historical stuff by Gareth Millward


That guy is just the worst. The. Worst, you guys…


The Independent ran a piece this week on whether David Cameron risked becoming the worst prime minister of all time. Like, in forever, guys. Srsly.

Now, I sort of think this isn’t a bad little game to play. Thinking back over the Prime Ministers you remembered, the ones you studied – the stories you vaguely remember from history class or grainy documentaries. For instance, was Anthony Eden the worst ever for the whole Suez “snafu”? Or does Spencer Percival get the gong for “Prime Minister least able to leave office without a bullet through his chest“. Difficult, hard-hitting questions. And we historians aren’t afraid to shy away from them.

The problem is, while academics half-mockingly weigh up an impossible-to-even-begin-to-quantify conundrum, some people take it a bit… well… more seriously. And without any real recourse to historical method or evidence will blindly throw around accusations about how terrible a Prime Minister was based on not very much at all.

However, the Americans seem to take this sort of thing a little more seriously. There is actually a “Historical Rankings of Presidents of the United States” page on Wikipedia. And it’s backed up with data from C-SPAN, ABC, Gallup and more.

They seem to have given the middle finger to Warren G. Harding, though based on his love letters that might not surprise many of you.

So, we could look at PMs and try to rank them. What might we use? Popular defeat at the following election (indicating a terrible approval rating)? Losing a war? Getting involved in unnecessary conflict? Internal rebellion? A lack of concrete legislative victories? Getting shot? (OK, OK, I’ll lay off Perceval…)

It’s virtually impossible, especially for a twentieth-century historian with a self-professed ignorance of any Prime Ministers before 1939.1 So, while the article itself is worth a read, I think, the comments below the line offer some serious history porn. That seedy side of the internet where logic is damned and you can just go all out with the complete lack of disciplinary rigour. Be honest. You love that stuff really.

And so:2

What do you mean by about to become the worst PM? he already is in the majority of peoples minds.

Drole. Very drole. Not very original, given the variations on this particular theme, but an interesting premise. What Cameron has done so far makes him the worst PM ever?

He didn’t win the General Election outright against a very unpopular Labour government, but to be fair he did that while an MP and not a PM. The order of the letters is important. Since then, living standards (if measured in terms of the growth in real wages) have stagnated, the worst such dip since before man landed on the moon. Then there’s the whole unpleasantness over education, social security reform, and not having enough security for the Olympics.

But is any of that worse than, say, failing to secure Irish Home Rule (Gladstone, you muppet)? Or having your army mow down civilians (the Peterloo masacre – cheers, Liverpool)? Perhaps perspective is in order. Whatever your personal views on Cameron, up to now he’s just been pretty bad. But worst? That’s hyperbolic.

However, were he to lose Scotland, he’s certainly in the title hunt. Stay tuned.

Get real you bunch of Lefties Gordon Brown was the worst PM ever.

You talkin’ to me? Probably. The idea of Brown being the worst ever is even more ludicrous than thinking Cameron is. Yes, the world crash happened on his watch, but the clue is in the title – world. As Chancellor and PM, Brown’s oversight of the financial sector was as poor as everyone else’s. Doesn’t excuse it, but it does contextualises it. Besides – despite that, the economy was recovering when he left, and he could (or at least his party could) have formed a coalition with the minority parties. If he’s the worst ever, how come the opposition didn’t win outright? Next.

Has this numbskull never heard of Tony Blair????????

The most ruinous traitor the English have ever had to survive!!!!!

Cameron is a wet fart liberal, but never in Bliars league!!!!!

Strong words. Strong words from a strange man.

Blair will be forever synonymous with Iraq. And yet despite that he won three elections by landslides, presided over the longest period of continuous economic growth in British history, and became the longest serving Prime Minister of the twenty-first century (OK, that last one might have been by default). Still, he is perhaps the best example of a successful Labour Prime Minister.

Then there was the introduction of the minimum wage, the human rights act, strengthening of equalities legislation, the Northern Ireland peace process.

