Boring can be good. How modest Clement Attlee’s unflashy ideas changed Britain

<span>Photograph: Fisher/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Fisher/Getty Images

Winston Churchill once described Clement Attlee as a modest man with much to be modest about – and up to a point he was right. Attlee was in many ways the epitome of bourgeois respectability: he was privately educated, had a house in the London suburbs and liked nothing better than to occupy his spare time by cracking the Times crossword or catching up on the cricket scores.

Yet in 1945, the British public chose the modest man over the wartime hero, and Attlee showed over the next six years that a politician does not have to be charismatic to be effective. A modest man turned out to be one of the few UK prime ministers of the 20th century who actually changed Britain.

That was a different time, of course, before 24/7 news, trial by Twitter and the political obsession with keeping control of the news agenda on a daily basis. Attlee found being interviewed by TV – then relatively new-fangled as far as politicians were concerned – something of a trial. He didn’t crave the limelight.

Today, Attlee would find it harder to hide his light under a bushel. Politicians are expected to be bursting with new initiatives while also being the sort of person with whom the average voter would choose to have a drink in the pub. Modesty doesn’t cut it, because modesty means boring, and there are few greater sins for the modern politician than that. No doubt Attlee would be forced to have an image makeover and extensive media training were he still around today.

Actually, though, boring politicians are much needed. Good government does not mean a constant stream of policy announcements that are never followed through on. The problems of the UK – and indeed the broader developed world – are deep-rooted and structural.

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To take one example, the latest monetary policy report from the Bank of England contains a special chapter on how recent shocks – Brexit, Covid-19 and rocketing energy prices – affected the potential supply of the economy.

Potential supply is exactly the sort of subject designed to make eyes glaze over, but it matters because, as far as the Bank of England is considered, it acts like a speed limit on growth. In the 10 years leading up to the global financial crisis in 2007, potential supply increased at an annual rate of 2.7%, which meant the economy could grow at that rate and still hit the government’s 2% inflation target. In the decade from 2010-19, potential supply grew more slowly – at 1.7% a year. In the three years from 2023 to 2025 it is expected to grow by just under 1%.

Clement Attlee at 10 Downing Street in 1947.
Clement Attlee at 10 Downing Street in 1947. Photograph: PA

These are profoundly worrying developments. One reason for the recent slowdown is that labour supply has grown more slowly, mainly due to an ageing population but also as the result of people giving up work as a result of the pandemic. Some EU workers also returned home during lockdowns and have never returned.

Labour supply may recover a bit as pandemic effects fade. A much more significant issue is that productivity growth – the other component of potential supply – slumped during the financial crisis and has never recovered. In the 1997-2007 decade, productivity growth averaged 2% a year; in the subsequent decade it averaged 0.5%.

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If there was an easy or quick way to reverse the slowdown in productivity or to boost potential supply, then politicians might have been expected to find it by now. The solution involves much more than keeping inflation low, helpful though that is. It also means investment in skills and training, tax incentives to invest, higher spending on infrastructure, improved management skills, pension arrangements that encourage people to work longer, a big push on innovation, and much more.

The UK has rarely been good at sorting out the supply side of the economy. Rather, it has tended to think the answer is a quick fix designed to boost demand. The current pressure on Rishi Sunak and Jeremy Hunt from MPs on the right of the Conservative party to cut taxes in next month’s budget is a classic case of this.

The fact that the past three years has experienced a series of shocks – the pandemic in 2020, the supply-chain bottlenecks in 2021, the war in 2022 – clearly hasn’t helped foster long-term thinking, but it is no real excuse. As Tim Harford wrote in a recent Financial Times piece: “For such a venerable polity, we have developed a shocking inability to think beyond the next few weeks.”

Sunak and Sir Keir Starmer are both criticised for being boring, but is that really how we want to judge them? The test should not be whether they put up a good performance when being grilled by Piers Morgan but whether their ideas pass muster and whether those ideas can be turned into workable policies. Good management has tended to be an under-rated skill in the UK, a country that has – with predictably poor results – favoured the gifted amateur over the professional. Interestingly, it was one of Attlee’s gifts.

The prime minister and the leader of the opposition have a similar problem. In an age of instant gratification, both are seeking to portray themselves as unflashy and solidly professional. As Attlee showed, it is possible for a politician to be successful as well as modest but only if they have decent ideas as well. So far, neither Sunak nor Starmer has convinced voters they have the ideas to marry with the avowed competence.

Yet there are no short cuts when it comes to raising productivity or tackling the UK’s chronically weak investment. What’s needed is sound analysis, an action plan, and plenty of perseverance. That may sound boring, but boring can be good.