The play A Modest Little Man by Francis Beckett tells the story of Clement Attlee, the post war Labour Prime Minister.

The Attlee government was one of the great reforming governments of recent times.

It inherited a country devastated by war, yet ready for major change. Over the six years of that government, the NHS and welfare state came into being. Many of the major national industries like coal, rail, electricity and gas were taken into public ownership.

The play focuses on Attlee, a self-effacing individual who came to see poverty first-hand working in the East End prior to the First World War. He served in the war as a major, becoming Labour MP for Limehouse once the fighting had finished.

Attlee, who lived for a number of years in Woodford, was the antithesis of the modern day Prime Minister, a man of few words, though all carefully measured.

In one scene, Attlee is being interviewed by a reporter concerning the claims that the NHS was some sort of takeover to the detriment of people’s lives. He responds, saying the view is nonsense. Then, when pushed as to whether that is all he had to say, he adds 'utter nonsense'.

What is striking looking back to those times, is the focus on what is good for the community, the common good. The value of the collective.

These are values totally lost today, in a world obsessed with material wealth, the individual and celebrity culture. It is now about separating people, not the common good of all.

The reforms of those post war years saw the values championed of security for everyone and a safety net for those who fell out of work. The NHS free to all.

Now, there are so many things that apparently cannot be afforded, especially to the poorest in the community. Foodbanks and rough sleeping grow inexorably.

The old idea of supporting people with charity that can be given and taken away at the whim of the better off is creeping back to replace statutory rights to support under a properly funded welfare state.

We hear so much today about what cannot be afforded, at a time when this country is probably richer than it has ever been. Certainly far better off than in 1945.

What has changed is the priorities. Post war, people came together to build a better more equal society.

Today, people put up borders between themselves, obsess about material wealth and lose all sense of what really matters.

There is much that can be learned from history of those immediate post war years – lessons that may show us the way forward today.

  • Paul Donovan is a Redbridge councillor for Wanstead village and blogger. See