Wednesday, 6 May 2015

A date that will go down in history?

If the opinion polls are right, and I hope they aren’t, the 70th anniversary of VE Day on Friday will also be Deadlock in Britain Day.

All round the country bleary-eyed candidates and would-be Prime Ministers will be surveying the wreckage of their hopes.

Just as Churchill did a mere two months after he was ecstatically cheered on the Buckingham Palace balcony on May 8th, 1945.

Spectacularly losing an election you entered with a personal approval rating of 83% is an achievement few can ever hope to emulate.

When Churchill’s wife Clementine tried to console him that his defeat might be a blessing in disguise, he retorted: “At the moment it’s certainly very well disguised.”

So where did he go so wrong? In popular memory Labour’s pledges of social reform overwhelmingly carried the day. Yet the Conservative manifesto of 1945 also promised “a nation-wide and compulsory scheme of National Insurance” and the creation of “a comprehensive health service covering the whole range of medical treatment from the general practitioner to the specialist”. This should not be altogether surprising.

The Beveridge Report of 1942, to which the post-war settlement owed so much, had been commissioned by the all-party wartime coalition Churchill led.

Personally, I put the Tory crash down to lousy PR. If only Max Beaverbrook or Brendan Bracken had said, “Winston, the thing to do is to carve your National Insurance and health service pledges on an 8 foot limestone obelisk and cart it around the country with you”, how very different the result might have been.

It is altogether more plausible that a post-war Tory government would have set up a National Health Service than that Labour would have instituted a “right to buy” for council tenants in 1959 – another counter-intuitive notion that has recently received an airing on the letters pages.

The unsuccessful Labour manifesto of that year does indeed contain a promise that “Every tenant … will have a chance first to buy from the Council the house he lives in”, but it was referring to privately rented homes that it proposed councils should take over.

Incidentally, imagine the furore that would ensue today if any party put out literature implying that all tenants were necessarily male. Well, maybe not in the case of UKIP.

The greatest counter-intuitive idea of all is that Margaret Thatcher was a Green pioneer because she closed so many coal mines (albeit not as many as Labour’s Harold Wilson) thereby anticipating the current left wing fetish for leaving fossil fuels in the ground.

If you rake through old manifestos you find Labour, now the staunchest opponent of giving the people a say on membership of the European Union, standing on a platform of withdrawal from the EEC in 1983.

Ideas pass back and forth between parties, and memories of past promises, successes and failures are selective. It is worth recalling that the revered socialist government of 1945 continued to award hereditary peerages, and pressed ahead with the creation of a British atomic bomb.

And, while independence was swiftly granted to India, there were ambitious plans for the continuing empire in Africa, including the once infamous scheme to improve British diets through the extensive cultivation of groundnuts in Tanganyika. It failed disastrously because the climate and soil were both completely unsuitable for growing peanuts.

A lesser known disaster of the time was a parallel scheme to boost chicken and egg production in The Gambia, West Africa … with the aim not just of feeding Britain but of reducing the colony’s dependence on the successful cultivation of groundnuts.

No doubt we can anticipate more expensive cock-ups of this sort, whoever finally comes to the surface clutching a lifebelt after tomorrow’s election.

I shan’t attempt a prediction, even though my family are still reeling from the fact that I accurately foresaw the Duchess of Cambridge giving birth to a daughter called Charlotte Elizabeth Diana – and then failed to place a bet on it.

Sadly for us David Cameron is no Churchill, Ed Miliband no Attlee. In a world of politicians no one much likes or respects, deadlock may be inevitable. But it is not to be desired, as anyone who remembers the 1970s will vouch.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

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