LibLink: Tim Farron – Where have all the political giants gone?

CO 1069-1-3. Harold Macmillan. Photo by National ArchIves UKOver on politics.co.uk, party president Tim Farron has been expanding on some of the themes of his weekend lecture. He begins with some interesting history:

When you ask me who my political heroes are, I will reel off a list of people like Beveridge, Penhaligon, Harry Willcock (the man who brought down the ID cards scheme in the 1950s) and Paddy Ashdown.  But in the last 12 months I have become attached to Harold MacMillan, when he was housing minister between 1951-1954. This admission usually raises an eyebrow or two.

Now, MacMillan is a much maligned political figure, I think that has much more to do with his association with David Cameron than to do with him. But as housing minister he was someone who, working under the post-war consensus, delivered one the best social policy achievements of the 20th century – he delivered 300,000 homes a year.

In 1951, he was appointed by Churchill to be housing minister – his task, to build 300,000 per year. It was a bold policy in the Conservative party manifesto and one many considered totally undeliverable. Famously, when tasked by Churchill, he was told: “It is a gamble. It will make or mar your political career. But every humble home will bless your name if you succeed.”

For a man who was a not a housing expert, this was a colossal task.  Macmillan was a businessman who was a director of the family publishing house and of the Great Western Railway.  But his party had stood clearly on a housing platform at the election and it fell to him to deliver. In the 1951 election campaign, a Unionist poster famously said ‘turn hopes into homes’. Macmillan, to his credit, achieved this task a year ahead of schedule.  His plan equates to 1,000 homes a day being built.

And he finishes with a call for the resurrection of such ambition in politics:

It feels to me that convictions in politics seem to have gone awry since Thatcher.  For her many faults, even opponents like myself accept that she was brilliant.  She changed the narrative and created a new political consensus, one we will still live with today. It is up to our generation of our politicians to resurrect a better vision, to keep it and to fight for it. And we need to fight for it over the long haul, not just the next five-year stretch. We need to build a platform for future generations to thrive on, rather than cutting the ground out from under their feet.

You can read Tim’s whole piece here.

Photo of Harold Macmillan in Ghana by the National Archives UK

* Nick Thornsby is a day editor at Lib Dem Voice.

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6 Comments

  • Charles Rothwell 24th Jul '14 - 10:44am

    I share the estimation of Macmillan and think that (a name which is now never, ever mentioned in most Tory circles in the utmost pejorative terms!) Edward Heath also had many commendable sides to him (with his genuine conviction regarding Britain’s future in Europe and genuine desire to repair Britain’s industrial relations which (as I can very well remember indeed) were absolutely dire by the early 1970s and, in addition to virtually bankrupting the country were also making it a laughing stock plus preparing the ground for the de-industrialisation of large tracts of the UK in the near future). (I wonder how many ex-miners who struck for 30%+ wage increases in the 1970s now connect this at all with their unskilled, largely unemployed grandchildren living from meagre part-time work in some ex-industrial wasteland in South Yorkshire or Wales?) What Macmillan and Heath had in common (and what helped very much to shape their One Nation Toryism) was their experience in the two world wars (in the first of which Macmillan had been seriously wounded) and their commitment to try and make a better country for ALL its people, not just the “wealth creators”, “strivers”, “hard working families” etc etc. You can easily see where Thatcherism came from (and would never have been possible without the fatal weaknesses of the late 1960s (failure of Castle’s ‘In place of strife’) and, in particular, 1970s but I agree 100% that it is time (after the empty rhetoric of “The Third Way” etc) to move to a much more inclusive and progressive vision and that the LDs are the force most likely to bring this about (as opposed to an exclusive and reactionary force, the precise nature of which is all too apparent indeed).

  • Is McMillan a maligned figure? I’m not sure he is in the country at large. He was a Tory, which for some is an immediate no-no andt his own party seems to have largely sidelined him too. I suspect ‘middle England’ retains some affection though.

    Charles – again I think Heath was a more reasonable Tory than many of those who’ve followed him, but ultimately he was a poor leader who couldn’t deal with the problems he faced at the time. Whether anyone else could have done better, who knows?

  • Matt (Bristol) 24th Jul '14 - 11:38am

    Frank Booth, I think for some time in historical and ecnomic circles, (due to reading the 50s and 60s in the light of the 70s and 80s), there has been a feeling that Macmillan had kicked some economic and structual issues away for the sake of political expediency, that would have been better dealt with more directly and decisively.

    Macmillan’s role in the 30s and 40s as someone who became a key backer of Churchill has also been unerplayed

  • Eddie Sammon 25th Jul '14 - 12:46am

    They do what William Hague did – become very competent and then go off to make money :).

    Jokes aside, we do need more political giants, but hopefully good ones.

    The Thatcher consensus narrative that Farron repeats is flawed. Thatcher didn’t believe in monetary activism, which has been part of the global political consensus since the recession, with the support of Conservatives, Lib Dems and Labour.

    Regards

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