As Ed Miliband’s ‘Mansion Tax’ speech proves, for perhaps the first time Harold Macmillan is in fashion right now.
At first glance this is odd – in the 1950s and 1960s he was viewed as a stuffy, Edwardian figure ill-suited to the modern world. Harold Wilson, a pipe smoking former policy wonk, was able to look youthful and dynamic by contrast as Labour leader.
Ed Miliband has not yet been pictured with a pipe, but he has sought to learn from Wilson’s opposite number as he seeks to shape what any post 2015 government will look like.
Tactical alliance with supposedly liberal Tories is, of course, not limited to Macmillan. Chuka Umunna has had many kind things to say about Lord Heseltine of late, whilst Benjamin Disraeli forms the bedrock of the One Nation ideal.
Yet Macmillan is perhaps the most interesting, given both the background from which he emerged and the length of his parliamentary career.
Like the current prime minister, Macmillan emerged from a privileged background and from Oxford. Yet his 20s was not spent at a PR firm or backpacking around the far-east, but ankle deep in the mud of the trenches of the First World War. His first contact with a foreign power was not when a Russian agent attempted to recruit him James Bond style to the KGB, but when three German bullets saw his war end with a year in and out of hospital.
His contact with the working man was deep and long sustained. After serving alongside ordinary men, he went on to represent Stockton – a constituency plagued with unemployment in the interwar period, and which Macmillan admitted ‘very properly’ voted him out in 1929 when the Conservative manifesto promise of ‘safety first’ meant, to many, ‘the dole’, as he conceded.
But Macmillan must offer cautionary lessons too. For his expressed concern did not always mean action.
Firstly, like Baldwin before and Cameron since, Macmillan talked the language of social harmony whilst baulking at the use of state apparatus to deliver it. As a young MP in the early 1930s, he flirted with endorsing Keynesian public works schemes to kickstart the economy, only to baulk at the last minute.
Today he would probably have leaked sympathy to Labour’s five point plan, but remain committed to the coalition.
He would have been the liberal Tory glue to keep the present arrangement together, texting Ed Balls whilst voting with the government.
Secondly, whilst he was prepared to acknowledge the excesses of the private sector (criticising Thatcher for ‘selling the family silver’ in later life), his tenure as prime minister in many ways exacerbated the north-south divide.
Macmillan era Conservatism got houses built – Britain went from a nation of 14 million homes in 1951 to over 16 million by 1960 – but in urban areas in the north housing waiting lists remained lengthy, for houses (given the desires of the private sector) were largely built in the affluent, already property owning democracy of the south of England.
Some people indeed ‘never had it so good’, but there were clear limits here, too. One Nation Labour must actually look after the entire nation, not just the southern marginals – the bank levy to fund 100,000 affordable homes is a commendable start, but both the financial sector should be paying more in tax, and more homes being built across the country.
Thirdly, he only made tweaks to the tax system. He put up the rate of marginal income tax relief for low income earners, rather like the coalition’s attempts to take the lowest paid out of income tax. Whatever the arguments re the overall regressive nature of this, it remains their greatest achievement to date and one which will have to be answered with more than a 10p band in 2015.
Yet in 1963, when preparing to leave office, Macmillan gave a one per cent tax cut to stamp duty on high value properties. He did not touch surtax on higher incomes, both corporate and individual, throughout his tenure. The mansion tax/10p shows Labour will go further, but it cannot be the end of the matter.
So, in many ways Macmillan forms the perfect cover for the Labour leadership. A liberal tory who criticised his own party. A man of quiet conviction, and with more gravitas than the current prime minister.
But if Labour sticks to his template a whole host of policies the party needs to work up – a British Investment Bank which can be lending by 2017/18 at the latest, a financial transaction tax across shares, bonds and derivatives which could raise £20bn a year (ten times the mansion tax), and devolving proper powers/funds for local enterprise partnerships to stimulate economies up and down the land – will go by the wayside.
For all his words, Macmillan never quite broke with a small ‘c’ conservative ethos – One Nation Labour must be more dynamic.Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.