ONE of the benefits of old age is to claim you have lived through the tenures of the two greatest peacetime Prime Ministers of the 20th century – Clement Attlee and Margaret Thatcher.
They had one thing in common that is relevant to today’s political mess. Superficially, they were like chalk and cheese. He male with a trademark moustache, bowler hat, shy, insignificant, squeaky and often, it seemed, monosyllabic. She a carefully coiffeured female who brought style to power-dressing, charismatic, forthright and verbally torrential when you pressed the right (or wrong) button.
They both had to deal with immense problems – he with turning swords into ploughshares and socially reforming a country bankrupted by war; she with rescuing Britain from decades of national decline marked by trade union abuse of power, cowed management and Establishment defeatism.
They had entirely different approaches. He sought to build Jerusalem by greater planning and control – in other words, by civilianising wartime centralisation; she through enterprise and a sound economy. While he nationalised, she privatised.
Both were under-estimated and both in their different ways achieved wonders, each proving conclusively that tact is not a prerequisite of success. They also shared a basic approach to life and governance. It is perhaps best and most starkly illustrated by Mrs Thatcher’s celebrated quote “There is no such thing as society” which is ritually misrepresented by the Left.
In fact, she said there is no such thing as society if you think that means an all-providing state. Society is something far nobler: it is you and me, and millions like us, whose attitudes and actions make up the sort of country we live in. If ever there was a Christian message that was it.
And what drove Attlee? Patriotism, loyalty, social responsibility and citizenship. He was once moved, amid all his troubles, to say “everyone who fails to contribute his fair share is as much a parasite as those who used to live on the backs of people who worked”. Attlee’s biographer, John Bew, argues that his strong sense of citizenship provided him with a centre of gravity.
The moral of my history lesson is that we could do with much more citizenship and social responsibility in Britain today. Nearly 75 years of peace and rising prosperity have produced a fundamental selfishness which bodes ill for a sovereign Britain that has shaken off the European Union yoke.
Everywhere, you look – outside the ranks of thousands of citizens devoted voluntarily to the care of the vulnerable – you find an utter selfish disregard for their fellow men. All those air transport workers who have waited until the holiday month to strike are a disgrace. What possible satisfaction can they get from ruining the holidays of ordinary folk?
Then we see doctors of all people, supposedly dedicated to caring for the sick, slinging their hooks because they say it is not worth working for nothing because of their tax arrangements. They clearly do not know when they are well-off since many, like pilots, coin more than the Prime Minister.
No wonder A&E hospital departments are crowded out when doctors are resigning in droves and you wait on average 15 days for a GP appointment, but seldom with the same one. It seems Gordon Brown’s generous contracts have usurped professionalism – and the Hippocratic oath.
Then there are countless executives, public and private, who lavish pay and perks on themselves beyond reason. This is no justification for striking – only a challenge to the executives’ concept of citizenship and fair dealing. Is their motivation to do a good job or ostentatiously to parade themselves on a yacht?
This is not to mention a politicised education system that is pouring out essentially selfish youngsters who exhibit their good citizenship through such as Extinction Rebellion by bringing cities to a halt. Yet Britain is doing more than most to protect the global environment.
Too often in the straitened circumstances of post-war Britain, Attlee had to call on the nation to tighten its belt – in effect to demonstrate the social solidarity of wartime. He mostly got a positive response. As Brexit comes to a head, we need to recognise the responsibility on all of us to suppress our selfishness and work to make a success of an independent Britain. A stronger, prosperous and more successful society can only come from collective effort. Your country needs you.