Revised revisionism

New Labour in Power - The British General Election of 1997 - From Blitz to Blair
March 20, 1998

In the first volume of her memoirs, Margaret Thatcher wrote of her dissatisfaction with the report produced in 1989 for the teaching of history under the national curriculum: "I was appalled. It put the emphasis on interpretation and enquiry as against content and knowledge." The former prime minister laid out her approach to the subject, asserting, "History is an account of what happened in the past. Learning history, therefore, requires knowledge of events." Paradoxically, in both volumes of her autobiography, Thatcher provided the basis of a dramatic reinterpretation of postwar British history. For much of the period since 1945 scholars had been supportive of the economic and social achievements of a succession of postwar administrations. Thatcher belittled their record. In contrast to her views on the teaching of history, she concluded in her second volume of memoirs: "History's lessons usually teach us what we want to learn."

Since the 1980s, a series of historical monographs have outlined a fundamental revision of Britain's development during the 20th century. Commentators claimed that the extent of the interwar depression was exaggerated and misinterpreted. John Charmley produced a controversial account of Winston Churchill's career, claiming that his neglect of domestic politics helped Labour to victory in the 1945 general election. Correlli Barnett charted British decline in considerable detail. In particular, he concluded that the combined adherence after 1945 to high welfare spending and a world role (with its military commitments) was responsible for Britain's poor economic performance. Taken together, the revisionist histories defined a new interpretation of Britain's trajectory since 1940 in which persistent economic decay was provoked by a succession of weak and inept governments. Only with the election of Thatcher's administration in 1979 was that decline tackled in a resolute and successful fashion.

The central aim of the contributors to From Blitz to Blair, edited by Nick Tiratsoo, is to reassess this revisionist history of the right. The volume also provides an engaging and immensely enjoyable survey of postwar politics for the general reader, though one that is at times rather sketchy and unfocused. Tony Mason concludes that the 1930s were "a decade of missed chances and wasted opportunities". Steve Fielding and Paul Addison separately provide measured accounts of wartime politics in which the state takes on a positive role. Addison concludes, however, that Churchill did contribute to the 1945 election outcome through his neglect of Conservative Party politics during the war. Jim Tomlinson takes issue with the Barnett thesis, detailing the extent to which the Attlee administration concentrated on the issues of export promotion, investment, skills attainment and industrial production. Tiratsoo himself gives a spirited defence of the 1970s, arguing that unions were not as powerful or malevolent as critics charge them to have been.

For the most part, this reassessment of the revisionist histories of Britain is extremely successful. The essays are well written, clear and interesting. They provide the basis for a radically new and much more positive interpretation of postwar politics. But on occasion some contributors lose sight of exactly which revisionist thesis they are tackling, and the volume would have benefited from a more detailed introduction laying out in depth the criticisms with which the essayists take issue.

Some of the responses to the revisionist right lack a degree of bite, perhaps because the book is intended more for general readers than an academic audience. The inconsistencies of the revisionists could have been probed in more depth. One of the curious features, for example, of Barnett's work is that his solution to economic decline remains undeveloped and elliptical. For all the praise he has elicited from Conservative politicians such as Thatcher and Sir Keith Joseph, he suggests that postwar British governments were insufficiently interventionist. Addison concludes in his chapter that "It also seems unlikely that Thatcherite economic policies were ever a viable alternative in the 1940s, 1950s or 1960s". Yet Barnett would concur. He laments the lack of imposed plans of development and argues that state-sponsored programmes for regeneration were needed.

However, the writers in this collection are by no means uncritical of the pre-Thatcher administrations. One of the striking features of the volume is the criticism that Kenneth Morgan makes of the 1964-70 Harold Wilson government. Although he qualifies his points, Morgan summarises the manifest economic failures of this administration, coupled with the difficulties it encountered in its foreign policy. Indeed, the origins of Labour's wilderness years may well be found here: Morgan concludes that it took the British left 30 years to recover from the "unfulfilled expectations" of Wilson's government.

