A series of posts about the never-ending story of progressive Conservative change, which will contrast with the events of this week’s Labour Party conference.

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If you want workers to enjoy more leisure time, don’t pledge the same pay for less work – as John McDonnell did yesterday.  At least if you can’t explain where the uplift in productivity would come from that would render it affordable.  Which he can’t.

There is a case for trying something much smaller scale – if giving workers a bit of a break is your aim, anyway.  Instead of attemping to deliver an extra day’s holiday each week, government could deliver a more modest and manageable measure: a new Bank Holiday during the autumn for the whole UK.

Ministers and business have tended to oppose one, on the ground that an autumn Bank Holiday would reduce more than a single day’s output.  The effects would leak into the rest of the week, so to speak, as workers took additional days off.

The Coalition proposed to move a day’s Bank Holiday from the spring to the autumn, which is not the same thing, and which didn’t happen in the end.  At any rate, the trade-off is in essence a simple one, if an new Bank Holiday day is proposed: is less output for a day worth a day’s extra leisure for workers (assuming no gain elsewhere)?

The same argument will have taken place before paid holidays were introduced for several million people in 1938 – under the premiership of Neville Chamberlain.  Employers presumably resented having to stump up.  But the reform offers an opportunity to think again about Chamberlain – as Alistair Lexden, the Conservative Party’s official historian, does in his Neville Chamberlain: redressing the balance.

In a lecture that overlaps with the book, and which was reproduced on this site, Lexden writes that “the work done in partnership with Baldwin, and by Chamberlain alone after 1937, gave Britain some of the best welfare services in the world…he wanted his fellow countrymen to live in decent houses: some 3 million were built during his years in office. He wanted them to have access to good health services: progress was made towards a comprehensive national system. He wanted the elderly to have security: the contributory pensions system he introduced in 1925 laid the basis for it”.

Chamberlain was doing on a national scale what he had already done on Birmingham Council. “The new housing estates which he oversaw fostered community life through imaginative design, with plenty of open space for recreation. Integrated medical services, including specialist infant welfare centres, were brought within the reach of most working people. He created the first municipal savings bank and the first city symphony orchestra.”

In one of those parallel universes that this site likes to imagine from time to time, there is no Hitler, Germany settles down as a liberal democracy, there is no Second World War and Chamberlain is re-elected in 1940.  The Britain of the period may seem to us “inadequate, tawdry, unimaginative and cowardly,” as Lewis Baston once wrote on this site, “but as far as we can tell the majority of people liked it at the time”.

However, we don’t live in such a world, what happened happened, and Chamberlain is remembered otherwise.  He nonetheless has a place in our long gallery of Tory reformers.  If you want social change that works, he’s a better model to draw on than McDonnell – who can also be charged with the appeasement of this country’s enemies.