Clement Attlee’s Answer

What would Clement Attlee think? It’s a question which first occurred to me a few years ago while pondering why a “conservative” government was planning to allow Huawei to help install the UK’s 5G network.

What would Clement Attlee think? It’s a question which first occurred to me a few years ago while pondering why a “conservative” government was planning to allow Huawei – an entity linked to the Chinese Communist Party – to help install the UK’s 5G network. What would any figure from the traditional patriotic Left, whether Attlee or Peter Shore, make of this? The answer, of course, would be considerable disgust; the same type of disgust as might be directed at the fact that our railways are now run by the French and German states, that our water industry has been sold to foreign investors who syphon off profits overseas while our rivers are despoiled with sewage, and that our rulers lack the will to stem the flow of illegal migrants in the Channel. Our world would be as unrecognisable to Ernie Bevin as it would be to George Brown.

After several decades of runaway social and economic liberalism, the traditional Right has long questioned how free market ideology sits with the broader aim of conservatism – as Scruton defined it, the desire to hold onto what one loves. Wouldn’t social conservatism of the “faith, flag and family” variety be better promoted by ideas from the conservative Left?  Wouldn’t Attlee serve us better than Friedman? I think so and I’ll outline the point in the case of homes, jobs and trade.

First, homes. To a social conservative, the aim of housing policy should be to make available decent, affordable homes for our fellow countrymen and women, and yet no recent government has come close to securing this. Instead, the deliberate destruction of state house-building capacity, together with mass immigration, has created a perfect storm which denies millions a viable route to start a family and unfairly dashes young peoples’ dreams of a home of their own.  The current policy is basically anti-family, anti-social and harmful to the nation. It will take time to cure but the only solution is for the state to get back into the business of building houses at scale together with a generation-long mass immigration pause. These things will do the heavy lifting. Of course, my free market critics say that this can’t be done and even suggest, on a different tack, that the architectural brutalism of post-war housing might reoccur. Nonsense. We can build beautifully if we want to, using traditional materials.

Secondly, jobs. Open labour markets, like open borders, are an act of faith among some economic liberals. It is taken for granted that if an employer wants a particular person with a particular skill they should have it – even if people must be imported. The National Health Service makes no serious attempt to train a sufficient number of doctors, nurses and other staff, preferring the drug of immigration. We’re governed by people who treat Britain not as a country but as a shop. With annual gross migration now topping one million, those of us who argue for a softer, more domestic approach to employment policy – one which prioritises fellow citizens – are ignored.

Successive governments, whether Conservative, Coalition or New Labour, have all been too enthusiastic about mass immigration, too indifferent to integration and too tolerant of illegal migration. And yet from a traditional Left perspective, it is clear that open labour markets have reduced wages and dis-incentivised training to the detriment of our fellow citizens, particularly the low paid. The UK’s participation in the EU Single Market had a decades-long chilling effect on skills training, it being easier to import Svetlana than to teach Sally. A tighter employment market irritates large employers and yet it seems not to occur to liberal commentators that higher wages might be of benefit to British workers.

Thirdly, the UK has a huge trade problem. Each year we buy vastly more than we sell and, consequently, we accumulate debt. Yet our persistent negative balance of trade is rarely discussed in political discourse and most of our elected representatives seem ignorant of the basic economics of international trade (imports can be paid for in three ways – by exporting goods, by selling assets we already have or by issuing debt). Running multi billion pound trade deficits has filled our homes with imported goods and trinketry but it has beggared the country. Debt-fuelled consumption is not prosperity – quite the reverse.

The present government’s response to our trade problem has been to pour petrol on the fire by suggesting an even more reckless dose of unilateral free trade. Liz Truss’ ill-fated Japan trade deal is modelled to substantially increase our bilateral trade deficit with Japan. A few more deals of this type and ruin will be certain. Those suggesting a “Singapore-on-Thames” approach to Brexit not only fundamentally misunderstand Singapore, whose social housing, public transport and industrial policies many on the traditional Left find admirable, they fail to grasp the tide of de-globalisation the world is currently entering. As the pandemic showed, successful states will increasingly prioritise domestic production and national resilience in food and energy over utopian dreams of global interconnectivity.

We have to decide whether we serve an ideology or our country. Conservatives used to grasp this. As F. E. Smith argued in a speech at Chatham in 1909: “If I were a Russian or a Canadian, or a subject of the Mikardo of Japan, then, as between free trade and protection, I should be a protectionist because, in my judgement, each of these nations would gain less by their unrestricted access to foreign markets than they would by exposing their relatively immature industries to our highly developed competition in their home markets.”

The “China trade shock” has gutted our manufacturing, shipped production overseas and, in so doing, obliterated the industrial wage which used to be the foundation of family life. The social consequences have been grave: as the factories closed, the drug dealers moved in. Hiding behind free trade purism, our ruling class has observed this phenomenon but refused to pursue any meaningful industrial policy to address it. Fundamentally, the cause of this inaction has been their attachment to a set of ideas rooted in a species of liberalism which amounts to indifference. Our elite is indifferent to what is made where and by whom and to who owns what.

What would Clement Attlee do? He would replace these ideas with policies which prioritise industry, the family and the nation-state, and in doing so would garner the support of the majority of the British people. The age of liberal indifference is closing – and not before time.

William Clouston is leader of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) 

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