James Roberts: Johnson and Sunak shouldn’t kid themselves. Voters are not impressed by astronomical tax bills.

31 Jan

James Roberts is political director of the TaxPayers’ Alliance.

In their joint piece for yesterday’s Sunday Times, the Prime Minister and Chancellor declared themselves “tax-cutting Conservatives” and simultaneously confirmed that they planned to hike taxes to the highest level since Clement Attlee.

Perhaps this is a reflection of the new political map of Britain. The 2019 general election brought traditional Tory areas and former Labour seats in the “Red Wall” under one roof. Off the back of his promise to “level up” the regions, perhaps Boris Johnson has calculated that this requires greater public investment and Brits can afford higher taxes to pay for it. But nothing could be further from the truth.

Taxpayers, regardless of where they live, don’t want to pay more. As figures released today by the TaxPayers’ Alliance show, the average household can already expect to pay over £1.1 million in tax over their lifetimes. They’ll pay nearly £480,000 in income tax and £190,000 in VAT. Far from being a tax-cutting government, this is one which is seeing typical families across the UK becoming tax millionaires.

This isn’t just a problem for the so-called affluent Tory heartlands. The bottom 20 per cent of earners need to work almost 24 years to pay off their £450,000 tax bill – more than half their working lives. This is the group who will be hit hardest by rising energy prices and the wider cost of living crisis. Many of them will have voted Conservative in 2019 for the first time, for a manifesto which promised not to increase income tax, national insurance, and VAT.

Yet it’s under the Conservatives that we have seen the biggest increases in the lifetime tax burden. It has risen by almost £350,000 for the average household since 2015-16, compared to a rise of £250,000 between 1999-2000 and 2015-16. Since 1977, the amount of tax you’ll pay in your life has doubled in real terms.

And this is all before the impact of the national insurance rise is felt. Add in corporation tax hikes, council tax increases and fiscal drag from frozen income tax thresholds and it means that things will likely get worse. While Johnson and Rishi Sunak have claimed they are low-taxers at heart, ordinary families who are now tax millionaires will find it increasingly difficult to believe.

Politicians are stretching their credibility on tax policy to breaking point. Breaking the pledge on national insurance, to throw money at an unreformed health and social care system, won’t please anyone. Polling from Public First’s James Frayne, columnist for this site, has shown that Conservatives are losing their reputation for keeping taxes low. More working-class voters consider the national insurance rise to be unfair than fair.

And it’s easy to see why. Someone currently earning £15,000 pays £652 of it in national insurance. With the 1.25 percentage point increase this will rise by £68 to £720, an effective rise in how much taxpayers will be paying of more than 10 per cent. So, with a cost of living crisis, the government has decided now is the time to accelerate the tax burden toward a 70-year high and lump low paid workers with an even bigger tax bill.

Despairing Conservatives may well wonder what the alternative could be. How can politicians guarantee investment while keeping their promises of keeping taxes low? Well let’s remember that when it comes to fiscal discipline, there are two sides to the ledger. As the country emerges from Covid, there could not be a more appropriate time for addressing public spending and refocusing funds on areas where they are most needed. Save to spend, if you will.

Much tougher action is needed to root out waste, reform service delivery and get value for taxpayers’ money. Heed Lord Agnew’s call to take waste seriously. Establish a Parliamentary Budget Committee to assess spending before it happens, rather than just hearing in detail afterwards how money was wasted. End national pay bargaining, address excessive public sector pay and – if they insist on working from home – end the London weighting for Whitehall civil servants. Defund the ridiculous schemes and the wasteful quangos, like the Arts Council. Reform pensioner benefits. And yes, properly cut foreign aid. The list goes on.

But don’t pretend raising the lifetime tax bill further is the only option. One sure way for Johnson, or any future leader of the Conservatives, to keep the new Tory coalition together would be to let taxpayers keep more of their own hard-earned money.

Daniel Hannan: Where is the money coming from? The question that Conservatives don’t know how to answer.

27 Oct

Lord Hannan of Kingsclere is a Conservative peer, writer and columnist. He was a Conservative MEP from 1999 to 2020, and is now President of the Initiative for Free Trade.

Alright, but where is the money coming from? I know that’s considered an indelicate question these days. Politicians don’t like to ask it, for fear of coming across as Scrooges. But it isn’t their own dosh they’re talking about, for Heaven’s sake. The debts they are running up will fall on all of us – including those our national poet called “your children yet unborn and unbegot”.

Billions have already been briefed in advance of today’s budget, as if Britain were a country with a healthy budget surplus. Five hundred and sixty million pounds to improve adult maths skills, £170 million extra for apprenticeships, £355 million more for improved street lighting and CCTV, £628 million in border technology and an eye-watering £7 billion on transport projects outside London.