The publication of this volume follows closely on Labour's election victory last year. The dustjacket pronounces, "Tony Blair's extraordinary election victory in May 1997 has been widely heralded as ushering in a new phase in British history." However, the Labour leader's relationship to such a reassessment of revisionist claims about postwar politics is by no means assured. Tony Blair has praised elements of consensus politics and has applauded the vision and passion of the Attlee administration. But he has also been fiercely critical of much of the period. In his 1995 Mais lecture Blair said of postwar governments before 1979: "They had an exaggerated belief in demand management, and showed too little concern for the gradual build-up in inflationary pressures that took place from one cycle to the next." He criticised postwar industrial relations and the short-termism that dominated decision-making. In a speech in New York in 1996, the Labour leader went further in endorsing the Thatcher experiment, arguing that "serious change was required to improve competitiveness at the end of the 1970s. The emphasis (placed by Conservative governments) on enterprise, on initiative and incentive and on tackling lack of responsiveness in the public sector was necessary". In last year's election campaign, Blair was forthright in claiming that postwar governments lacked excuses for relative economic decline (a speech, incidentally, in which he coined the phrase "the third way"). These sentiments suggest that Blair is much closer to the revisionist history than to the reassessment provided in From Blitz to Blair. In its concluding chapter, Paul Hirst writes of last year's election: "This was not 1945, more like 1951, when the Tories won but accepted most of the post-1945 Labour reforms."

In the 1997 Nuffield election study, David Butler and Dennis Kavanagh go further and contend: "Tony Blair openly accepted the essentials of Thatcherism - regulation of the trade unions, prioritising the fight against inflation, privatisation and the role of the market. Thatcherism was not an accident, or a swing of the pendulum, but a tide of history." The British General Election of 1997 contains all of the features that have been praised in previous volumes. At its core is a complex narrative about developments leading up to the election and an informative account of the campaign itself.

The result is an authoritative exposition of the behind-the-scenes discussions within the parties. Butler and Kavanagh give useful descriptions of the economic problems, divisions over Europe and allegations of sleaze that dogged John Major's government. They highlight the difficulties the Conservatives had in coming to terms with Blair's leadership of the Labour Party: should they deny the changes that had taken place or should they focus on different threats raised by the new leader's reforms? For the most part, the Tories took the latter course but remained uncertain about exactly what comprised the new threats. The authors contrast the extensive degree of organisational decay in the Conservative Party with the efficient structural reforms and leadership domination within Labour. The volume also contains specialist chapters dealing with the polls, the press and the candidates (an excellent discussion of selection difficulties), as well as an appendix analysing the results. Given its thoroughness and clarity, it is easy to understand why the Nuffield series has become the market leader in election studies. At times, however, the narrative is overwhelming and disjointed, and the reader can become swamped by accounts of meetings and personalities.

Given the break with Labour's past wrought by Blair and his acceptance of much of the Thatcherite diagnosis of postwar economic problems, what lessons can the new administration learn from the party's earlier periods in office? This theme is taken up in New Labour in Power, edited by Brian Brivati and Tim Bale, a lively and stimulating, though diffuse collection. A variety of conclusions are provided about the parallels that can be drawn between Blair's administration and its Labour predecessors. Jim Tomlinson emphasises the limited comparisons that can be made while delineating some of the potential pitfalls that may await the new government. Nick Ellison notes the break in welfare policy as Labour articulates a post-collectivist approach. The ideas underpinning the party's social strategy have changed dramatically but the practicalities of policy are less different from earlier governments than might be supposed. The new government's welfare-to-work programme rests on the use of subsidies to offer employment to the long-term unemployed. The measure bears strong resemblance to the 1974-79 Labour government's temporary employment subsidy. It was designed to prevent redundancies rather than create jobs, but in terms of its operation it relied on the use of financial assistance to sustain employment and restrain numbers claiming benefits. A variety of other subsidies were adopted in the 1970s to reduce unemployment with mixed results in the long term. The European Commission was hostile to such policies on the grounds that they allowed British firms to compete unfairly because of the job subsidies, and it acted to curtail the temporary employment subsidy in 1978.

Perhaps the most significant contribution to New Labour in Power is made by Bale in his account of internal party management. He notes that much of the internal dissension that so damaged Labour governments in the 1960s and 1970s did not result from a grand failure to deliver socialism. Disunity was caused because "largely reformist promisesI were openly and in some cases even enthusiastically reneged upon". Likewise, tensions between the party and organised labour stemmed in large part from the demands placed by governments upon workers, sacrifices that union leaders could not deliver. For all the reforms brought about through Labour's "partnership into power" project, such tensions could, Bale concludes, erupt again. So far, the signs are not encouraging for Labour supporters: the new administration looks ill prepared to listen to its grassroots, priding itself on its tough stance on economic and social matters. During an extended honeymoon period - in the aftermath of the party's long period out of office - the government may have much political goodwill on which to draw. But such goodwill surely cannot be sustained indefinitely.

Mark Wickham-Jones is lecturer in politics, University of Bristol.

New Labour in Power: Precedents and Prospects

Author - Brian Brivati and Tim Bale
Editor - Brian Brivati and Tim Bale
ISBN - 0 415 17972 6 and 17973 4
Publisher - Routledge
Price - £40.00 and £12.99
Pages - 212

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