Once again – you might not care for the man. You might think he did horrific things. You may think he sold the soul of the Labour Party. But the worst Prime Minister ever? Mebbe not…

The reason all prime ministers’ careers end in failure is simple. They’re all cr*p.

This internet comment has it all. Censoring mild cursing. Painting all politicians with the same brush. Yes folks, Clement Attlee, who created the welfare state; and Winston Churchill who won the Second World War. Both those men are as fundamentally flawed (and, by association, as great as) as Alec Douglas-Home, Jim Callaghan, David Lloyd-George, Benjamin Disraeli, Ramsay Macdonald and Ted Heath.

This may well be the best conclusion, since we don’t have to do any historical research to verify it. Since they’re all shite, they all win. It’s like one of those sports days the Daily Mail hates.

You obviously cannot remember Thatcher.

Well, this one’s a twofer. Not only does it imply that memory is the key component in determining the worst ever (note: no history before c. 1910), it also plays the Maggie T card. Who was, as we all know, the worst/greatest heroine/traitor this glorious nation/run down sack of shit the world/Europe has ever seen/smelled.3

Not going to touch this with a ten foot barge pole. Except to say anyone who wins three consecutive elections, reforms the role of the state and became the first ever PM without a Y chromosome4 cannot be the worst ever. Sorry.

What utter nonsense. This paper is becoming unreadable.

Fair point. And this blog is going the same way. Apologies. I will return to “actual history” at some point in the near future.

By the way – if you have any nominations for the worst PM ever, do let me know by e-mail or in the comments section. The sillier the better.
  1. So much so, in fact, that I named all of my dwarves in Dwarf Fortress after PMs once, just so I could at least recognise the names.
  2. Names removed to protect the – well, let’s call them innocent.
  3. Delete as applicable.
  4. A fact both a) not verified by actual medical tests and b) reinforces the patriarchy’s binary, biologically deterministic views on gender politics.
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Charity is politics – only English “common sense” pretends otherwise


The claim by Brooks Newmark that charities should stick to knitting rather than politics was greeted with some rather amusing responses. But it betrayed two deeper elements of English politics. First, conservative (small c) Englishmen believe so uncritically that charity is somehow a neutral, apolitical beast. And second, a complete lack of understanding about the history of voluntarism in this country.

In an otherwise typically pompous and Self-righteous piece on language, Will Self made an important point about the English middle classes:

Orwell’s ideology is ineffably English, a belief in the inherent reasonableness, impartiality and common sense of a certain kind of clear-thinking, public-school-educated but widely experienced middle-class Englishman – an Englishman such as himself.

It’s by no means as pernicious an ideology as Ingsoc and its attendant newspeak, but it’s an ideology all the same.

Charity is one of those things that falls under “common sense”. Giving is good. But somehow this private act, conducted by associations of individuals in public, should remain outside the world of politics. We don’t even like it when charities get too close to business. Charities – that invisible hand of capitalism – are supposed to be this nation’s uncorrupted soul. Our apology for all that… unpleasantness.

Historically, this makes no sense. Changes in technology have given charitable organisation the ability to reach far more people than before. The rise of state provision in welfare and health has changed the domains in which charities operate. Without an element of professionalisation, it would be impossible for many organisations to operate; and since their work cannot happen without some state or business involvement, it is ridiculous to think they shouldn’t comment upon or try to steer government policy.

Larger national charities have always attempted to influence Whitehall and Westminster, but since the second world war there have been far more active lobby groups. Organisations such as the Child Poverty Action Group and the Disablement Income Group worked to improve the lives of people living in poverty. Their currency, however, was expertise. And while they raised significant sums to make a real difference on the ground, their real skill came in giving politicians the evidence and motivation to change government policy.

CPAG and DIG were directly involved in helping the DHSS of the 1960s and 1970s formulate the specifics of new policies. Today, Royal Commissions and government enquiries could not function without voluntary-sector input. It’s not just that these group lobby – the government requires them to do so.

