We Deserve Better

A short history of a broken consensus

Posted by Piers Cawley on Jan 1, 2014

A long time ago

One hundred years ago, we got caught up in a really stupid war. War’s never what you’d call a good idea, but the first world war is the benchmark of stupidity (unless you’re Michael Gove, but he’s fast becoming the new benchmark of stupidity).

Something strange happened at the end of the war. In 1914, only around 30% of the adult population had the vote. By February 1918, a general election was years overdue. The Russians had killed the Tsar and were embracing communism; the women’s suffrage movement was threatening to start up again; and millions of returning soldiers — men used to violence by now — would have no say in how they would be governed.

Parliament read the tea leaves and passed the Representation of the People Act, extended the franchise to all men over 21 and many women over 30. This tripled the size of the electorate, 43% of which was now female (if they’d allowed younger women the Vote, then women would have had a clear majority because the war had killed so many men. Voting ages were equalised in 1928).

In the election, not much changed. The Tories won the most seats with a new class of MP, mostly coming from trade and commerce. Labour’s share of the vote increased dramatically, but the nature of the electoral system meant they only won 57 seats (fewer then Sinn Féin, who basically won Ireland). The Liberals came third, in the popular vote (second in seats, first past the post really sucks) but Lloyd George remained prime minister promising a land “fit for heroes”.

He didn’t deliver. The Irish had to fight for their independence and won it in 1921 (ooh look, another stupid war) and in the 1922 election Labour took over from the Liberals as the second party British politics.

Without the first world war, I wonder how long it would have been before parliament was shamed into extending the franchise to all adults. The expanded electorate may not have got the government it deserved, but the Vote was won.

Time passes…

Seventy years ago, the next big war ended. This time the returning soldiery weren’t going to be fobbed off with fine words and broken promises. Young men came home from defeating fascism in Europe and saw a sitting government still dominated by the party that had blundered into the war in the first place, still promising more of the same. They heard the Labour’s promises of full employment, a National Heath Service, a cradle to grave welfare state and a compelling vision of the future. And they voted Labour. Oh, how they voted Labour.

Labour won the kind of majority that politicians dream about and went straight to work. Attlee’s government nationalised roughly 20% of the economy; built social housing and encouraged the growth of new towns; introduced national insurance, unemployment benefit and the family allowance; expanded on the universal free education introduced with the Education Act of 1944; and created our National Health Service and what came to be known as the “Postwar Consensus”.

In five years.

In the face of austerity that made our current conditions seem like the lap of luxury.

They didn’t just deliver homes, health and education. They found money for the Arts Council too. Because once you’ve dealt with the worst that physical poverty can bring, shouldn’t you look to do something about poverty of aspiration too?

Few revolutions are so successful. No others have achieved so much without violence. A generation came back from war, said to itself, “We deserve better than this” and did something about it. If you’ve got a grandparent living who voted in that election, go and thank them. Stopping Hitler was a towering achievement, but our grandparents managed to surpass even that.

Never knowingly not evil

The Tories hated it. Every time they’ve had power since they’ve chipped away at the Postwar Consensus. They’ve had to be sneaky about it though. Once you’ve won the right to fall ill without fearing bankruptcy; once your children are guaranteed a decent education; once you have a roof over your head that isn’t two pay cheques away from being taken away… Well, you get attached to such things.

The 1944 education act was a Tory act, and rather than replace the old system, it added state schools to the mix. The rich were able to opt out and keep their children in the public school system. The public schools and their associated ‘old boy’ networks survived. Etonians don’t just learn Latin and Greek and the art of fagging; they learn that glib smoothness, the art of masking base and selfish motives behind the a veneer of affability. They learn to help their friends and the Devil take the hindmost.

The thing about villains is, they think they’re heroes. They think there’s nothing nobler than helping a chum. They think the world is just. If you’re blessed with the kind of money that Cameron and Osborne inherited you’re going to convince yourself that you somehow deserve your wealth. And if you deserve your wealth, then it’s a small step to thinking that the poor deserve their poverty.

