Jeremy Corbyn and the Strange Rebirth of Labour England

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Once upon a time there was an enchanted land called Labour England which had “at its heart the idea of social, public and cooperative ownership as part of a mixed economy”.

This Wonderland had been created by a great wizard, Clement Attlee, who had “changed the world”. He had introduced the NHS, a massive house-building programme, nationalised the mines, brought the troops back from Europe and the Far East “and struck at the very heart of British Imperialism by giving independence to India”.

Indeed his policy of setting the colonies free was little short of “miraculous”.

Having read a number of Francis Beckett’s previous books with great appreciation, it is something of a disappointment to find him contributing to the fairy tale history of Labourism.

The contemporary embrace of warmed-up Wilsonism as if it was socialism is bad enough but the propagating of such a dishonest account of the history of the Labour Party is really pretty shameful.

In this new book, he and Seddon are telling lies to the Labour Party’s new members. They are treating their readers as so many dupes.

Certainly the Attlee government introduced important reforms, including the NHS, but it also reintroduced conscription, dramatically increased military spending necessitating welfare cuts, including to the NHS, and austerity, began developing the British nuclear bomb, helped establish Nato and let the US station nuclear bombers in Britain, fought a bloody colonial war in Malaya, and sent troops to fight in Korea, a war considerably more bloody than Blair’s invasion of Iraq.

Moreover, far from generously giving India independence, the British were effectively driven out of the country. And, of course, when the working class resisted austerity, the Labour government, including Nye Bevan, used troops to break strikes.

For some reason this is all left out of their evocation of the mythical Labour England which they hope Jeremy Corbyn will recreate.

Even more hilariously we are told that Harold Wilson “famously and wisely” refused to send British troops to fight in Vietnam. This is a barefaced lie. Wilson wanted to send a token force, but did not dare because of the strength of both the parliamentary and extra-parliamentary opposition.

He compensated by giving the US all the support he could short of troops, including sending advisers, training South Vietnamese troops, providing intelligence and supplying the Americans with napalm.

The great demonstrations of 1967 and 1968 in London were, Beckett and Seddon perhaps need reminding, not in support of Wilson’s Vietnam policy.

And, of course, it is worth mentioning that the great Clement Attlee did send 20,000 British troops to Saigon in 1945 to fight alongside the French against the Communist resistance!

While the great bulk of this book is focussed on the history of the Labour Party since the end of the 1970s and on the rise of Corbynism, it is fatally compromised by its crass fairy tale setting.

We are going to see a lot more of this sort of stuff, one suspects.