Moreover, since the 1970s many have become reliant upon government grants (central and local) to survive. The economic downturn, combined with the hiving off of central services to third parties means that charities have become more and more intertwined with government policy. This has been true of governments of both hues. It seems absurd to ask those involved in providing state services to refrain from comment on said services.

What we have seen, however, is that many personalities in this government do not take criticism well. The Prime Minister has struggled to move “difficult” people on for fear that they might try to oust him, or that it would look like a damaging volte face. A lack of a majority means he has few options. And, indeed, the fact that only a minority of people actually voted for his party at the last election (a growing problem for both Labour and Conservatives with the rise of small parties and declining turnout) means that the majority of people are likely to take issue with his policies. Silencing a sector which has become an integral part of British social policy isn’t going to fix that.

Charity has never been apolitical. It is a political choice when we decide which sections of “the poor” are worthy of our help (veterans? disabled people? homeless?); when we decide what sorts of schools we want to fund (Eton? faith schools? Steiner?); whether to support hospitals or stray cats; global warming or teenage mothers; its all political. To pretend otherwise may be “ineffably English” – but it’s also a lie.

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Indulgences, Charity and Masturbating


Good. I have your attention.

There was an interesting article on VICE this week about “The Fappening”. For those who don’t know what that is, congratulations – you have managed to avoid yet another depressing internet story of misogyny and internet trolls. But please now allow me to disabuse you of your innocence.

The Fappening is a mix of “The Happening” (a horror film by M Night Shyamalan, rated 17% on Rotten Tomatoes) and “fap” meaning… well, check the title of this piece.

It refers to the leaked pictures of celebrities which were stolen by hackers and uploaded to the internet. But then things got weird(er). As Allegra Ringo, author of the VICE piece explains:

Within hours of the photos leaking, a subreddit devoted entirely to these nude photos had not only sprung up, but acquired over 100,000 subscribers. As of this writing, the subreddit had grown to over 140,000 subscribers. In many ways, these connoisseurs of fapping are behaving in ways you’d expect them to. They’re posting tons of celebrity nudes, desperately asking for verification on others, and doing the math on how much jizz has been expelled as a result of the celebrity photo leak. But these math-and-jizz-loving Redditors also have a surprising goal: to raise money for charity, and in the process, improve Reddit’s public image.

Do read the rest of the article, if only for fantastic neologisms such as “fappuccinos” and “fappingly”. Anyway, the interesting thing is that once the charities found out where the money had cum from, they declined it. It would appear that one cannot buy salvation for one’s crimes. Or something.

This is a long-standing issue with charity and donation. For many rich(er) people, public giving has often been a way of showing contrition, improving one’s image or as a form of “giving back” to a community. “Indulgences” in the medieval Catholic Church, for example, allowed people to donate significant sums to the Church in exchange for forgiveness from sin or bad behaviour.

Simple Google searches for “charity, donation, apology” reveal a number of organisations and people who have made a mea culpa by giving. Heat, for example, apologised to Katie Price by donating to a disability charity after mocking her disabled son.

Then there are the many industrialists in Georgian and Victorian England who presided over the slums and poverty of urban Britain but gave significant sums to erect public libraries, hospitals, mental health institutions and museums.

Of course, not all public giving is necessarily egotistical or an effort to right past wrongs. If nobody gave publicly, it is difficult to imagine how many charities would be able to “raise awareness” of their causes so effectively. Whatever one’s views on the Ice Bucket Challenge, it has certainly been an effective fund raiser, and at least a decent proportion of those involved will have learnt a little bit about motor neurone disease.

By the same token, there is a belief in society on some level that donation to charity is somehow unequivocally “good”. Regardless of cynicism about individual cases, there is something altruistic about the act of gift giving which can be used for political or social gain. Bad people don’t donated to charity.