Individually, each of these items might be defensible. But – again, I don’t like coming across as a miser, but someone has to say it – we are already spending and taxing at record levels. The state is spending a trillion pounds a year: two million pounds a minute. As Harry Phibbs reminded ConHome readers the other day, public expenditure has risen to a staggering 46.5 per cent of GDP.

Yes, the pandemic was a one-off challenge. Almost all free-marketeers understood that, and acquiesced in levels of emergency expenditure that they would never normally have countenanced. But that is not what we are talking about now. These are not spending rises caused by the epidemic or by the shutdowns. Those – the furlough, the emergency grants to businesses and so on – can reasonably be treated like a war debt, to be paid off over many decades. No, this is something else: a generalised and permanent increase in the size of the state, unrelated to the recent crisis.

Even when it comes to healthcare, we are way past contingency spending. The NHS was recently awarded an extra £36 billion in the last three-year settlement, but is reportedly in line for more than £4 billion more to pay for digitisation. By 2025, the NHS will account for fully 40 per cent of all government spending, up from 28 per cent in 2005. Britain is well on the way to becoming a healthcare system with a government attached.

At the same time, we are promised significant hikes in public sector pay and in the minimum wage. Once more – sorry to be a bore – where is the money coming from? Real wages tend to rise over time as technology advances and productivity improves. But simply decreeing higher wages, Ceausescu-like, does not make a country wealthier; it pushes up inflation. We are now hearing a deranged argument to the effect that higher wages are needed to pay for rising prices. Do I really need to spell out where that ends?

None of this profligacy is the result of Covid-19 – not directly, at any rate. There are, though, two ways in which the epidemic has indirectly altered the terms of the debate. First, and most obviously, it has blasted away our pre-2020 notions of proportionality. When a government is conjuring hundreds of billions of pounds into existence through quantitative easing and spending it furiously in emergency grants and subsidies, it becomes much harder to question hundreds of millions – vast sums by any normal reckoning – allocated to transport, policing or whatever.

Second, as this column has been glumly observing these past 19 months, the epidemic has altered our brain chemistry. Behavioural psychologists have long observed that wars, natural disasters and other collective threats make people more authoritarian, less tolerant of dissent, more demanding of the smack of firm government. Hence the overwhelming support for almost every lockdown measure, regardless of how founded it was in science. And hence the rise in support for a big state.

I have previously drawn a pessimistic parallel with 1945, when the authorities proved reluctant to let go of powers they had seized on a supposedly wartime basis. Identity cards remained until 1952, rationing until 1954, conscription until 1960 and most of the economic controls until the 1980s – not because voters were prepared to put up with them, but because voters actively demanded them.

There is another melancholy parallel to be drawn with 1945. Then, as now, there was a huge mismatch between what the nation could afford and what the electorate felt it had earned through its privations. Then, as now, the national debt was colossal (it is currently around 100 per cent of GDP). Then, as now, the recent trauma had engendered a collectivist mood. In 1945, it found expression through the creation of a monolithic welfare state. In 2021, it takes the form of public sector pay rises, nationalisations and industrial strategies.

In the short term, these things are very popular. Even in the longer term, they do little harm to their authors’ reputations. Clement Attlee is remembered as the man who gave poor people a safety net, not as the man whose nationalised behemoths eventually led to the collapse of the 1970s. There is a deal of ruin in a nation.

I don’t doubt Attlee’s decency. He believed he was spreading opportunity to those who had never had a chance. The trouble is that his reforms were not affordable in a state which had just emptied its treasury in the struggle against Nazism. Subsequent governments sought to inflate the debts away, with a catastrophic effect on our national competitiveness. Not until the Thatcher reforms was our decline arrested.

Just as Attlee had set his heart on state-funded health and welfare systems, so Boris had set his on some gargantuan government-led projects: levelling up, the nationalised financing of social care, big infrastructure schemes, net zero. Neither PM had the money to do the things he wanted. But, with the electorate demanding more government, it is always easier to spend today and let others worry about the bill.

For the avoidance of doubt, I want Britain to be a high-skills, high-wage economy. Who doesn’t? I want us to have first-class public services. Who doesn’t? The question is how to pay for these things. Do we gouge a chunk of revenue out of the private sector now, thereby shrinking our economy overall? Or do we try to ensure that GDP grows so that wages rise naturally and there is plentiful revenue for the Treasury?

Margaret Thatcher knew the answer. Contrary to widespread belief, overall public spending rose in every year that she led the government. But she ensured that the economy grew faster than the government. So while public spending fell in proportionate terms, it rose in absolute terms. Every leading member of the present government lived through that era. They know that her approach worked. How sad that they seem too scared to copy it.

David Lidington: There’s no alternative to our American alliance. But we also need a new strategic relationship with our European allies.

27 Aug

David Lidington is a former Cabinet Minister and Europe Minister. He is Chair of the Royal United Services Institution (RUSI), and of the Conservative Group for Europe (CGE).

