The current issue of The Salisbury Review has an interesting review by Alistair Cooke of Robert Crowcroft's Attlee's War: World War II and the Making of a Labour Leader. The book, apparently, destroys certain myths about the war and the coalition government that was in place during it, though it seems to me that those myths are being destroyed slowly by surely anyway. Does anyone who knows anything about the subject really believe that Labour had a "bad war" and flourished only after 1945? Apart from any other factual evidence, that would make no political sense: no party can suddenly emerge from nowhere and create in the space of just a few years a completely new political and economic system that has remained in place despite its many disadvantages for over six decades.

The myth that is in place, however, and no amount of historical evidence seems to be able to shift it is that of Neville Chamberlain's "stupidity", "political incompetence", even "treachery". Both the book and the review tackle some important aspects of Chamberlain's political career and lament his untimely demise for in domestic matters Churchill was not just no substitute but actually harmful to party and country.

This is what Alistair Cooke says [the review is not on line, I fear]:
Throughout the 1930s the whole of Whitehall, and most of Westminster, were in awe of a very great man, Neville Chamberlain. He was unrivalled in the despatch of public business. He was unrivalled too in his command of policy in many diverse areas. .... What mattered above all to Chamberlain was the domestic battle that he pursued remorselessly to establish a welfare state based on Tory principles.
Even during the tempestuous events abroad in the late 1930s he continued to work tenaciously on the decisive next stage of his grand vision for a better Britain. A draft manifesto for an election planned for 1940 set out radical proposals: they included action to bring the whole population within the national health services he had already established, a wider and more generous pensions system developing a Chamberlainite achievement of 1925, the introduction of family allowances, and the intensification of this massive slum clearance programme. 
Under Chamberlain more new houses were built every year than under post-war Conservative governments with their 300,000 annual target. It all added up to a welfare programme that provided for a properly funded, two-way partnership between the individual and the state, unencumbered by the plethora of benefits that were to drag Britain down in the post-war world. Whether he was in Birmingham or Downing Street, Neville Chamberlain always balanced the books. 
History did not go his way. The 1940 election that Labour would have lost did not happen. The war-time coalition with a Prime Minister who was profoundly uninterested in domestic matters or the standing of the Conservative party enabled Labour under Attlee to extend its and the unions' control over the whole country and to emerge from the war as a serious and victorious organization, something that nobody could have predicted in the thirties.

The welfare system that was introduced was Beveridge's not Chamberlain's (and Sir Joseph Ball's) and though it was not meant to be turned into the all-consuming system of entitlements that it has become, the links between the origin and the outcome are clearly perceived and were predicted at the time. Crowcroft, apparently, describes William Beveridge as "largely a failure" in his civil service career and Attlee as "in a real sense ... and English Stalin". (I think I really must read this.)

The question that none of us can answer is: would Chamberlain's plans have produced a welfare system that was much in demand at the time that did not undermine the social and economic structures in the way Attlee's has done. The secondary question is can that blueprint be revived and used for the very necessary reforms or does the wheel have to be reinvented.


  1. S.M. MacLean Says:
  2. Wow! This is interesting! I am fascinated by your concluding thoughts:

    ...would Chamberlain’s plans have produced a welfare system that was much in demand at the time that did not undermine the social and economic structures in the way Attlee’s has done. The secondary question is can that blueprint be revived and used for the very necessary reforms or does the wheel have to be reinvented.

    Of course, given the apparent focus on Attlee of Crowcroft’s volume, perhaps there is another book available (or one to be written) that can answer these questions. Seems like an intriguing IEA monograph theme...

  3. Helen Says:
  4. The IEA has, in the past, done monographs on welfare before the welfare state but I am not sure whether they have looked at all seriously on Chamberlain's blueprint.

  5. S.M. MacLean Says:
  6. Yes, the IEA has done much work on the rise of the friendly societies from the mid-1800s and then their gradual decline from the beginning of the 19th century—coinciding with the rise of State provision, culminating, of course, with the Beveridge provisions.

    One position advocated by IEA authors (if not the organisation itself) has been for the State to act as welfare provider of last resort; from the brief glimpse of Chamberlain’s policies, it seems that he envisioned something more comprehensive. Then I imagine the argument goes, à la von Mises, whether such ‘middle-of-the-road’ interventionism would be sustainable over the long-run, or would necessarily entail lower growth and hence British economic decline. (As pithily put by one wit, you can’t have capitalism without capital!)

  7. Helen Says:
  8. It certainly was not possible with the Beveridge plan though he actually thought of it as little more than a safety net, not envisaging an overarching welfare state with the entitlement mentality it has produced, though some people were sceptical about it remaining a safety net. I think I shall have to go back to Robert Self's biography of Chamberlain and check out the details.

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