Skip to comments.A Most Uncomfortable Parallel: What Clement Attlee Can Teach The Right About Barack Obama.
Posted on 01/24/2010 1:19:33 PM PST by x
LET'S just agree that if you are looking for someone with whom to compare Barack Obama, the mid-20th-century British prime minister Clement Attlee does not come immediately to mind. Some might opt for FDR, some the Messiah, others the Antichrist or, harsher still, Jimmy Carter. Attlee? Not so much.
To start with, there's the whole charisma thing. Attlee was the Labour leader who humiliated Winston Churchill in Britain's 1945 election, but that victory (one of the most sweeping in British history) was more dramatic than the victor. No Obama, the new prime minister was shy, understated, and physically unprepossessing. Balding, sober-suited, and with an unshakeable aura of bourgeois respectability, Attlee resembled a senior bureaucrat, a provincial bank manager, or one of the more upscale varieties of traditional English murderer. If you want an adjective, "dull" will do nicely. As the jibe went, an empty taxi drew up, and out stepped Attlee. His speeches were dreary, largely unmemorable, and marked mainly by a reluctance to deploy the personal pronoun: Not for Attlee the "I"s and "me"s of Obama's perorations. Clem was a modest man, but then, said some, he had much to be modest about.
That's an insult that's often attributed to Winston Churchill, but almost certainly incorrectly: Churchill had considerable respect for the individual who defeated him. Realize why and comparisons between the stiff, taciturn Englishman and America's president begin to make sense. For the GOP, they are good reason to be alarmed.
There are the superficial similarities, of both character and resume. Despite their very distinct camouflages both men are best understood as being cool and calculating, not least in their use of an unthreatening public persona to mask the intensity of their beliefs and ambitions. The two even have in common their pasts as "community organizers," in Attlee's case as a charity worker amid the poverty of Edwardian London's East End, a harrowing and intoxicating experience that drove him to socialism. More important still is their shared eye for the main chance. In a private 1936 memo, Attlee (by then leader of his party) noted how any future European war would involve "the closest regimentation of the whole nation" and as such "the opportunity for fundamental change of the economic system." Never let a crisis go to waste.
Attlee was right. In 1940 the Labour party was asked to join Churchill's new national coalition government (with Attlee serving as deputy prime minister), and it wasn't long before Britain had been reengineered into what was for all practical purposes a command economy. The extension of the state's grasp was theoretically temporary and realistically unavoidable, but it quickly became obvious that the assault on laissez faire would outlive the wartime emergency. The crisis had overturned the balance of power between the public and private sectors. It was a shift that, when combined with Britons' widespread perception of pre-war economic, military, and diplomatic failure, also shattered the longstanding political taboos that would once have ensured a return to business as usual when the conflict came to an end. With Britain's ancien regime discredited (it's debatable quite how fairly), there was irresistible demand for "change." Prevailing over the Axis would, most Britons hoped, mean that they could finally turn the page on the bad old days and build the fairer, more egalitarian society they felt they deserved.
It is a measure of how far the political landscape had been altered that by March 1943 Winston Churchill was announcing his support for the establishment after the war of "a National Health Service ... [and] national compulsory insurance for all classes for all purposes from the cradle to the grave," a stance that echoed an official report published to extraordinary acclaim the previous year. Churchill did, however, take time to warn that it would be necessary to take account of what the country could afford before these schemes were implemented.
Such concerns were alien to Attlee. The abrupt end of American aid in the form of the Lend-Lease program within a month of the Labour victory had left the U.K. facing, in Keynes's words, a "financial Dunkirk." The clouds cleared a little with the grant of a large, if tough-termed, U.S. loan, but the risk of national bankruptcy remained real for some years. Attlee pressed on regardless. The creation of the welfare state was his overwhelming moral and political priority. He had been presented with a possibly unrepeatable opportunity to push it through, and that's what he did. To carp was mere bean counting. If there were any gaps, they could surely be filled by the improvements that would come from the government's supposedly superior management of the economy and, of course, by hiking taxes on "the rich" still further. Is this unpleasantly reminiscent of the manner in which Obama has persisted with his broader agenda in the face of the greatest economic crunch in over half a century? Oh yes.