This week at Kabul airport we have seen human nature both at its most heroic, in the risks taken by our servicemen and women to help thousands of Afghans fleeing persecution, and at its most depraved, in the merciless slaughter of innocents by suicide bombers.

Those appalling scenes ram home the cruel truth that we, the West, have suffered a major defeat. The return of the Taliban is a humiliation for the United States and its NATO allies, including our own country. Jihadist networks, not only Isis-K but their counterparts in Africa, South-East Asia, the Middle East and in our own cities will take fresh heart. Russia, China and Iran will interpret the debacle in Kabul as further evidence of Western decadence and decline and see opportunities to expand their influence in the world.

Unsurprisingly, defeat in Afghanistan has sent a wave of shock and anger through the British political and media worlds. In particular, recriminations over Joe Biden’s decision to act unilaterally and his scant consultation with coalition allies have gone way beyond the normal language of diplomatic relations. One or two Ministers, who under the cloak of anonymity have bandied around not just vituperative language about the United States but personal insults at Biden, need to be reminded that the burdens of high office include sometimes having to bite your tongue when matters involving the national interest are at stake.

While it is right that this strategic reverse should prompt a hard look at its lessons for our foreign and security policy, it would be a mistake to think that every assumption about the UK’s place in the world has been overthrown.

The fundamental conclusions of the Government’s Integrated Review seem to me still to hold good. Russia is a potent threat to the security of this country and the continent of which we are part. China is both a strategic rival to the West and in some respects an unavoidable partner. Our military strength and our resilience to security threats depends on us being able to renew our capacity for technological innovation. The United Kingdom is a European power with a global outlook and global interests. The alliance with the United States is essential to our own national security.

Policy should include a measured tilt to the Indo-Pacific, doing more with countries like Japan, Australia and South Korea, while continuing to direct the great majority of our security resources and attention to the Euro-Atlantic, working with our allies in Europe and North America. Soft and hard power complement one another and both are important in defending and advancing our interests.

The missing element is a clear strategic plan to act on those conclusions. In this short space, I want to make just two points.

First, that plan should start with a clear-eyed view of our relationship with the United States.

Walk down Bond Street in the West End and you come across a remarkable pair of statues: Winston Churchill and Franklin D Roosevelt sitting on a wooden bench. The two men are presented as if in the middle of a relaxed, jovial conversation, the sculptor’s art conveying an impression of mutual trust, friendship and goodwill. The work is entitled “Allies”.

Far too often, British politicians and journalists have fallen for the beguiling romance that this work of art represents, and overlooked the reality that there have been freqtuent clashes of interest and opinion. FDR drove a hard bargain over lend-lease. Truman refused to do Attlee any favours over Britain’s war debts. Eisenhower humiliated Britain and France over Suez. Harold Wilson refused to send troops to Vietnam. Ronald Reagan sent US forces into Grenada without even telling Margaret Thatcher.

What President Biden’s recent decisions have shown is that “America First” has outlived Donald Trump. It’s not isolationism, but rather a rigorous and ruthless focus on what the White House considers to be the key national interests of the United States and a readiness to dispense with other commitments. We’ve seen it in the shift of American priorities towards the Indo-Pacific under both Democrat and Republican presidents, when Barack Obama insisted that France and the UK take political responsibility for the action in Libya in 2011 and now in Kandahar and Kabul.

The lesson for policymakers in London is not that we should look for an alternative to the US alliance. There isn’t one. No other country or grouping in the democratic world has the concentration of economic and military power of Washington. But Britain, like the rest of Europe, is going to have to work harder to prove to US politicians and the voters they represent that they should see the security of our region as part of the essential national interest of the American people.

Britain’s military and security relationships with the US functioned even during the worst turbulence of the Trump years. The Americans recognise that the UK brings things to the table that they value: our intelligence agencies, special forces, nuclear submarines and not just armed forces but a willingness to deploy them. We need to keep those relationships in the best possible state of repair and at the same time redouble diplomatic efforts to show how important American interests depend on the security of Europe.

Second, we need to establish a new strategic partnership with our European neighbours. We can and should work with like-minded nations around the world, but that should be additional to and not a substitute for an effective alliance with the democracies next door. This is important for two reasons.

The first is that it is greater capability and a greater willingness to act on the part of the European pillar of the Atlantic alliance that could give us the choice of taking an initiative when the United States does not want to be involved. And second, Washington not only wants its European allies to spend more on defence and security, but for them to show greater leadership in parts of the world: Africa, the Western Balkans and Eastern Europe, which America now treats as at most secondary to its strategic rivalry with China.

A lot can be done through NATO structures like the Northern Group that brings together the NATO members and partner countries that border the Baltic and the North Sea, and through bilateral partnerships like the E3 grouping of France, Germany and the UK. Britain is party too to the European Intervention Initiative that brings together EU and non-EU countries.