It causes problems for charities too. They know that part of their allure is their ability to make people feel better about themselves, and (whether they want to admit it or not) they know that others use them to make themselves look better in the eyes of their peers. That is why it is often very interesting to see when charities actually say “no”, especially in times of economic restraint.

Historians of charity and voluntary action deal with these issues constantly. Just not necessarily with so much naked Jennifer Lawrence. The lack of neutrality in charitable donation is something we must always be aware of, while being careful not to descend into nihilistic cynicism. Charities can do a lot of good; but they are often inextricably linked to people who do a lot of the opposite.

Image from Wikicommons
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Beyond the Barriers – New Spartacus Report


The Spartacus group, which produced Responsible Reform, has just published its latest report on the Employment and Support Allowance.

Beyond the Barriers has taken evidence from around Europe, the results of the government’s own enquiries and some primary research of its own to produce a highly critical report. It suggests alternatives to the controversial Work Capability Assessments, and places the whole system in the context of the current labour market.

You can read the full report here.

I’d obviously encourage the politically engaged amongst you to read the report and spread the word as widely as possible. ESA and the WCA process are highly flawed. Trying to take a subjective concept such as “disability” and apply it to a rigid set of arbitrary medical measures was always going to be an issue. And it has been for a long time.

But since I’m not disabled and cannot even begin to fathom what the experience of going through a WCA is like (50% of respondents said that stress and fear were the worst parts of the process), I thought I’d retreat into my ivory tower and offer some historical perspective.

Spartacus & DIG

A lot of the tactics employed by Spartacus are reminiscent of the Disablement Income Group in the mid-1960s and early-1970s. The use of international comparisons, for example, is very DIG-esque. Back in 1971, DIG’s research into Western European benefits systems was so advanced, even the Department of Health and Social Security didn’t keep that sort of data.1 Of course, the rise of multiple international bodies (including the EU) since then has made governments much more aware of international comparisons. But the idea of ‘inspiring or shaming’ through showing how much greener the grass is on the continent is by no means a new tactic. For DIG, it was a rather successful one; the media coverage inspired the DHSS to set about conducting its own research, and by 1977 a whole host of new benefits for disabled people had been created.

DIG was also keen to use evidence from surveys of disabled people themselves. During the 1960s, there was no official category of “the disabled” or “disabled people”. Arguably, there still isn’t, but at least the government has developed ways of beginning to estimate the numbers of disabled people in the country. Until 1971, the United Kingdom had no published data on this at all. DIG was one of the few organisations that knew disabled people, where they lived, and the general problems they faced. As a result, it was actively consulted in helping to design a survey for the Office of Population and Census Studies.2 Not only did DIG know what questions to ask, it knew how to find whom to ask. Beyond the Barriers employs a similar methodology, building on the analytical work conducted in earlier research projects.

What Spartacus has done with the wider social questions, however, is much more advanced than anything DIG attempted. Developments in disability studies, rights legislation and the faltering economy have all helped; but the critique of the labour market as inherently discriminatory against disabled people is pretty radical. Certainly DIG would have trouble making these arguments in a pre-Thatcher, “full-employment” interventionist welfare state. Indeed, Spartacus has been able to take current workplace initiatives such as work placements and explain how and why they currently fail to produce any meaningful results. DIG did make compelling arguments about how disabled people earn less, are more likely to be unemployed and are more likely to incur extra costs (the basis of today’s disability benefit coverage). But this report takes things much further by making concrete suggestions about how these sorts of barriers might be overcome.

One key continuity remains. DIG was always focused on democratic, gradual reform. It did not demand revolution, or for solutions to be created overnight. Instead, it always pushed for incremental improvements in the level of services, pushing towards an “ideal type” National Disability Income. Spartacus is certainly strident in its demands; but there are a set of ‘Interim Recommendations’ which are practicable in the limbo between the current situation and a more appealing future. This kind of reform has its drawbacks; but it certainly cannot be thought of as unreasonable and unthinking. DIG was able to secure a number of reforms over the course of around 15 years through this sort of campaigning. At the same time, more radical groups always felt that such compromises were more damaging in the long term. This is a debate that will probably never be resolved.