There's also more than a touch of Obama in the way that Attlee viewed foreign policy and defense. A transnationalist avant la lettre, the prime minister thought that empowering the United Nations at the expense of its members was the only true guarantor of national security, a position that made his inability or unwillingness to grasp the meaning of either "national" or "security" embarrassingly clear. It is no surprise that he was reluctant to accept the inevitability of the Cold War with a Soviet Union already on the rampage. Attlee would, I reckon, have sympathized with Obama's hesitations in the face of today's Islamic challenge. Mercifully, reality--and the U.K.'s tough-minded foreign secretary--soon intervened. Britain adopted a more robust approach to its national defense (sometimes misguidedly; too many resources were devoted to an unsustainable commitment to some of the more worthless scraps of empire) and a place in the front line against Soviet expansion. In a sense, however, Attlee was to have the last laugh; the long-term damage that his government inflicted on the British economy meant that, even apart from the huge costs of the country's post-war imperial overstretch, its decline to lesser-power status was inevitable.
But judged on his own terms, Attlee succeeded where it counted most. His nationalization of a key slice of British industry (including the railways, some road transport, gas, coal, iron and steel, the Bank of England, and even Thomas Cook, the travel agency) eventually proved disastrous; his intrusive regulatory and planning regime (not to speak of the crippling taxes he promoted) distorted the economy and retarded development for decades; the costs of the new National Health Service (NHS) instantly spiraled beyond what had been anticipated; and so on and on and on--but, well, never mind. In the greater scheme of things, he won. To this ascetic, high-minded statesman, GDP was a grubby detail and budgets were trivia. What mattered was that he had irrevocably committed Britain to the welfare state he believed to be an ethical imperative--and the NHS was its centerpiece.
And yes, that commitment was irrevocable. While a majority of Britons approved of including health care in their wish list for the post-war renewal of their nation, socialized medicine had not been amongst their top priorities. But once set up (in 1948), the NHS proved immediately and immensely popular, a "right" untouchable by any politician. For all the grumbling, it still is. The electoral dynamics of the NHS (which directly employs well over a million voters) were and are different from those of the likely Obamacare, not least because the private system the NHS replaced was far feebler than that, however flawed, which now operates in the U.S. Nevertheless, the lessons to be drawn from the story of the NHS form part of a picture that is bad news for those who hope that GOP wins in 2010 will shatter Barack's dream.
At first sight, the fact that Attlee barely scraped reelection five years after his 1945 triumph would seem to suggest the opposite, but to secure any majority in the wake of half a decade of savage economic retrenchment was a remarkable achievement. The transformation of which the NHS represented such a vital part (and the events that made that transformation possible) had radically shifted the terms of debate within the U.K. to the left and, no less crucially, reinforced Labour's political base. To remain electorally competitive, the Tories (who finally unseated Attlee the following year) were forced to accept the essence of Labour's remodeling of the British state, something they broadly continued to do until the arrival of Mrs. Thatcher as Conservative leader a generation later. It's no great stretch to suspect that a GOP chastened by the Bush years and intimidated by the obstacles that lie ahead will be just as cautious in tackling the Obama legacy.
And that will be something to be modest about.
Mr. Stuttaford is a contributing editor of NATIONAL REVIEW ONLINE.
You don't have to be a Nazi or Marxist to "fundamentally change" or ruin a country.
Attlee's not as flashy as some of the other figures Obama's compared to, but there are a lot of real similarities.
Granted, flashiness counts for a lot. Some of the wilder comparison's are based on the what people saw as Obama's charisma. But one year in, just how charismatic is Barack Obama, anyway?
Of course, Obama's only Attlee if he gets what he's after. Otherwise, Jimmy Carter's a better comparison.
Anyway, I posted this because National Review doesn't put its articles on line, so a lot of people don't see them. Stuttaford may be wrong, but his idea deserves an audience.
"Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find only things evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached." - Manuel II Palelogus
That’s a good point. Thanks for posting (and for providing more grist for the mill, as it were ;^) ).
As Churchill said about Atlee, “there’s a lot less there than meets the eye.”
Didn’t Churchill also describe Attlee as, “A sheep in sheep’s clothing?”
Can’t say I’m as still as worried about Democrats in the near term as I was, but this is still very relevant. Socialists (closet marxists) across the pond have long relied upon the welfare state, immigration, and union influence to keep a lock on power, the only real goal of marxism. The so-called Democrats over hear think the same way and couldn’t care less of the obvious effects their real agenda will have on the country. That’s never been so obvious as when Obama took charge of things, but it will always be the case with Democrats.
An interesting piece of history, certainly, that many have forgotten. We remember the greatness of Winston Churchill and the heroism of the RAF, but we forget that promptly after the war England, in love with socialism, committed suicide.