But as governments in Paris, Berlin and elsewhere keep saying, there also needs to be a new, constructive strategic relationship between the UK and the European Union. In part, that’s because even the big member states think and work in the EU context, seeking to influence and being influenced by EU discussions on foreign and security policy, and also because many of the key levers of soft power: development aid, state capacity building, military and police training, peacekeeping missions lie at EU level.

To make a reality of the slogan “Global Britain” requires us to accept that we need to work with allies, and that we need strong, strategic relationships on both sides of the Atlantic.

Duncan Simpson: With the Covid bill standing at £372 billion, the Government’s spending spree looks increasingly unsustainable

26 Jul

Duncan Simpson is Research Director at the Taxpayers Alliance.

Two recent reports from the public accounts committee should give politicians plenty of food for thought over recess. The first looks at the expenditures associated with Covid-19 (whose lifetime costs are now expected to reach £372 billion).

The difference between the outlays already made (such as for the furlough scheme) and those expected to be made in the future can partially be explained by the liabilities that taxpayers might face for commercial loans backed by the Government. The committee was “alarmed to learn” that of the £92 billion worth of loans guaranteed by the HM Treasury, £26 billion might not be paid back.

Separately, the committee has also shed some light on the procurement of personal protective equipment. The committee identified waste levels as being “unacceptably high”, with £2.1 billion worth of items being unsuitable for medical settings. Fast decisions are crucial in a crisis, but bad decisions leave taxpayers shortchanged.

When you put the PAC reports into the wider context of the public finances, things get even more alarming. Public sector national debt stood at £2.2 trillion in May 2021 – or just under 100 per cent of GDP. That’s the highest level it’s been since March 1961.

Quantitative easing – the Bank of England bond-buying programme – has now grown to £0.9 trillion. The House of Lords economic affairs committee recently noted that “no central bank has managed successfully to reverse its asset purchases over the medium to long-term, and the key issue as they look to halt or reverse quantitative easing is whether it will trigger panic in financial markets that spills over into the real economy.” If we weren’t into the unknown before Covid-19, we very much are now.

There is some reasonably good news on the debt stock, however. The UK’s gilts are much longer-dated than many other advanced economies: just shy of 60 per cent of those in issue (excluding index-linked bonds) don’t mature for at least another seven years. This means that the Government is relatively unaffected by short-term interest rate increases. And since advanced economies’ central banks have not indicated any sharp ratcheting up of rates, this could well provide (some) welcome respite.

Inflation, however, could throw a spanner in the works. The main measure of inflation – CPIH – was last this high in February 2018. If this trend continues, higher general prices could well force the Bank of England into tighter monetary policy. This will make both debt servicing and government spending plans harder still.

But the big policy debates leave even more dark clouds on the horizon. Much of Westminster seems hell bent on pursuing net zero without considering the costs. What this will likely entail is a whacking up of families’ outgoings.

For instance, one potential plan to prohibit the sale of gas boilers – thereby eventually forcing most households to switch to heat pump alternatives – could cost between £6,000 and £18,000 apiece. A standard gas boiler retails for around £2,000. The well-heeled don’t seem to appreciate the everyday pressures on their finances that most households face.

Equally, banning the sale of petrol and diesel cars by 2030 could cost families dear. The market for electric vehicles will of course grow and the costs come down as new models and competitors enter the market.

Likewise, many US car manufacturers have seen the writing on the wall and have all but stopped research and development into new internal combustion engines. But again, the thought of coughing up for a new motor will rightly worry millions of Britons. After all, 61 per cent of journeys were still undertaken by car in England during 2019.

Levelling up too presents risks to taxpayers. Though still quite ill-defined (something to do with being near a football pitch, I think), plans to increase investment spending are eye-popping.

Forecasts from the Office for Budget Responsibility show that public sector net investment will reach £70 billion by the end of this parliament. In real terms, it will have increased by two thirds in ten years. Relative to the size of the economy, that is the same as the heady, free market paradise that was Jim Callaghan’s administration or the final year of Clement Attlee’s.

When you mix together Covid spending, a large and growing debt stock, quantitative easing, potential inflation risks and enormous spending commitments, the Government’s future choices risk putting taxpayers onto an even more unsustainable footing than they currently are on.

And politics is all about choices. Some of them are difficult, but taking the easy route – spending lots of money you don’t have – can vanquish a reputation for economic competence.

So the Government must be upfront about the trade-offs in its policy programme. It should also be responsible. Perhaps it’s an excellent idea to embark on an infrastructure spending programme; but we need to hear more about where the Government will save money to pay for it, instead of endlessly raiding taxpayers’ pockets for more cash when the tax burden is already at a 70-year high.

The Comprehensive Spending Review in November gives the government a chance to do exactly that.

