I’ve been musing on parallels between our current situation and the Second World War. (Other wars and national crises are available, but bear with me!)
The 1945 UK election was an enormous victory for the working class. We all know the changes that transformed the UK. From the creation of the NHS to the implementation of a comprehensive welfare state the Labour government reset class relations.
While the government’s record wasn’t perfect, it was much better than any UK government before or since.
But it wasn’t inevitable that Labour would win. In fact most people at the time thought it unlikely that Attlee could unseat a war hero Prime Minister. In 1935 Attlee suffered a defeat greater than Labour’s in last December’s election.
It’s worth learning from how this victory happened, and why a Labour Party that couldn’t win in the middle of the Great Depression could win an election against someone, in Churchill, who was closely associated with winning the Second World War.
The first and most important factor in the victory was a strong programme of ideas and policies. In the Beveridge Report, there was a transformational agenda that promised to end the poverty and inequality that had scourged Britain during the 1930s.
Secondly, these ideas had provided the material for troops who were radicalised through some of the fundamental aspects of being a soldier: lots of spare time (even during a war), and the opportunity to peer educate.
Simply put, socialist soldiers used the opportunity to organise their comrades in a way that was difficult even in the factories of the era. As they waited to be deployed they argued that the fight against fascism couldn’t stop with the defeat of Hitler and Mussolini. Using the Beveridge Report, they won the argument.
A similar process happened with women new to the workforce, where ideas spread beyond the grasp of the ruling class.
Thirdly, people learned from the failure of the governments of the 1920s to deliver on the promises to build a ‘new Jerusalem’, a land fit for heroes. Where soldiers were promised ‘homes for heroes’, what they instead got was the biggest cut in public spending until George Osborne. To deliver what was called the ‘Geddes Axe’ to public spending, the government defaulted on its promises to those who had fought in the Great War. The soldiers of the Second World War weren’t going to be sold out like that again.
As we face a Prime Minister who will, no doubt, claim his ‘victory’ over Coronavirus to be the greatest victory since 1945, we can learn some lessons.
We need to have our ideas well codified and structured. We need a Beveridge Report for the Data Economy and Fourth Industrial Revolution. We need to identify the commons that should be publicly controlled. And we need to identify new ways to govern them.
We must find ways to build popular support for this programme. That means real, in depth efforts to educate and empower our fellow citizens. It means building countervailing power to the corporate media. It means harnessing digital tools in a way that creates popular understanding.
And we must avoid the sort of sell out that was suffered by the veterans of the First World War, and their widows. The government’s handling of Coronavirus reeks of the sort of cockups that sacrificed millions to their deaths in World War I. While many supported the government during the war, the aftermath was devastating for the reputation of the ruling class. Over 100 years there has been a redemption. But the playing fields of Eton are no place to learn how to run a country.
Let’s make sure that we not only lay blame at the right door, but that we use this opportunity to decisively change the direction of our politics.
Sent from my iPhone