The two world wars had weakened England, of course, but it was not until 1945 that they gave their heroic leader Churchill the boot and simply surrendered to the socialist dream.
But it doesn’t seem to me that Obama resembles Atlee much at all, except in his politics. And it doesn’t seem to me that the American people are yet worn down to the point that they want to simply give up and hand themselves over to the government, the way the Brits did in 1945.
One of Evelyn Waugh’s best works is his trilogy about the Second World War, “Sword of Honour.” Among other things, you can see this betrayal of what England once stood for even during the war years. Because as Waugh shows, the war was fought for the wrong reasons. They fought against Hitler, but they fought on behalf of Stalin, and they handed much of Europe—Yugoslavia in particular is shown—over to the Communists. So even the apparent heroism of the war years was not, as Waugh’s hero comes to understand, really a matter of honour. Nor was it fought for what western civilization had stood for up to that time.
Anyway, definitely worth a read for those who don’t remember the truly forgettable Mr. Atlee. But I don’t think it’s a good parallel to Obama, because I don’t think the American people have yet abandoned their principles. Or, maybe only a third of them have.
One big difference, though: Attlee was not elected by his nation’s media like Zero was. The sheeple here are now starting to realize that.
“his intrusive regulatory and planning regime (not to speak of the crippling taxes he promoted) distorted the economy and retarded development for decades;”
retarded - that word’s certainly the right fit in an Atlee/Obama article.
"A modest man with much to be modest about"
The author sounds like he is soothing his readers into believing nothing can change.
America was built; wasn’t it?
During the war, Churchill depended on his cabinetmember Attlee to handle a lot of domestic affairs and then he was surprised that Attlee could pull the rug out from under him and the Tories when the war ended. Churchill was in his element as a military leader and an international statesman because of his character, intelligence, and decades of experience. But he stumbled around blindly with domestic politics like GOP leaders often do, and so he lost to Attlee. Remember the victories of the Gulf War, the Cold War, the Iraq War, and the wars against Al Qaeda? The historical importance of those victories is undeniable, but the electorate is likely to forget the GOP’s victories whenever economic hardship and a statist political agenda hold sway at home.
In 2004, he was voted the greatest British prime minister of the 20th century in a poll of 139 professors organised by MORI.
Sounds typical -- ask a bunch of professors who was greater, Churchill, Thatcher, or Attlee and they'll say Attlee.
Like Britain after the second world war, it needs to be re-built. Creative destruction is good, but Churchill with all of his rhetorical gifts and good sense was either too preoccupied or just unable back then to make a convincing case for the UK rebuilding itself. And so war-weary Brit voters went with what they perceived to be a known quantity: Attlee. American voters were a little more carefree and went with the incumbent (Truman) until he wore out his welcome (just like Attlee did but for different reasons).
I see two big things to keep in mind:
America has traditionally NOT been a socialist leaning country. Not to say we don’t have certain areas where the direction has been problematic, but we haven’t historically been a HUGE section of the population clamoring for it. As anyone who has read “A Road To Serfdom” England DID have a large number of people who thought socialism was a good thing, and had been clamoring for it since The Great War.
Obama is a Marxist in the Alinsky mode through and through, and just because comparisons made to other socialist/marxist/communists make people uncomfortable, it doesn’t make the comparison wrong!
Another difference is Britain’s Parliamentary system where the winner of an election literally takes all; an elective dictatorship. Britain does not have a written constitution.
“Andrew, I remember Clem Attlee. Clem Attlee served in my war cabinet for five years. Clem Attlee was a good and capable man. Believe me, Andrew...Barack Obama is no Clem Attlee.”
One of the things that is very interesting regarding Atlee and his nationalization is that even with Churchill serving approximately 4 years after him (in his second tenure), they only suceeded in de-nationalizing the steel industry, and that only partially.
I’ve never gotten the brits and their penchant for socialism.
Excellent piece. (Scary, too) Thanks for posting it.
Those who believe current or recent British governments to be ‘socialist’ would do well to consider the Attlee years. In the strict sense of the term, Attlee’s was the only truly socialist government Britain has ever had, since it was the only government both to be ideologically committed to, and actively to implement, the state ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange.
Incidentally, the only aspect of the article’s description of Attlee with which I disagree is the passing reference to his attitude to the Cold War. I’m unaware of any evidence that he failed to share Ernie Bevin’s hardline stance, including the commitment to a British nuclear deterrent.