So, again, do spread the word about the report. It’s certainly for a good cause. Given this government has already ignored court rulings that their policies contravene the Equalities Act, these sorts of well-presented, well-researched and professional-quality reports are exactly what opposition politicians and journalists need to tackle injustice.

If you would like to contact the report’s authors, they can be found through @SpartacusReport.
  1. Hampton, Jameel, ‘Disabled People and the Classic Welfare State, 1948-1975: Changes in Perception, Developments in Policy’, PhD thesis, University of Bristol, 2011, esp 134-6.
  2. Harris, Amelia I., Handicapped and impaired in Great Britain (London: H.M.S.O., 1971).
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Co-operation or conflict – how best to tackle injustice?


A few weeks ago, I came across a statement from a disability organisation, furious about cuts to the Independent Living Fund. The Disabled People Against the Cuts (DPAC) coalition appears to have gained quite a lot of traction in recent years through social media. But its tone has always worried and fascinated me in equal measure. Is insulting the people whose behaviour you want to reform really the best way to go?

First of all, a whole bunch of caveats are probably necessary. I am not (yet) disabled. I am not part of any disability charity or lobbying organisations. I am not affected by the closure of the ILF, nor is anyone I know personally. It is not my place to tell disabled people how angry they should be or how they choose to express their dissatisfaction with current or past governments.

As a historian, however, I am interested in the age-old argument about whether to compromise with those in power or to attack them head on. A sort of a Communist versus Social Democrat angle. Does gradual reform lead to fudged policies which maintain unequal power structures? Does more revolutionary behaviour cause resentment and backlash? It’s not an easy question to answer. Indeed, it’s one that the disability lobby has had to fight for a very long time.

When the Disablement Income Group (DIG) was formed in 1965, it very deliberately tried to work alongside the British government to secure the first disability benefits. In that sense, it worked – gradually reforming the existing social security structure to provide for disabled people’s needs. At the same time, the power structures which discriminated against disabled people were not brought down, limiting the sort of radical reform that may have helped even more people in the long term.

The Disability Alliance (DA), created in 1974, attempted to be more strident with the government. Even more radical was the British Council of Organisations of Disabled People, a coalition of groups run by disabled people themselves campaigning for an end to discrimination. Over the years it has been groups like DIG, DA and the Royal Association for Disability and Rehabilitation (RADAR, 1977) who have gained more attention from and access to those in power; but it has been the BCODPs of this world that have more effectively argued the political case for why and how disabled people are disadvantaged in non-disabled society.

Quite understandably, groups like BCODP, and now DPAC, have been angry at the way “respectable” organisations have collaborated with governments of all colours – what gave them the right to speak on disabled people’s behalf, especially when many of them are run by non-disabled people? By the same token, the DPAC statement has some interesting language choices within:

  • “Tory government”
  • An “ideologically driven attack on the quality of life of all but the richest UK citizens”
  • “The manifest sadism of a government bent on imposing destitution and despair on the populace”

It’s hard to disagree with the sentiments. (As an academic leftie. Right on.) But the language seems reminiscent of sixth form student activism rather than mature discussion. Of course, this could well be the point – by dressing up language to please those in power, you end up becoming complicit in the very structures you hope to tear down. Moreover, why shouldn’t anger be expressed? Some of what the government is doing right now should drive people to emotional outbursts. But is it a good campaigning strategy?

Ultimately, as Mike Oliver said in 1991:

It is perhaps ironic that many of us spent the 1970s criticising the welfare state, only to find that these arguments were built upon and taken much further by a government determined to reduce state expenditure. Consequently, we spent the 1980s defending what we had previously attacked. In sum, we defended the indefensible and I do not propose to spend the 1990s doing the same.1

With a government seemingly ideologically opposed to you, is there much point in trying to talk to them? If your arguments can be used against you, and there is little prospect of genuine reform, why bother trying to look “respectable”?

