More on the Think Tank Clash

After the debates were over, a short film was showed about the Festival of Britain in 1951, and the three winners talked about the differences between Britain then and now. All three were on the progressive left, and it was incredibly revealing. The big ways they thought the country had changed were things like tolerance, multiculturalism, gay rights, feminism and the decline of the working class. Throughout the entire half an hour or so discussion, never once were living standards or the economy mentioned. The closest that we came was one person saying we have less job security now than then. From their discussion, you would never have guessed that living standards have more than tripled. Katwala said he wouldn’t want to go back to 1951 because people were less tolerant. No, Sunder, you don’t want to go back because you’d be really, really poor. The typical British family didn’t have a microwave, or a dish-washer, or a washing machine, or a fridge, or countless other appliances we take for granted. Now do the housework.

Just as revealing was their lament for the lost solidarity of 1951. Look at that festival, they all said, look at the Fabian optimism it embodies. And they came up with the NHS around then too, if only we could transfer that to nowadays. In fact, of course, the British public in 1951 were heartily sick of “Fabian optimism” and its utter failure. Six years after WW2 ended, and we still had rationing, while the rest of Europe and America was enjoying a postwar boom, and the voters had had enough. Later that year they turfed the Attlee government out of office; it had failed so badly that Labour did not return to power for 13 years despite massive Conservative blunders.

And indeed the Festival of Britain was symbolic of Labour’s centrally planned failure – a hugely expensive paean to modernism dreamed up by technocrats as a “tonic to the nation,” when what the nation really wanted was freedom and growth. The symbol of the festival was the Skylon, which Rab Butler memorably described as being “like the British economy; it has no visible means of support.”

I’m not sure whether the speakers were historically illiterate or simply mendacious. Certainly to talk about the changes of the last 60 years without mentioning the incredible rise in living standards requires one or the other. But then, the left has an ambiguous relationship with history. Which reminds me, I must get back to my overly long series of posts about the left’s attempts to rewrite Thatcher’s premiership. That will be up next.


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