He is best remembered through the prism of the witticisms of his arch-rival, Winston Churchill: ‘A modest man, who has much to be modest about’; ‘A sheep, in sheep’s clothing’; ‘Up drew an empty taxi, and out stepped…’, but Clement Attlee, the fiftieth anniversary of whose death is being marked this year, had many arrows to his bow. His sound defeat of Churchill in the 1945 election heralded in the Welfare State and wholesale Nationalization (including the Bank of England, coal and steel, and the railways), which changed Britain forever. Even Margaret Thatcher, who staked her claim to a place in history on unravelling much of what Attlee had done (with mixed results – someone recently suggested that Virgin Trains’ motto should be ‘The first time is always the worst’), referred to him as, ‘all substance, and no show’.
Fast-forward seventy years and it seems everyone, apart from the Americans, talks the talk about looking after the weaker elements in society and redistributing income, but doesn’t walk the walk of being willing to pay the price. There is more show than substance.
The latest evidence comes from that country up there in social Valhalla, Norway.
Six weeks ago the conservative government introduced a Voluntary Tax Payment Program. When I first read this, I assumed it was a Voluntary Disclosure Program for naughty Nordics – but no, it is what it says. If, after paying nearly 50% tax, you fancy paying some more, your contribution will be gratefully accepted by the government.
Well, according to the latest available statistics (at least, available to me), the total take has been around $1,500 – which includes tax lawyers and accountants making small contributions to see how it works (and, it has to be assumed, claiming their payments as a business expense). It also turns out that this is not Norway’s first voluntary payment scheme – they set one up in 2006 to which around 90 people have, to date, contributed a total of $85,000 – all, curiously, anonymous ‘donations’. This might sooth a tax evader’s conscience while financing a government minister’s sleigh expenses, but it won’t do much for the relief of the poor.
When push comes to shove, the vast majority of people pay taxes because they have to, whatever their political hue, and high taxes are a toxic election loser. Only the Americans tell it as it is. The main reason for their dogged refusal to adopt VAT is considered to be the ease with which additional revenue could be raised resulting in ‘inflationary’ pressure on government spending, with the dreaded prospect of turning America into a European-style welfare state.
Modern attitudes are perhaps neatly reflected in a statement by a left-leaning political pundit on the reason for the large turnout of Labour-supporting young voters at the recent British General Election. Referring to the inability of the young to step onto the home-owning ladder due to the exorbitant cost of housing, she said: ‘They didn’t vote conservative, because they have nothing to conserve.’
Back in 1945, despite the Conservative Churchill’s massive personal popularity and acerbic witticisms, there were less egocentric reasons to elect Clement Attlee and his Labour colleagues.