This isn’t really a question that can be answered – certainly not by an outsider. But it’s the kind of thing I like to think about. Is there a point at which being “professional” and “reasonable” isn’t so reasonable after all?

  1. Mike Oliver, ‘Speaking out: Disabled people and state welfare’, in Gillian Dalley (ed.), Disability and Social Policy (London: Policy Studies Institute, 1991), 156.
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Dyslexia and diagnosis


Richard Crossman told Alf Morris that he couldn’t put dyslexia provision in his Private Member’s Bill because it didn’t exist. “Well then”, said Morris, “it won’t cost you anything, will it.”1

Yesterday, the authors of The Dyslexia Debate appeared to back up Crossman, albeit 45 years later.2 But that would be to misunderstand the historical context of the debate, and the cultural meaning ascribed to people with reading difficulties.

It was not uncommon even when I was a child to hear that dyslexia wasn’t real – it was just a fancy medical term for kids who were thick. The attitude still resonates today, and overlooks the fact that, while most people on the planet find it relatively easy to learn how to read, many do not. As societies became more literate, their economies relied on people who could read and write to operate machinery and keep bureaucracies running. Almost every form of art, employment and pastime in the Western World involves some form of reading comprehension. For those who cannot, the rise of the internet is actually a disabling thing, not a liberator.

So, if society doesn’t find ways of reaching those who might take longer or more help to read, those children will be at a monumental disadvantage in life. They will be far more likely to be unemployed, impoverished, and with that subject to ill health and more likely to commit criminal offences.

What appears to be going on here, however, is the idea that dyslexia need to be “de-medicalised”. Rather than requiring a diagnosis before anyone will act, all people, regardless of their ability to find a medical certificate, ought to be helped if they struggle with literacy.

The reason dyslexia is so pervasive – and why parents go to such great lengths to get their children diagnosed – is because of the way bureaucracies deal with numbers. Until dyslexia could be diagnosed, there was little quantifiable, objective evidence to suggest more resources needed to be pushed towards special needs education. It is still the case that often a parent will need to prove their child needs help until they can secure it.

We now live in a world where the vast majority of those in an educational setting understand that some children require extra help. A number of symptoms are broadly lumped together as “dyslexia”, and so this is how we have come to understand the problem. Like many disability policies, however, a general policy of inclusion and access can help people without the need to constantly medicalise and label. Ramps into Post Offices help anyone who has difficulty walking, from the wheelchair user to the woman with a slight limp to the father with a pushchair. Similarly, automatically providing help to any child who struggles with reading would help raise literacy standards without the need to get a doctor’s certificate. By disaggregating “dyslexia”, educators can focus on the specific needs of the child based on their knowledge of the child’s abilities. Reading difficulties remain very real, even if “dyslexia” isn’t.

Unfortunately, these sorts of nuanced arguments very often get twisted. No doubt someone will use this to “prove” that there’s no such thing as dyslexia and will cut funding to dyslexia initiatives. Without diagnoses, people will argue that the real need is either unquantifiable or non-existent, and so reading schemes will not receive the funding they require. In a neo-liberal world based on targets and quotas, it may well be that we need “dyslexia” as a tool to ensure at least some children get the help they need. Whether it’s “made up” or not.

See also the BBC news item on this.

Image courtesy of Wikicommons.
  1. Paraphrase. See Derek Kinrade, Alf Morris, People’s Parliamentarian (London : National Information Forum, 2007).
  2. The term ‘dyslexia’ is unscientific and misleading and should be abandoned, according to new book‘, Durham University, 26 February 2014 (accessed 27 February 2014).
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Dominic Sandbrook and questionable history – the sixties and the Daily Mail


Reading the Daily Mail can, obviously, be bad for one’s health. But recently I was directed to a piece by a Conservative-supporting Facebook friend of mine condemning the legacy of Labour in the 1960s. Pretty normal for the Mail, of course, and nothing new from Sandbrook. However, his basic conclusion – that the use of experts in the 1960s ruined Britain – is a little difficult to swallow unless one deliberately distorts history to justify the neo-liberal turn of the late 1970s.

