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The Myth of the Sainted Attlee

John Rentoul

attlee 460x276 300x180 The Myth of the Sainted AttleeNo, this is not my long-promised lecture of the above title. I am under-qualified to deliver it, in any case. Suffice it to say that those who idolise Clement Attlee as a way of criticising New Labour have got the wrong man.

Someone who could deliver it is David Hayes, one of the finest essayists, whose work I have praised before. He wrote this last month for Inside Story, about Ken Loach’s film The Spirit of ‘45.

He says he is scunnered – “only the Scots word will do” – by the film:

First, for the sheer falsity of its depiction of the 1940s, whose true emotional-political textures are so much more complicated and interesting than Loach’s fairy story allows. (The rich evidence is in David Kynaston’s mind-blowing Austerity Britain, 1945–51). From the intellectual roots of Labour’s program, which the historian Gareth Stedman Jones once called “the last flowering of Edwardian liberalism,” to the variations in public experience and mood in the hard-pressed postwar years, this period is traduced by Loach’s comforting fantasy. This matters, because historical understanding — and any change-making democratic project — can only be built on truth.

Loach’s anti-left* propaganda gives no idea how much Attlee was hated by the equivalents of those who today lionise him.

There are three more reasons Hayes is disgusted. I know people often say this, but read it all.

*Anti-left: the conservative movement that is anti-American, anti-capitalist, “anti-war” and not left-wing at all.

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  • Russell Child

    Fascinating how much time and space the right of the Labour Party devotes to attacking the left. It has always been the right of the party that has split it.

  • Viberunner

    “anti-left… the conservative movement that is anti-war”

    He just keeps digging, doesn’t he?

  • mightymark

    You obviously were never at – to take just one example – London Labour Parties in the 1970s where non Militants were physically threatened.

  • mightymark

    Two points. First, the Attlee Government joined Nato. Secondly if you look at the nationalisations they were of industries that were essential but largely failing or were seen as having been so pre war. There had been much talk about failure of investment in these. What seems clear is that nationalisation under Attlee went ahead (right or wrong) for technocratic rather than ideological reasons.

  • greggf

    Ken Loach is a talented filmmaker whose subject is usually socialist politics. However his themes are only ever plausible, in the same sense as Steven Spielberg’s science- fiction themes are plausible.
    The Soviets used to make such films…..

  • stopdecarnival

    We were broke and we had to have some way to make things and sell them – ideally for dollars. It was as simple as that. That is the over-riding change-making truth which was the entire reason for the way that the Socialist movement, led by the Labour Party, had to go about it’s business after the ‘45 election. If the profits from British coal, steel and many other albeit meagre assets were to be disbursed to the bandits who had got the country into the 1930’s mess, the whole struggle would have been for nothing.The Attlee government would have preferred, one imagines, a sophisticated ratcheting up of British industry to produce a faster repayment of Britain’s debt at the end of WWII but given the paucity of a great deal of buying power wealth anywhere but the USA , it was a matter of beggars can’t be choosers. We are still, in fact, paying for a war that was not one of our making, but that is the nature of the modern industrial complex statehood which gets caught up in other people’s business. One reason one imagines, why Harold Macmillan’s ADC, Edward Heath, plumped when it was his turn later on to see if there could be a rational plan to stop Europe breaking out all over itself again.,
    So far so good. And now we are a part of the biggest consumer market on the planet, regardless of whatever the Northcliffe-type infected media fools are telling the people and the idiots in the talking box on The Thames.

  • Pacificweather

    You don’t need to idolise Attlee to criticise New Labour. All you need is simple arithmetic. Something New Labour never got to grips with.


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