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Scott Kelly: When there is consensus there is Labour Government

Scott lectures for New York University in London.

Fifty years ago last month, in one of his most notable speeches, the then Prime Minister Harold Macmillan proclaimed ‘most of our people have never had it so good’ and in many ways he was right. The Macmillan era saw the birth of a new consumer society where the great majority of people gained access to goods and services that were once the preserve of the few. But rather than political consensus, it was dynamic change that produced this new society and turned the Conservative Party into the natural party of government during the post-war era.

The popular image of the nineteen fifties, as repeated by a BBC documentary about British cinema only the other week, is of grey conformity. But Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels, first published in the fifties, were not successful, as the programme suggested, because they provided escape from the dreariness of the age, but rather because they reflected the aspirations of an emerging generation. In terms of economic opportunity the sixties really began in the mid to late nineteen fifties. For the Conservative Party the result was electoral domination. A political cartoon published in the aftermath of the third successive Conservative victory in 1959 depicted Macmillan surrounded by electrical goods such as televisions and washing machines and saying ‘Well gentlemen, I think we all fought a good fight.’

The foundations of this Conservative ascendancy were laid by Rab Butler, perhaps the most misunderstood British politician of twentieth century, during his period as Chancellor from 1951 to 1955. It would be no exaggeration to say that in 1951 Butler inherited control of a socialist economy, comparable in many ways to those of the eastern block. Rationing, price controls, building licensing, exchange controls and a whole range of restrictions were part of daily life. Over the next four years Butler swept all of this away. Labour’s argument that decontrol would result in rising unemployment became increasingly irrelevant and in the 1955 election the Government was able to proclaim that ‘Conservative freedom works’. The figure of ‘Mr Butskell’, an amalgam of Butler and his Labour predecessor Hugh Gaitskell, is a misleading historical myth.

By the late nineteen fifties priorities began to change. Politicians came to the premature conclusion that the great challenges of poverty and unemployment had been conquered and that the new challenge was to match continental European levels of economic growth. Both Conservatives and Socialists saw state action as the answer. It was at this time that a genuine political consensus emerged around corporatist tripartitism – co-opting business and trade union leaders in economic policy-making – and indicative planning through what eventually became the National Plan. Rab Butler was one of the few senior Conservatives to express scepticism about this new policy and privately oppose Britain’s application to join the EEC, another major plank of Macmillan ‘modernisation’ strategy.

Politically the result of this new consensus was a long period of Labour domination, briefly interrupted by the short unsuccessful Heath Government of the early nineteen seventies. It is hardly surprising that when all politicians argue that more state action is the solution the public come to see anyone other than the Labour Party as the problem. It was much easier for a man of the left like Harold Wilson to sound convincing when he spoke about harnessing the ‘white heat of technology’, easier than for any of his Tory contemporaries.

Comparing today’s politics with those of the past is never an exact science but when examining post-war political dynamics it is difficult to escape the conclusion that consensus politics favours Labour. The Conservative Party regained power from Labour in 1951, 1970 and 1979 because it successfully expounded a vision of why a smaller state was good for both individual Britons and for the country as a whole. The party retained power for long periods after 1951 and 1979 because it followed through on its promises.

Since 1997 Conservatives have struggled to differentiate themselves from Labour. At the 2005 election the strategy was apparently one of ‘regime change plus’. Party leaders believed that Blair’s unpopularity plus a belief that Conservatives may manage things a little better would be enough to regain power. As one person put it to me shortly after Labour’s third victory in a row, by focusing on cleaner hospitals and seemingly little else, Michael Howard reduced the Conservative message to a bottle of disinfectant.

As Peter Riddell has argued recently in The Times, if the Conservatives are to defeat Brown then they must again present a compelling vision of why a smaller state is in our country’s interests. Since 2005 David Cameron has begun to explain why power should be returned to individuals and communities but this vision remains incomplete. The Conservative Party needs to offer something bolder than consensus government; better than more of the same. It must spell out how bottom-up politics will improve people’s lives. If it can do so then the next election is there to be won, but time is short.


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