Ok, being a student of history doesn’t provide many benefits. It numbs your senses to ‘regular’ human interactions, destroys your eyesight and leaves you in a permanent state of melancholy about things that might have been. However, it does give you one thing – an appreciation that history can be manipulated to underwrite modern-day politics. Both of Britain’s main political parties engage in this operation; regurgitating and reconstituting the legacies of “Thatcherite self-reliance”, “Churchillian resolve” or “the Spirit of ‘45” in order to use history to enhance policies of the present.
One proposition that has particularly annoyed me recently is the Conservative claim that Labour has never left office with unemployment lower than at the start of its term. Disregarding the fact that this is a rudimentary and frankly ridiculous evaluation of a multi-layered and multi-faceted national economic history, it is also irrevocably and outrageously false. Especially when we compare Labour’s record to the Conservatives’.
For the sake of consistency, we will begin our analysis in 1923/1924 – since 1924 was the first year in which a administration directed by the Labour Party governed Britain (although it was a minority administration). Since Ramsay MacDonald’s government only remained in power for nine months, and did not overlap a calendar year, we will take the unemployment figures for 1923 as our base data. In 1923, there were 1,557,000 (7.92%) people unemployed in Britain. By the time Labour left office in 1924 this figure had dropped to 1,395,000 (7.04%). This fall may not have been due to Labour policies (although it could well have been), but that is merely circumstantial. The more relevant significance is that – already – with just one nonchalant peek into the historical record, the Tories’ vitriolic pronouncements have been utterly dismantled.
Not to dwell and mock however, if we move onwards to the Labour ‘golden years’ of 1945 to 1951, economic circumstances largely repeat. Labour assumed office in 1945, but since any record of unemployment in that year would have been dictated by the war, it is reasonable to begin an evaluation in 1946 (comparing peacetime figures with peacetime figures). Unemployment during this year was 397,000 (1.56%) – i.e. incredibly low. When Labour left office in 1951, unemployment stood at 264,000 (0.95%). Which, as far as I’m led to believe, is also a decrease. Indeed, for a party attempting to present itself as ‘economically reliable’, the Conservatives certainly have difficulty comprehending unemployment statistics.
Just as a side note, for those who wish to make a comparison between the aftermath of World War One and World War Two, the unemployment rate in 1919 stood at 2.8%, and rose to 7.04% by 1924, under the direction of a Tory-dominated administration.
The Tories’ contention is finally given some substance by Harold Wilson and James Callaghan, both of whom witnessed rising levels of unemployment during their regimes. 404,000 people were unemployed in 1964, as compared to 612,000 in 1970. From 1974 to 1979 unemployment also rose from 514,000 to 1,064,000.
Moreover, Tony Blair’s administration can provide the Tories with some level of satisfaction (not that it doesn’t already), given that unemployment stood at 1,585,000 when New Labour assumed office, and 2,500,000 when it departed. However, gratified snorts must surely be caught mid-flow when it is drawn to Tories’ attention that in nine of his thirteen years Blair oversaw falling unemployment rates.
So, despite being a severely restricted debate over economic history, if we are to analyse Tory proclamations on their own tentative merit, they have failed to acknowledge two separate Labour administrations that fostered declining unemployment. Just for the sake of fun, and of course historical integrity also, let’s see how Conservative administrations compare during the same period.
After MacDonald’s pioneering Labour government collapsed due to scandal in 1924, Stanley Baldwin – the dominant figure of interwar British politics – chartered a new Conservative era. As we know, 1,395,000 people were unemployed in 1924 Britain. By the time MacDonald had ousted Baldwin at the1929 general election, this figure had risen to 1,493,000 (7.1%). No solace for the Tories.
The next Prime Minister to serve in office as the leader of a Conservative government was a timeworn Winston Churchill – signifying Conservative dominance that was to last from 1951 until 1964, distinguished by the phrase “Britons have never had it so good”. Those who didn’t have it so good were the unemployed, who constituted 264,000 individuals (0.95%) in 1951 and 404,000 (1.41%) in 1964. By this point on our timeline Labour had directed two governments responsible for falling unemployment. The Tories? None.
Passing through our peculiar time-warp, we now arrive at Edward Heath’s much derided time in office. However, despite the chorus of yawns that inevitably break out at the sound of the name, Heath was a remarkable man and an exceptional Conservative leader. Exceptional due to the fact that he was one of the few twentieth-century Tory Prime Ministers to witness a fall in unemployment under his leadership. Indeed, there were 100,000 fewer people unemployed when he departed in 1974 than when he entered office in 1970.
Sandwiched in between two of the Conservative Party’s so-called national ‘titans’, Mr. Heath actually performs rather admirably. Margaret Thatcher’s fiscal fascination with the free market resulted in nearly 600,000 more individuals being unemployed at the end of her reign than at the start. This even after Labour ‘ruined’ the British economy during the late 1970s. “Like North Korea, just without the hope” is a phrase often evoked to describe late 1970s Britain. That may have been so, but 600,000 people certainly had more hope at the end of the 1970s than at the start of the 1990s.
The period from 1990 to 1997 did see a slight fall in unemployment during John Major’s tenure, from 1,648,000 (5.5%), to 1,585,000 (5.3%). Yet the unemployment rate sat consistently above 6% in 1991, 1992, 1993, 1994, 1995 and 1996.
David Cameron’s coalition government will inevitably add to the list of Conservative regimes that pushed more people into work. However, this will not – as otherwise intended by CCHQ – merely cement the Conservatives’ historical transcendence as the party of falling unemployment and economic prudency. The Labour Party polished the trophy of reduced unemployment as frequently as the Tories during the twentieth century, it just doesn’t shout about it as much in the present day.
When the past is reengineered to depict false modern-day virtues, it is crucial to identify when historical expediency is in fact acting with a dangerous purpose; warping our national story. Authoritarian manipulation of the past should not be allowed to confer political legitimacy on the present.
*All economic data was provided by the Bank of England’s Three Centuries of Data report, which can be found here: https://www.google.co.uk/webhp?sourceid=chrome-instant&ion=1&espv=2&ie=UTF-8#q=bank%20of%20england%20three%20centuries%20of%20data