Attlee versus Thatcher: We Need to Pick Better Heroes

The selection of our heroes says more about us than it does the men and women of our history books.  Clement Attlee was the reserved, collegiate Prime Minister who brought us the Post War consensus. Margaret Thatcher was the bullish, one woman army Prime Minister who brought us the neoliberal consensus.  The latter is in the process of elevation to level of deity, the former all but forgotten.

The traits we elect most worthy of admiration are a reflection of the aspirations of our society and herald the coming of our next great consensus.  If we want a consensus worthy of our collective imagination, we need to pick better heroes.


The Attlee government built more than a million homes between 1945 and 1951, with 80% of them being council homes with subsidised rents.  This, and subsequent commitments to social housing policy meant that by 1975, 80% of government spending on housing went on the capital investment on the supply side (building and maintaining social homes).

In stark contrast, the post Thatcherite consensus saw these numbers reversed.  By 2000, 85% of government spending on housing went on the demand side in housing benefit as the housing shortage allowed private landlords to drive up rents.  Today, 40-50% of the average £23bn Housing Benefit bill goes to private landlords.

Whilst Thatcher fans act as if the Right to Buy scheme transformed the class system in the UK and created some sort of egalitarian revolution in home ownership, today home ownership has is just 9% higher than in 1979. More than a third of ex council houses now sit in the property portfolios of wealthy landlords.  In fact, the son of Thatcher’s Housing Minister at the time the ‘Right to Buy’ scheme was launched is now the proud owner of no fewer than forty ex council houses.

The following decades of defunct housing policy has left the UK with a housing shortage crisis. The UK is building 100,000 homes a year less than it needs to in order to meet requirements. The consequent boom in house prices means they are now 300% higher (in real terms) than in 1959.  If the price of a dozen eggs had risen as quickly, they would now cost £19.

The restriction on social housing has seen a boom in the private rented sector, which now constitutes 20% of the total housing market, versus 10% just ten years ago.  This has seen private rents across the UK rise by an average of 37% in just the last three years.

Nationalisation and Denationalisation

The Atlee government nationalised a host of basic industries and utilities to create a common ownership of public goods and services. Coal, the railways, the telephone network, electricity, gas, the steel industry, all become publicly owned.  By 1951 Attlee’s government had brought about 20% of the economy into public ownership.

A great sell off occurred under the Thatcher government from 1979; British Aerospace, Cable & Wireless, Jaguar, British Telecom, British Steel, British Petroleum, Rolls Royce, British Airways,  and utilities such as water and electricity all went up for sale.  These policies have been continued since, and the result has been a dramatic rise of the cost of living.

In the ten years between 1999 and 2009, the annual salary rose 13.6%.  During the same period, house prices went up 130%, a loaf of bread went up 147%, a litre of petrol went up 42%.  This goes some way to accounting for the fact that personal debt rose during this period by 158% as access to credit created consumer demand which concealed the gap between wage and cost of living inflation.

Inflation according to the Consumer Price Index (CPI) was 17% during the same period.  This means a real terms wage drop of 7%.

However, CPI figures represent a wide range of purchases which many average or below average earners do not buy.  The UK Essentials Index which focuses on the kinds of everyday items which the UK’s working and non working poor buy showed an inflation rate of 33%.  The short term cost of living fall under Thatcher has been entirely obliterated since.

The results are clear. We had it better when we shared.

Welfare State

 Social Security

The Attlee government introduced the National Insurance Act 1946.  This was the basis of the contribution based welfare system we have today.  For a flat rate of national insurance, citizens were guaranteed access to flat rate pensions and benefits for sickness, unemployment and funereal support.  If you care to take a glimpse at Britain without its currently maligned welfare state, it is well worth watching the Public Information film ‘Land of Promise’ from 1946 which pulls back the curtain on a society ravaged by poverty, disease and squalor.


The Attlee government created the National Health Service with its three founding principles:

  • that it meet the needs of everyone
  • that it be free at the point of delivery
  • that it be based on clinical need, not ability to pay

Prior the NHS, thousands died every year from treatable diseases such as pneumonia, diphtheria, meningitis, tuberculosis and polio.  Those diseases have been all but eradicated in this country by the NHS.

In 1948, the year of the NHS’s inception, thirty four of every thousand babies born in England and Wales died before its first birthday.  Today this stands at just five in every thousand.

In 1948, the only mass vaccination and immunization programmes were Smallpox and Diphtheria, whilst service personnel received Tetanus.  Today, there are fourteen such programmes ensuring young people are protected against everything from mumps and measles to tuberculosis and hepatitis B.

Before the Attlee government’s reforms, the majority of citizens faced financial ruin or a short and brutal life down to lack of access to public healthcare. Thanks to the NHS, if a person is sick in the UK they receive treatment, and they do not count the ever growing medical bills with a sense of rising anxiety as they do so.