John O’Connell: Presiding over the biggest tax burden in 70 years is surely a legacy Johnson must be keen to avoid

2 Feb

John O’Connell is the Chief Executive of the Taxpayers’ Alliance.

Boris Johnson is an admirer of Winston Churchill, to put it mildly. Churchill has a wartime legacy that Johnson knows he can’t match, but it’s hardly a secret the Prime Minister himself wishes to be remembered through the ages. He’s now tackling a once-in-a-generation crisis. But there is a little-known achievement of Churchill’s post-war administration which Johnson should try harder to emulate.

New research from the TaxPayers’ Alliance finds that the tax burden now stands at its highest sustained level – based on a five-year average – since 1951, when the UK was still demilitarising after the second world war. This was a level which Churchill was determined to cut, explaining in his election manifesto of that year that “British taxation is higher than in any country outside the Communist world.”

These are different times, but presiding over the biggest tax burden in 70 years is surely a legacy Johnson must be keen to avoid. The tax burden next year will be an estimated 34.2 per cent as a share of GDP. That will be the highest single year score since 1969-70, when a rise in consumption taxes to discourage imports at a time of foreign exchange difficulties saw a one-off spike during the last full year of the second premiership of Harold Wilson. In the first year free of the European Union, we are paying as much tax as we did in the years just before we joined.

Repairing the public finances after the hammerblow of Covid doesn’t have to mean tax increases. The objective for Johnson – and Rishi Sunak, of course – should be to create the conditions for a boom in growth. That means giving the private sector – currently on its knees – the room to stand tall. With that will come investment, growth and jobs.

But official forecasts say that the Prime Minister will be levying taxes at levels likely to be higher than they have been since Clement Attlee. Any tax rises in the March Budget will put that figure even higher.

Traditionally, increasing taxes is the hallmark of Labour prime ministers and this is then countered by their Tory successors. Churchill’s encore administration shaved off 4.5 percentage points from the tax burden following the Attlee years, before Heath arrived in the shadow of Wilson and reduced taxes by another 3.9 percentage points. Margaret Thatcher sliced off another 0.8.

These assumptions can no longer be taken for granted. Since Thatcher departed, when the tax burden was at left at 30.4 per cent, Tory tax cuts have been negligible and the burden has ratcheted up. During Churchill’s post-war government, taxes were lower than they have been under each of the last three Conservative prime ministers. Gordon Brown cut the tax burden more in his three years than they’ve managed in eleven.

Some might now be thinking that the British public, like the oblivious lobster, is unperturbed by continuous tax increases. But we know that Jeremy Corbyn, with his manifesto delivering an extraordinary estimated tax burden of 37.3 per cent, pushed too hard and was rejected by the electorate – twice. And he wouldn’t be the first Labour leader denied office by the prospect of tax rises. Conservatives have almost always bent over backwards to promise that taxes wouldn’t go up under them.

Is it different this time, because of the Conservatives’ new base of voters? This argument can misunderstand the working class: tax cuts can be popular.

Polling from just before the 2019 election told us the new blue collar Conservatives want to see their taxes go down. A cap on council tax rises was supported by more than three quarters of those polled; around six in 10 C2DE voters strongly favoured cutting the basic rate of income tax down to 15p in the pound. About the same number wanted to see employers’ PAYE taxes reduced to encourage businesses to hire more people, with even more (seven in 10) wanting to abolish the BBC licence fee. All of these were compatible with the 2019 Conservative manifesto, and what’s more, were more popular with C2DE voters than their ABC1 counterparts.

With tax bills at around £24,500 per household, and data from the ONS showing the poorest families pay almost half their income in tax, cuts like this wouldn’t go unnoticed. They will certainly be critical to a post-pandemic Britain trying to restore growth and prosperity, as Churchill noted when he said “for a nation to try to tax itself into prosperity is like a man standing in a bucket and trying to lift himself up by the handle”. With their commitment to opposing tax rises in March, and a renewed focus on fighting council tax rises, the Labour frontbench now understands that taxpayer value could hold the keys to Number 10.

Very soon, there will be a fork in the road out of the pandemic – which way would Churchill go? Johnson should choose that same route.

Alistair Lexden: On this day, 75 years ago – VJ Day at Westminster

15 Aug

Lord Lexden is the Conservative Party’s official historian. His website can be found here

The American atomic bombs, which were to bring  the Second World War to an end, fell first on Hiroshima on 6 August 1945, and then on Nagasaki three days later. Japan’s unconditional surrender was announced on 14 August.

Clem Attlee’s Government, formed after Labour’s landslide election victory the previous month, had been in office for under three weeks. The dramatic news from the Far East reached the new Prime Minister in a rather haphazard  fashion. During the evening of 14 August, Jock Colville, Churchill’s Private Secretary who had stayed on temporarily to help his successor, “saw on the tape-machine at No 10 that Japan had surrendered. I brought the news into the Cabinet room where Attlee was closeted with Lord Louis Mountbatten[ later Earl Mountbatten of Burma] who was professing Labour sympathies.”

