Note to Corbyn: Even the greats struggled with the compromises of office

The Labour leadership favourite is a man of strong principles, say his supporters. But, as Clement Atlee found, that is often not enough

Labour leadership contender Jeremy Corbyn addresses a rally

Labour leadership contender Jeremy Corbyn addresses a rally

The nation postponed its 2008 political crisis because events were too hot, shrill and fast to allow a radical counter-narrative to take root.

Seven years later and that stifled cry has found an unlikely outlet in Jeremy Corbyn who presents a drably unapologetic socialist and egalitarian agenda not heard for a generation.

He carries with him the expectations of a new breed of voter, a burden not easily met by the rigours of office.

I found a newspaper column by William Barkley dated March 9, 1948, which demonstrates the point. He was writing at a time when the country was in the grip of Labour’s radical reforming programme, with Prime Minister Clement Atlee using “power for a purpose” (in Gordon Brown’s phrase) to build the NHS.

Barkley tells tales of a country coming to terms with this new thinking. In one private hospital, the matron happily oversaw the linen; despite her protests, a full NHS linen staff was imposed upon her.

One executive of the hospital did not possess, nor need, a car. But one was provided for him to ensure that the monoculture was maintained.

Limehouse MP Mr Atlee, facing a loss of productivity and budget control as a result, sounded an awful lot like a George Osborne or a David Cameron in his response.

He said: “The only way is to ration the services in regard to money, cut down the money and say ‘you must make do with that’ and then get pressure on them to get results.”

Labour leader Clement Atlee makes a speech

Labour leader Clement Atlee makes a speech

Holding on

In the same column Barkley tells a tale – a life hack – that suggests that enterprise may be erased from public policy but not from the human spirit.

Among the shortages and delays was the delivery of telephones from the Post Office. The writer had experienced a three-week delay and some on his road had been on the waiting list for an astonishing two years.

But, he noted, a new neighbour moved in on a Saturday and had a new phone by the Monday. He sought her advice.

“My husband got on to head office from a call box and said ‘My wife is a midwife and must have a phone at once.’ Anyone more unlike a midwife you could not imagine. I am a pianist. Get the girlfriend to say you’re a midwife. All the best.”

Barkley concludes: “The old profit motive seems pure and clean in comparison with some aspects of this splendid new era.”

Giles BroadbentNote to Corbyn: Even the greats struggled with the compromises of office

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