The Education Act of 1944 created Britain’s first free, common and universal education system for students up to the age of 18.  It was underpinned by the principle that ‘the nature of a child’s education should be based on his capacity and promise and not by the circumstances of his parent’.

The Act made a Minister of government responsible for a national education system for the first time.  It created the model of Primary, Secondary and Further education we retain today. It also made secondary education a duty, not simply a power of the local education authority.  The Act set out a national code of regulations stipulating standards of accommodation, class sizes and so on that must be guaranteed to every child, and made all schools other than Grammar schools free to attend.

We now know that had the Thatcher government been allowed to fulfil its ultimate ambitions, many of these principles could well have been reversed.  The government discussed reintroducing charges for schools and ending the NHS.


Between 1946 and 1951 the UK enjoyed full employment and the economy grew at least 3% each and every year.  The UK economy outperformed the rest of Europe and living standards increased by 10% a year.

The Thatcher government oversaw not one but two recessions. It delivered a housing boom which saw house prices rise 32%. Unemployment spiked at 12% in 1984 and never fell below 7%. The Manufacturing sector declined by around 3% (of GDP). The pay inequality gap between men and women rose throughout.  There was a 7% rise in poverty.

The Last Goodbyes

On the death of Thatcher in April this year, Parliament was recalled and twelve hours of tributes were delivered in the House of Commons and House of Lords.  Today was the day of her state funeral in all but name.  The funeral received full military honours and was attended by the great and the good from around the world, with the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh playing their role in the deification.

On his death of Attlee in October 1967, parliament was not recalled.  Instead a few small tributes were made in Parliament a fortnight later, with this small column in the Guardian at the time to attest to it.  His family held a small funeral and his ashes were quietly interred in Westminster Abbey.  A humble end for a humble man.

It’s the Consensus, Stupid

Attlee and Thatcher stand out as lightning rods, transforming the consensus of what life is all about.  Attlee’s post war consensus put the idea of sharing in collective endeavour and reward above the pursuit of individual or corporate wealth.  Thatcher’s Neoliberal consensus focussed upon economic liberalism and the pursuit of individual ambitions.

It is tempting to see both lightning rods as equal.  They both shine brightly, dominating the landscape for generations, lighting up the sky with a radical yet tangible promise.    

Attlee: Let us Face the Future Together

Thatcher: You can make it if you try

But though the brightness of the sparks and the longevity of their glow might stand equal, the political, economic and human consequences do not.

We need to pick better heroes.  We must not allow ourselves to fall into a state of national mourning which not only deifies the woman, but elevates her consensus above its human value.  The abandonment of the Post War consensus has cost Britain dearly. We are a less equal, less compassionate, more inward looking nation for it.

Our future consensus will be new again, and its lightning rod has not yet lit up the skies.  Let us choose the next one carefully.  Let us create a consensus worthy of our collective imagination, and a healthy, wealthy, responsible, compassionate, equal society greater than the sum of its parts.

9 thoughts on “Attlee versus Thatcher: We Need to Pick Better Heroes

  1. “Attlee: Let us Face the Future Together

    Thatcher: You can make it if you try”

    Could also be presented as:

    Attlee: You need other people. You alone are not enough.

    Thatcher: Every human being has the potential to be great. You are good enough.

    • You’ve made a point I have already made. Principle of self reliance at a micro level is empowering, but a) it doesn’t aggregate to the macro level without equality of opportunity, skill, intelligence, health etc, and b) it creates a sense of entitlement and a belief that you made it alone…no one EVER did in the history of humanity. So it’s totally redundant as a political ideology.

      • Well said Script- I used to think what Jason (above) thinks- I then had my mind moved seismically when I spied ”this machine kills fascists” taped to his guitar- by Woody Guthrie

  2. I remembered Cardinal John Henry Newman, one of the greatest thinker and educationists of this century said in one of his Dublin discourse in published in 1852:- among what he said ” the need for intellectual development as a value in itself. It is not to earn a living like the profesionals but nevertheless it is very important in the cultivation of mind”. The cultivation of mind according to him are knowledge, formative principle of the intellectual capacity where the mind could experience an enlargement. Enlargement means to accept new ideas, act upon it and creatively participated into the active life in society.

  3. Thanks for putting the time to do this excellent comparison. I’ll add Harold Wilson to that. Harold was a better PM than Thatcher.

  4. I think the problem is that people write blogs instead of joining the labour party and standing for election

    • Sadly Jason whoever thinks that the current Labour Party will make any difference to anything – they are all tarred with the same brush now – this comment from a child of the Welfare State (born 1947) and a lifelong Labour voter until recent years – and from a Labour Voting family. Disappointed and disolusioned of Somerset.

Leave a Reply