Attlee’s socialist legacy led only to decline in the long term

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From: Gordon Lawrence, Stumperlowe View, Sheffield.

WHENEVER he makes a complimentary reference to the Iron Lady, Sir Bernard Ingham treads on sensitive ground.

The “Thatcher bashers” then pour out of their disgruntled left eing retreats to accuse the ex-PM of nearly every social and economic ill that currently plagues the nation. The latest insult, to their time-honoured beliefs, is Sir Bernard’s indiscretion in placing Clement Attlee second behind Margaret Thatcher as the best post-war political leader.

It’s true that Attlee was the head of a government that made ground-breaking reforms, setting up the NHS, expanding the welfare system, and virtually creating a command economy by nationalising railways, road transport, coal mines, Bank of England, civil aviation, cable and wireless, electricity and gas and iron and steel. All this at a time, following the war, of deep austerity; it was authentic socialism at work, almost a revolution. It revealed Attlee, a man incidentally with the charisma of a parsimonious bank clerk, as a dedicated, resolute, fearless and competent leader.

Although he instituted a mass of reforms that were only partially modified by succeeding governments, the legacy of those reforms resulted in a steep decline relative to our continental neighbours.

Nationalisation was bogged down with bureaucracy and the monopolistic power of the trade unions. Organised labour succeeded, with the help of pusillanimous management, in reducing our car industry, shipbuilding, iron and steel and much of manufacturing to a second-rate status.

The welfare reforms, as they developed, were soon to create the dependency culture, a remote relative of the seminal ideas and intentions set up by Lord Beveridge, 1942.

Even more serious, the country developed the paralysing disease of stagflation. By the time of the Wilson and Callaghan governments, we were a languishing dinosaur in a thriving Europe: our pseudonym “ sick man of Europe” was well deserved.

It was Mrs Thatcher who turned Britain round: she privatised the ailing nationalised industries and she neutered the trade unions. The country, after a titanic, bitter and exhausting struggle, began to better our continental rivals and foreign respect grew. It is these considerations that make me believe that Sir Bernard revealed a magnanimous side to his character in making the Labour Prime Minister of 1945 second to Margaret Thatcher.