To Colville’s amusement, Mountbatten, the left’s new recruit and a byword for vanity, later told everyone that it was he who had broken the news to a grateful Attlee.

At midnight, the Prime Minister announced the terms of Japan’s surrender. All Japanese forces had been ordered  “to cease active operations [and] to surrender arms.” VJ Day had begun.

The thoughts of many grateful people in London turned at once to Churchill, who was living temporarily in a block of flats, Westminster Gardens (where 34 years later the bomb that was to kill Airey Neave would be placed under his car for subsequent detonation as he left the House of Commons). Early on VJ Day, a crowd gathered there “to see Papa and cheer him”, as Mrs Churchill wrote to her daughter, Mary. Later “ he got mobbed in Whitehall by a frenzied crowd.”

At 11am, Churchill, along with MPs of all parties, was in the House of Commons, which met that day in St Stephen’s Hall, normally used as a  thoroughfare from the St Stephen’s entrance to Central Lobby and beyond. The Speaker told the assembled members of “a strange coincidence. Curiously enough, the last time the House sat in St Stephen’s Hall was on 15th  August, 111 years ago exactly.”

The cause on that occasion was the fire that destroyed most of the Palace of Westminster. On 15 August 1945, the Commons used this temporary refuge because the chamber of the House of Lords, where they had been meeting since the destruction of their own chamber in the Blitz, was needed for another purpose.

By happy chance, VJ Day coincided with the State Opening of the new Parliament, elected in July. The ceremony, severely curtailed during the years of war, was “restored to something of its pristine splendour by the revival of a carriage procession”, as George VI’s Private Secretary, Tommy Lascelles, noted in his diary.

“For the first time in history”, wrote George VI’s biographer, John Wheeler-Bennett, “two Speeches from the Throne were prepared, and signed by the Sovereign for the opening of Parliament” because the moment of Japan’s surrender had been impossible to predict. “ One version of the Speech alluded to the surrender, the other omitted any reference to it.”  Lascelles had “ a nervous moment lest Bill Jowitt, now Lord Chancellor, should produce the wrong speech out of his embroidered bag.”

The scene in the Lords chamber was recorded with characteristic panache and sharp eye for detail by the gay Tory MP, Chips Channon, in his famous diary: “It was crowded with peers and peeresses. The Ambassadresses, all wearing extraordinary hats, sat on the right with the Duchesses. Mme Massigli, the French, wore a white tea tray.”

No ermine was on display: “the many new Socialists looked dazed and dazzled, and I was sorry for their sake that the peers were not in robes.”

It was very much  a dress-down occasion: “the King [was] in an Admiral’s uniform and with his cap on. The Queen, in aquamarine blue, though dignified and gracious, was dwarfed by her Mistress of the Robes, the Duchess of Northumberland, who looked far the more regal of the two. The Crown was carried on a cushion.”

Would the King be able to control his stammer? Though troubled by it much less severely than in his youth, he was always the subject of some worry on the occasion of a major speech. Channon praised him:

“His voice was clear, and he spoke better than usual and was more impressive. But they say that the word Berlin had been substituted for Potsdam [scene of the recent conference of the victorious powers], which he could not have articulated.”

Lascelles called it “a dull speech” which put it firmly in the tradition of such declarations over the centuries, noted chiefly for the absence of fine, memorable language.

Apart from details of practical issues stemming from the end of hostilities, Parliament was told that it would shortly be asked to ratify the Charter of the United Nations in order “to maintain peace in accordance with justice and respect for human rights.”

The King’s Speech went on to make clear that the Labour Government’s legislative programme would fulfil the commitments that all parties had given during the war (and repeated during the recent election campaign), to the Beveridge proposals for full employment, a comprehensive social insurance system and a national health service. To them were added Labour’s own plans for nationalisation (including the Bank of England), housing , planning, and more generous trade union laws.

Looking back on the ceremony, Channon reflected that “the Labour people were subdued and impressed and everybody behaved in an exemplary manner.” A further speech was to be required from the King later in the day when he broadcast to radio listeners at home and abroad. It went particularly well. “Everybody commended it”, Lascelles recorded, “and agrees that he has never spoken so fluently and forcefully.”

During the afternoon the King had the less arduous duty of receiving at Buckingham Palace a delegation of ministers and service chiefs, led by Attlee. Churchill was asked to join them, but “said he wouldn’t come unless he could bring with him those of his former colleagues who had served in the War Cabinet”, as Lascelles noted in his diary. It was the only instance of party political difficulty during the day. “He came alone, half an hour after the others had gone.” The King commented later, “I wish he could have been given a proper reception by the people”, by which he meant an appearance on the Buckingham Palace balcony.

