When Neil Kinnock was in his pram

Paul Addison

  • Labour in Power 1945-1951 by Kenneth Morgan
    Oxford, 546 pp, £15.00, March 1984, ISBN 0 19 215865 1

To people over a certain age, the politics of the 1940s are still a burning issue. Talk to them of Attlee, and the sparks of old controversies fly up as though Neil Kinnock were still in his celebrated pram. But to the present generation of students, Attlee might as well be Campbell-Bannerman, or Dr Mussadiq the Akond of Swat. To them, such matters are all a part of grandad’s world, a mysterious place where there was bread rationing, and patriotism was mixed up with pride in the welfare state.

A historian writing on the Attlee governments has, therefore, to address two audiences, each liable to be difficult in its own way. The old have to be persuaded of the fact that reminiscences are no longer a substitute for scholarship. The passage of time requires greater detachment and the professional skills of the historian. But it must be disturbing when academics in white coats come to take you away for intense observation in the oral history ward. If the old identify too closely with the ideas and emotions of the past, the young have difficulty in understanding them at all. If their politics descend from the radicalism of the 1970s, they find the assumptions of someone like Attlee or Bevin antiquated and hard to explain historically. How could a left-wing government have invested in a British atom bomb? But for blank incomprehension of the Attlee years, your Sloane Ranger with a smattering of Roger Scruton must be hard to beat. There is a liberal academic’s mission impossible. Why didn’t the Free World use its nuclear monopoly to roll back the Russians from Eastern Europe? Well now ...

If anyone in these sectarian times can still convey a true appreciation of Labour’s finest hour, it is surely Kenneth Morgan. He writes for the wide spectrum of readers who still talk the language of common-sense democratic debate. Of course this is rather a deceptive language. It is actually the old Whig ideology, broad and flexible, on which the British have got by for so long. Certainly Morgan’s book has a Whiggish flavour, with the Attlee governments taking their place among the great reforming administrations of the British tradition. The New Left, like the New Right, argues that such a framework is now absurdly out of date. But this has yet to be demonstrated, for the old whale is quite content to absorb a little Marxism or a little Thatcherism into his giant belly. So long as Whiggery – or social democracy, as we now call it – remains the working language of British politics, it will also remain the most viable language for political historians.

Morgan, then, writes with sympathy. Sympathy for Cabinet Ministers pushing through great schemes of public enterprise; sympathy, too, for the Labour movement, rejoicing in its achievements after nearly half a century on the road. But a historian’s sympathies are the least interesting aspect of the exercise. Detachment is the exciting thing, and this depends first of all upon a mastery of the sources. Morgan’s research is very impressive: not the last word, but such a comprehensive sweep through different types of source as to maintain an overall perspective at a deeper level than before. He has dug below the Cabinet into the Cabinet committees and the departmental files: but keeps in view the public face of politics in the press. Most refreshing, because least familiar, is a chapter of stimulating judgments on social and cultural change. One reads so often of the gloom and despondency of the British after the war that it is heartening to be told that they were probably enjoying themselves as never before.

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