To start, I would point people to Anthony Seldon’s work on the post-war period if they’re after a less partisan, Conservative (big and little “c”) account.1 As he points out, historical reviews of Harold Wilson (Prime Minister 1964-1970 and again 1974-1976) and Ted Heath (1970-1974) have overtly blamed the 1960s and 1970s for destroying Britain. It’s not difficult to see why. For the Conservatives, it becomes easier to justify the radical and decidedly un-conservative politics of the Thatcherites if Keynes’s poster children are painted as incompetent monsters.2 Similarly, New Labour required the failure of the 1970s to justify policies which abandoned “socialism” and nationalisation of industry.

The 1960s are just… well… a little less interesting than that. Undoubtedly, Labour had problems with the economy, many of their own making.3 The poor response to the sterling crises created problems with inflation, and economic grown was uneven (despite being on a generally good positive trend). Heath also had issues in the 1970s, forcing him to abandon his more hard-line economically liberal policies.4 Heath’s three-day week and Callaghan’s Winter of Discontent signalled the crisis of Keynesianism which allowed Thatcher to present the British electorate with an alternative. The blame obviously lay at the feet of those “liberals” who demanded the death penalty be repealed; who built Milton Keynes; who tried to plan the economy.

Harold Wilson, Prime Minister 1964-70, 1974-76.

Harold Wilson reflected his times. Sandbrook’s insinuations that it was his government and party that ruined Britain ring hollow. Image from Wikicommons.

Sandbrook’s main ire (aside from his typical Daily Mail disdain for women getting access to birth control, young people taking drugs and boys with long hair) is, however, reserved for “the expert”.5 Of course, this was not a Labour invention. It wasn’t even an invention of the 1960s. The rise of the expert is a phenomenon seen in British politics from at least the Second World War. Indeed, the War was apparently won (even by the Daily Mail’s standards) by experts at Bletchley Park, canny radar operators, and the great civil servants who planned the wartime economy and kept us all calm while we carried on. Expertise is not, in itself, a problem. Indeed, as the world became an increasingly globalised and complicated place, it was the experts that made sense of the machines and administrative departments that controlled our lives.

Harold Macmillan’s Public Expenditure Survey Committee looked to harness this new spirit of planning to help direct the economy. Wilson had his own visions for the Civil Service as he looked to wrest it from the control of public school boys with Oxbridge humanities degrees and put it in the hands of people with genuine academic and practical experience. Heath updated PESC with his own Programme and Analysis Review. Planning wasn’t Labour’s brain child; it was set up and actively pursued by Conservative politicians. Macmillan and Heath have been accused of many things, but I don’t think “socialist” can be said to be one of them.

Indeed, Margaret Thatcher was also big on planning; albeit with a different set of “experts”. For it seemed that “academics” and “professionals” served only their own interests. But the world of business could be trusted to have the economy’s (and therefore the people’s) best interests at heart. While Brian Abel-Smith6 was a communist evil trying to make the health service a monolithic money sink, Derek Rayner7 was a knight (literally) in shining armour (not literally) looking to slash expenditure. Under Thatcher, health service targets, the national curriculum and league tables reduced autonomous professionals to disciplined workers. Whether these genuinely raised standards or cut costs is immaterial – this was the basis for the Thatcherite revolution, and the one that has been seized upon by all governments since.

In any case, the overall point is that to blame Labour for either a) introducing this mindset or b) exacerbating it makes no sense. It was Conservative governments that did both. It is intriguing, therefore, that Sandbrook uses Wilson and Crosland as his poster children, and focuses predominantly on the 1964-70 governments. It’s almost as if he has an agenda(!).