The Commons reassembled, back in the Lords chamber once again, at 4pm when Attlee repeated the Japanese terms of surrender “for I feel that it is fit and proper that they should be for ever on record in the annals of this ancient and honourable House.”

Attlee then moved “that this House do now attend at the Church of St Margaret, Westminster, to give humble and reverent thanks to Almighty God on the victorious conclusion of the war.”

Nothing marred the scene, which Channon recorded in his diary. “The Speaker, in full robes, led us through a good-natured crowd of cheering citizens. He was followed by Winston, who had a tremendous reception, and who walked with Eden, Attlee and Herbert Morrison.” After a short service, in which the Speaker’s Chaplain “moved the congregation to Thanksgiving and Dedication”, the bells of St Margaret’s were rung “in celebration of Victory.”

The last business of the House on this historic day began at 5.18pm. Attlee moved an address to the King “on the achievement of final victory.”  The new Labour Prime Minister used  his speech to extol the blessings of constitutional monarchy in Britain. “It is the glory of our democratic Constitution that the will of the people operates and that changes which, in other countries, are often effected through civil strife and bloodshed, here in this island proceed by the peaceful method of the ballot box.”

Churchill himself could not have put it better. He added a few characteristically extravagant comments, proclaiming that “a brighter radiance illumines the Imperial Crown than any which our annals record.” With the two front benches expressing full accord, the House adjourned at 5.35pm.

BIBLIOGRAPHY – John Colville, The Fringes of Power: Downing Street Diaries, Volume Two October 1941-55 ( Septre edition, 1987).  Martin Gilbert, ‘ Never Despair’: Winston S. Churchill 1945-1965 ( Heinemann, 1988). Hansard, Fifth Series, Vol. 413, First Vol. of Session 1945-46. Duff Hart-Davis(ed.), King’s Counsellor : Abdication and War: The Diaries of Sir Alan Lascelles ( Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2006). Robert Rhodes James (ed.), Chips: The Diaries of Sir Henry Channon( Penguin edition, 1970. John W. Wheeler-Bennett, King George VI: His Life and Reign ( Macmillan, 1958).

Bevin, the working-class John Bull who stood up to Stalin and has no successors in today’s Labour Party

11 Jul

Ernest Bevin: Labour’s Churchill by Andrew Adonis

Andrew Adonis has chosen a magnificent subject. Ernest Bevin was recognised by everyone he met in the 30 years before his death in 1951 as a tremendous figure, a man of power who invigorated any transaction in which he took part, “a working-class John Bull”, as Winston Churchill put it, who did not allow anyone, Stalin included, to push him around.

From 1945-51 Bevin served as one of the great Foreign Secretaries. The brilliant young men who worked for him at the Foreign Office respected and adored him.

This book carries a photograph, which one could wish had been reproduced larger, of the last of his private secretaries, Roddy Barclay – tall, thin, alert, languid, deferential, wearing an elegant double-breasted suit, a grave demeanour and a moustache, “a clever man who chose not to seem clever” as his obituarist in The Independent put it – holding a paper for the Foreign Secretary and indicating on it some matter of importance.

Bevin is sitting at an ornate desk, a massive figure, head on one side, cigarette in the corner of his mouth, pen held, as Adonis points out, like a chisel, giving the paper his undivided attention and probably about to deliver a brutally funny retort.

In Adonis’s best chapter, entitled “Ernie”, we get Bevin at the height of his powers, with Barclay and Nico Henderson preserving some of the best things they heard him say:

“If you open that Pandora’s Box you never know what Trojan ‘orses will jump out.”

Or of a speech by Nye Bevan:

“It sounded as if he’d swallowed a dictionary. ‘E used a lot of words but ‘e didn’t know what they all meant.”

One of the reasons why Bevin has faded from the public mind is that his name is so similar to Bevan, who eclipsed all others to carry off the glory of founding the National Health Service.

Unless one is an expert, one has to make an effort to remember which Labour politician is which, and although Bevin was a big figure for a longer period, and had greater achievements to his name, none of those achievements is so easy to explain or to approve of as the NHS.

He was born into rural poverty in Winsford, a remote village in Somerset where another Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, was to spend part of his childhood.

Bevin’s mother, Mercy, whose photograph he kept all his life on his desk, was single, and died when he was eight. He left school at the age of 11 and became a farm labourer, which he called “a form of slavery”. His favourite poem was “The Deserted Village” by Oliver Goldsmith:

Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey,

Where wealth accumulates, and men decay.

At the age of 13, Bevin managed to join two of his older brothers in Bristol, where he became a drayman, a Baptist preacher, a socialist and a trade union organiser, and before the First World War made common cause between the Bristol carters and dockers.

He was an organiser and negotiator of genius and in 1922 founded the Transport and General Workers’ Union, which he built into the biggest union in the world, all the time fighting off attempts by Communists to take control.