If the world is as it is because everyone deserves their station, then the welfare state is going to seem like the next best thing to evil. The state wants to take some of your money and use it to pay some loser’s rent? It wants to give a drunk a liver transplant? Disgusting! If those people really cared about keeping their home, they’d get a decent job — it’s not hard, just have a word with a friend. And the drunk has only himself to blame. They’ve made their bed and they should lie in it.

The real trick though, is convincing those who really are a pay cheque or two from disaster (which is pretty much anyone with a mortgage or in private rented accommodation when you stop and think about it) that the enemy is the poor bastard on benefits. Not the landlord who banks their housing benefit. Not the employer who doesn’t pay a living wage; who lets the taxpayer top up their employees’ pay packets. And certainly not the government which won’t let local authorities build new social housing to help reduce housing costs (which would pay for itself in short order).

This government has that down pat. They’ve used a financial crisis — one whose seeds were sown when Thatcher and Reagan deregulated the markets and fertilised by every bloody government since (there are no innocents in this fiasco) — as the excuse and are dismantling what was so hard won by our grandparents. A government that promised “No top down reorganisations of the NHS” is gutting it. The poor are being forced out of rich areas by the benefits cap and the bedroom tax. The young are… oh god, the young… the coalition seems to read “A Modest Proposal” as sound policy. When I went to university, my fees were fully paid (Thatcher had frozen maintenance grants, not that I’d’ve got one after means testing). My step-grandson is looking at a minimum debt of £27,000 — assuming he can live for nothing. If you’ve got the cash to get your kid the best education money can buy, you don’t want some bright lass from the local comprehensive competing with them for the plum jobs. Pull up the ladder Jack!

It doesn’t have to be like this. Ask yourself how it is that, in 1945, when the country was on the bones of its arse with precious few lines of credit and an industrial base battered by years of bombing we built a welfare state and a national health service that have lasted for seventy years? Ask how we could, at the same time, find the money to subsidise the Royal Opera House and Sadlers Wells and many other arts organisations? Ask how we could afford, as a country, to support our university students so they could spend their time concentrating on their degrees and the life of the university and not miring themselves in debt?

Ask how we can afford not to do those things now.

There is no excuse for what our government is doing to the poorest among us. Or for what it’s doing to the middle classes come to that. An underclass is handy thing. They keep those on lower middle incomes so bloody scared of falling into poverty that they’ll put up with gross abuse just so they can hang on to what they have. Some guard their little portion with such jealousy that they will not just tolerate the abuse of the poor, they will be baying for blood.

It pains me to say this, but not everything the coalition has done is evil. And I don’t just mean Equal Marriage. Even Michael “Stopped Clock” Gove’s been right about something — the emphasis on learning to code rather than merely drive Powerpoint and Microsoft Word is a good thing. The gov.uk initiative is good news — anything which reduces the influence of KPMG, Capita, G4S and their cronies (and which employs so many of my more technical friends) can’t be bad. But a ‘good in parts’ government is still intolerable.

There’s an election due in 2015. 2015, the 70th anniversary of the Attlee revolution. It’s time to do it again. Vote. Vote progressive. Vote independent or green. Hold your nose and vote Liberal or Labour. Join a fucking party and work to change their outlook. Vote pragmatic. But, whatever you do, vote. Especially if you’re young. Politicians only care about keeping the people who vote happy — if you don’t vote, they’ll ignore you. If it makes some other part of their constituency happy, they’ll shit on you from great height (though I think that may backfire yet — the thing about grandparents is, they tend to like their grandchildren and don’t like seeing them get the shitty end of the stick)

You could listen to Russell Brand and not vote ’cos it’s “irrelevant” — there’s a revolution coming! You could. But you’d be an idiot and you’d be waiting a long time. There’s been one progressive revolution that actually stuck in this country, and that was achieved by voting.

Demand the nationalisation of public goods; the Post Office, Rail, Water, Gas, Electricity. Encourage small businesses and making stuff. Build new public housing. Demand real transparency in markets and government. Fuck landlords. Fuck rentiers.

Change the world. Our grandparents did it seventy years ago. We deserve better. Let’s take a leaf out of their book and do it again.