Conventional wisdom has it that Bernie Sanders is too radical for the U.S. electorate. Pundits and many voters contend that social democracy is somehow incompatible with the “American way”. Presumably the “American way” those commentators fantasize about is different from the reality in the U.S. today: chronic poverty, under- and un-employment, economic and social uncertainty, poor access to shared public services, and degraded civil rights in the face of a predatory corporate class and over-mighty national security apparatus.
But Sanders and the 2016 election remind me of another historic election in which the signs were there for all to read, but wherein much of the media and the conventional thinking about voters that it represented completely misjudged public opinion. In 1945 in Britain, voters opted for a complete over-haul of the country’s social and economic contract. With their votes, they created a new consensus about politics and economics that dominated for 30 years and remains the foundation for Britain’s state and society.
As Americans know, Winston Churchill was the Conservative Prime Minister who led Britain through war at the head of a coalition government dominated by his party. More than any other figure, he came to personify Britain’s fight against Nazism and its perseverance in the face of aerial bombardment and isolation within Europe.
And yet in 1945, ten years after the last election had been held, Churchill and his party were turned out of office. Led by Clement Attlee, Churchill’s deputy during the Second World War, the Labour Party won over three million votes more than the Conservatives, which translated into over 60% of the seats in the House of Commons.
Labour was a party dedicated to the protection of the working class, to the creation of a full-employment economy, to the nationalization of key industries and services, and to the creation of a robust safety net. The Labour Party ran on a strong social democratic platform that marked a dramatic deviation from the liberalism that had predominated in British politics and society since the middle of the nineteenth century.
Labour won not just with the support of the poor, but also with the backing of large sectors of the armed forces. And they won in the face of a nasty conservative campaign in which Churchill warned voters that his war-time deputy, a World War I veteran, famous for his mind mannerisms, would imitate the “Gestapo” in his politics.
At the end of the First World War, the British government had promised to make Britain a country “fit for heroes to live in”. But the following two decades saw a retreat from the managed economy that had emerged during war-time and an unwillingness to re-build society along more social democratic lines.
Veterans of the First World War experienced widespread hardship as the Liberal and Conservative parties stuck to a liberal orthodoxy that argued that the market would sort things out of its own accord, refused to engage constructively with organized labor, and expanded Britain’s overseas empire. The Conservative Party proved unwilling to confront the fascist powers that emerged on continental Europe, used their proximity to big business and to news magnates to castigate their political opponents, and pursued a relentless policy of dividing society against itself by way of isolating unions and other leftists calling for social and economic change, all in the face of a global depression and the large scale unemployment that followed.
During the Second World War, the cabinet commissioned a post-war planning document that became known as the “Beveridge Report”. Published in 1942, the document called for cohesive social and economic policy to wage war not only against Hitler, but also the “evils” confronting British society in the form of poverty, ill-health, unemployment, and insecurity, recognizing the threats these posed to British citizens.
The dry, technical, but revolutionary Beveridge Report became an instant bestseller, and the British public and the Labour Party came to believe that the post-war world must be very different from the world characterized by class hierarchy and economic inequality that had defined British life.
The desire for change on the part of the British public was fuelled by mistrust of the Conservatives for their foreign policy blunders and refusal to acknowledge the cruelty of the “free” market towards the working class. It was further advanced by a lengthy war, which inflicted widespread hardship while promoting an ideal of national solidarity and mistrust of traditional elites. And it accompanied growing unease with British imperialism, the ills and injustice of which confronted British soldiers serving in the colonies and alongside soldiers from those colonies in large numbers.
In spite of the best efforts of the media and the political right, the public refused to respond to scaremongering and, led by yet-to-be-demobilized veterans, voted in large numbers for Labour, giving the party a mandate to pursue sweeping social and economic changes.
While other European countries would ultimately create more far-reaching variants of the welfare state and the social contract it represents, there is probably no other case in which a single election created in such a short period of time such a profound shift in the political-economy of a nation.
The transformative politics of the British Labour Party in the 1940s, and the pundits’ surprise over what the public regarded as an obvious and common sense pivot from the uncaring liberalism of the interwar years should serve as a cautionary tale to a media wedded to the inevitability of Clinton’s victory—wedded as she is to a stultifying status quo. It should also serve as an inspiration to those who would like to see wholesale change in the economic and social realm in the U.S., and a reminder that other publics in democratic societies have embraced without fear the kind of shift offered by the likes of Bernie Sanders.
The fortunes of Britain’s welfare state can offer other lessons for the U.S. should it embrace such change. Organized labor in Britain remained adversarial towards the state, eschewing the large-scale bargaining that characterized relations in the Scandinavian welfare model. When unions were portrayed by the right as exercising undemocratic influence, they became scapegoats for an economy made frail by vibrations in a global oil market. And although Britain’s Labour Party committed itself to a gradual winding down of Empire, Britain’s political elite never confronted the reality that the country could not afford both an expansive welfare state that protected the public welfare, and also a costly and unjust imperial foreign policy.
But life in Britain would never be the same after Labour’s victory in 1945. Even the strongest assaults of the Thatcher and Major governments on gains British voters made for themselves in that July poll, in a tumultuous world still at war, have only altered the peaceful revolution staged by British citizens.
The work of Attlee and the Labour Party was a testament to the power of that revolution: public healthcare, free at the point of use; sickness and unemployment benefits; the construction of housing for the poor; family allowances; the expansion of workers’ rights and fairer wages; the overhaul of an antiquated criminal justice system; free secondary education and the expansion of the university system; the nationalization of key services and some industries; and a recognition that the state, a democratic institution, should have a hand in managing an economy hitherto run by unaccountable industries and elites. The wellness indices of the British public rose steadily after 1945, a testament to the power of social welfare.
Britain’s welfare state and the fortunes of its public have changed over time, and are today under threat. But the election of 1945 made it inconceivable that the British public would any longer be led tamely by the nose and made to believe that their interests aligned with irresponsible elites’ interests. It is long overdue for the American electorate to realize that such a peaceful revolution is not beyond our means, but rather within our grasp, and that such a revolution, for the public good, requires the repudiation not only of the toxic and demagogic political right, but also of those in the media and the Democratic Party who urge us to embrace neo-liberal economics rather than the social democracy that has made life so much better for so many around the world.
The American electorate should look past the bluster, cruelty, and injustice of the Republican Party, and the economic timidity and international hubris of Hillary Clinton, and give the ideas for which Bernie Sanders argues a hearing and a chance. Voters around the world since 1945 have taken social democracy seriously, and their lives have been the better for it.