Health Service, welfare state, council housing – they used to build about two or three hundred houses, houses not flats, each year and free education.”
The most obvious and outrageous myth expounded by Skinner was that Labour enacted “free education”, when in fact universal free education came in with Conservative minister and hero RA Butler’s 1944 Education Act.
As with so much of the post-war consensus, it was the product of the wartime coalition and the general feeling of the need for change.
Skinner mentions the welfare state but again, there was cross party consensus on this: the Beveridge Report was the product of the wartime coalition.
One key piece of the welfare state was called Child Allowance (known as child benefit today) and it was introduced by the 1945 Conservative caretaker administration. The legislation passed on 16th June 1945, the operational date being set for August 1946, to be implemented by whichever party was then in power.
The legislation was put forward by Leslie Hore-Belisha, of Belisha beacon fame, by then an independent serving as a Conservative minister. Atlee came to power on 26th July 1945, but the course was already set.
Again, Skinner talks of the NHS as if it was the product of a Labour government. Yes, the Attlee government “created the NHS”… if by that you mean it nationalised the existing health infrastructure.
The Atlee government built no new hospitals: in fact the NHS didn’t commission new hospitals until the Sixties. The Labour government merely took existing local authority and charity hospitals into public ownership.
The Conservative model put forward in their 1944 white paper was based on local authorities taking the lead with hospitals remaining independent institutions – probably a more sustainable model and certainly a more accountable one. A free at the point of use national health service was settled Conservative policy by the end of the war.
Labour rammed through a centralised model, ignoring the 1944 model agreed by the wartime coalition and widely discussed in the country. Watch Henry Willink, the then Conservative Minister of Health, proposing the NHS in 1944 here.
Skinner is pretty egregious on council housing too. He talked of Labour building two or three hundred thousand council houses a year.
Yet if you look at the completion statistics, you will see that the number of council house completions only got up above 200,000 in 1952-1954 under the Conservatives, following their 1951 general election pledge to build 300,000 houses a year.
Newsnight really should have spotted that Skinner was exaggerating and edited his contribution accordingly. Altogether a failure of objectivity both on facts and tone.