But, of course, “the death penalty”. The imposition. The anti-democratic attempt to destroy law and order and British tradition. Well, the problem was that the British people continued to support people who wanted to make the world a better place. Regardless of whether presentist readings agree, the general attitude of the 1960s was one of (tempered) optimism for a better tomorrow. Repealing the death penalty was the result of a decades-long campaign, and a Private Member’s Bill (i.e. NOT the government) from a Labour MP.8 At the same time, abortion controls were relaxed (another Private Member’s Bill, this time a Liberal),9 and homosexual sex was legalised (oops – this one was a Bill by a Tory).10 And then you have divorce law reform, gender and race equality legislation… The filthy liberals were everywhere, even in the Conservative Party. Was this because Westminster hated the people, or because Westminster reflected the general attitude of the times? Either way, it doesn’t suit the Daily Mail narrative to consider this.

Professionals and experts do have a tendency to go looking for problems to fix to justify their continued existence. We have rightly grown to question and hold accountable those who offer us solutions to our problems. However, the world is a very complicated place as a result of advances in technology and our ability to handle vast amounts of information. The simple fact is, most of us don’t know how to educate our children; we don’t know how to administer a social security system; we don’t know the really effective ways to reduce crime; we don’t know how to run a hospital, perform organ transplants or develop new cures for diseases.

We may have anecdotal evidence or passing experience in these areas. But just because we think Latin will make our kids smarter, private companies will run jails better or cutting benefits will make our poor work harder doesn’t mean we’re right. The experts don’t hold all the answers. They can tend to live in a vacuum which means they ignore knock-on effects in other services. But it also doesn’t mean we should ignore their advice or warnings simply because it conflicts with how we want to see the world. How the Daily Mail has ruined Britain is by convincing us to believe in superstition dressed up as “common sense” at the expense of people who actually know what they’re doing.

Images courtesy of Wikicommons.
  1. See Anthony Seldon and Kevin Hickson (London: Routledge, 2004); The Heath Government, ed. Stuart Ball and Anthony Seldon (London: Longman, 1996).
  2. Anthony Seldon, “The Heath government in history,” in The Heath Government, ed. Stuart Ball and Anthony Seldon (London: Longman, 1996), pp. 12-14.
  3. Stephen Thornton, “A Case of Confusion and Incoherence: Social Security under Wilson, 1964–70,” Contemporary British History 20, no. 3 (2006): pp. 454-55.
  4. Michael A. Young, “The One Nation Government,” Contemporary Record 3, no. 2 (1989): p. 26.
  5. Hilton, Matthew Mouhot Jean-François, The politics of expertise : how NGOs shaped modern Britain (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013).
  6. A professor of Social Administration, and part of a group at the London School of Economics that helped Labour plan their reforms of social services from the 1950s onwards. Along with Peter Townsend, Richard Titmuss and others, they were highly respected left-wing academics by both major parties. They were, perhaps, forerunners of the “SPAD” (special advisers) which are now a common route to becoming an MP and front bencher. David Cameron, for example, was a SPAD in the Treasury.
  7. CEO of Marks and Spencer. Thatcher felt that business leaders knew how to reform services to make them more cost efficient. Rayner’s first task was to review manpower in the government, and he recommended reducing the number of researchers in Whitehall. Conservative-approved think tanks picked up the slack, producing reports that were more favourable to the government. To be fair to Thatcher, she was not the first post-war Prime Minister who had justified concern that the Civil Service was too conservative to make genuinely radical reforms. Wilson had a similar attitude.
  8. Sidney Silverman. See Murder (Abolition of Death Penalty) Act 1965. Second reading debate HC deb 21 December 1964 vol. 704 cc. 870-1010.
  9. David Steel. See Abortion Act 1967. Second reading debate HC 22 July 1966 vol. 732 cc. 1067-1165
  10. Humphry Berkeley. See Sexual Offences Act 1967. Second reading debate HC Deb 11 February 1966 vol. 724 cc. 782-874.
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