This was his school of politics. He saw that Churchill’s decision to go back on the gold standard in 1925 had “pushed us over the cliff” and was a disaster for wages, which would have to be cut if British industries were to survive.

Hence the General Strike of 1926, precipitated by proposed cuts in miners’ wages. It is good to be reminded of the remark by Lord Birkenhead, who as F.E.Smith had won a name as one of the most brilliant Conservatives of that or any other generation:

“It would be possible to say without exaggeration of the miners’ leaders that they were the stupidest men in England if we had not had frequent occasion to meet the owners.”

Adonis calls F.E.Smith “the Boris Johnson-esque Tory extrovert of the day”. One sees what he means, but the description isn’t quite right. Smith was harsher than Johnson, and had a more cutting wit.

If Bevin had been able to take charge of the union side of the talks with the Government, the General Strike might have been averted. He was not dominant enough at the start of the crisis to do that, but had emerged by the end of it as a “leader of leaders”.

Men of imagination and intellect – David Lloyd George, John Maynard Keynes – recognised Bevin as a kindred spirit, more Keynesian than Keynes, someone who saw without needing to work out the theory that one answer to mass unemployment must be to leave the gold standard, while another must be to institute programmes of public works.

Men devoid of imagination – Stanley Baldwin, the Conservative leader, and Ramsay MacDonald, the Labour leader – formed a coalition to uphold economic orthodoxy and keep Lloyd George, who championed Keynes’s ideas, out of power.

In 1935, Bevin was instrumental in getting rid of George Lansbury, described by Adonis as “a 1930s Jeremy Corbyn”, from the Labour leadership. “Bevin hammered Lansbury to death,” as their Labour colleague Hugh Dalton put it. When reproached for brutality, Bevin said,

“Lansbury had been going about dressed in saint’s clothes for years waiting for martyrdom: I set fire to the faggots.”

Bevin supported Clement Attlee as the new leader, and in the years to come upheld him through numerous attempts by Labour colleagues to overthrow him.

In 1940, when Labour joined Churchill’s wartime coalition, Bevin came in as Minister of Labour and a member of the War Cabinet, and with characteristic dynamism set about mobilising the work force.

In 1945, as the new Foreign Secretary, Bevin was plunged at Attlee’s side into hard bargaining with Stalin at the Potsdam Conference, and saw at once – much quicker than the Americans – that here was a Communist who was trying to take control of Western Europe, and must be resisted.

There was no false modesty about Bevin. He knew what he could do. He worked incredibly hard, without showing off about it, and “used alcohol like a car uses petrol”. On the plane back from Potsdam, he told Nico Henderson:

“You see, I’ve had a good deal of experience with foreigners. Before the last war I had to do a good deal of negotiation with ships’ captains of all nationalities. These people, Stalin and Truman, are just the same as all Russians and Americans; and dealing with them over foreign affairs is just the same as trying to come to a settlement about unloading a ship. Oh yes, I can handle them.”

Adonis keeps saying, in a somewhat repetitive way, how crucial Bevin was in resisting Stalin’s attempts to neutralise or take over the whole of occupied Germany.

This is not really why we are interested in Bevin. He is a fascinating political personality. We want to read about Churchill whether or not it can be proved he stopped Hitler, and about Bevin whether or not it can be proved he stopped Stalin.

In each case, the more stridently one advances the claim, the more insecure one is liable to sound.

It is true that the creation of what became West Germany was a triumph of British statecraft for which Bevin deserves credit.

Every so often, when I was a correspondent in Berlin in the 1990s, I was reminded of this, but found it hard to dramatise events which had happened 50 years before.

And after all, the success of West Germany had an awful lot to do with the Germans.

Bevin did not get pious about the postwar settlement. He said of the Germans to General Brian Robertson, Governor of the British zone: “I tries ‘ard, Brian, but I ‘ates them.”

This book is dedicated to Roy Jenkins, “friend, mentor, inspiration”. Unfortunately, the disciple was in too much of a rush to maintain the high standards of eloquence and wit set by his master.

There are sentences in Adonis’s book which are too clumsy ever to have been written, let alone allowed to pass into print, by Jenkins.

But there is also a love of anecdote, and an understanding of the way it can illuminate history, which are worthy of Jenkins.

This book can be recommended to anyone interested in Bevin who lacks the time or will to read Alan Bullock’s three-volume biography, on which Adonis acknowledges his reliance.

Another reason why Bevin has faded from public view is that it is impossible to say who his successors were. The unions became a source of trouble more than of statesmen. Alan Johnson is the last major figure to have come up through one.

The mighty T & G merged in 2007 with Amicus and was renamed Unite the Union, led by Len McCluskey. What a falling off. Adonis concludes of Bevin,

“He was lionised in his day as the first of a new breed of ‘common man’ who would manage the British state in a new democratic era. But Bevin wasn’t the first of a kind: he was the first and last.”