A capitalist bear in Labour's camp

A Strange Eventful History
October 20, 2000

The late Edmund Dell was a Labour MP from 1964 to 1976. Most of the time he filled front bench positions and was a member of the cabinet from 1974 to 1976 as president of the board of trade. The title of his book is borrowed from Shakespeare's famous passage in As You Like on the seven ages of man. On the title page, he quotes more fully: "Last scene of all, that ends this strange eventful history isI mere oblivion." Oblivion is the fate of socialism - and indeed any attempt to challenge or supplant the free-market economy. "The time has come," Dell tells us, "for celebrating the obsequies of socialism."

His is not the now-fashionable proposition that deregulation and liberalisation of the global economy, the exponential growth of footloose financial flows racing after profit and the power of multinational corporations thwart leftwing programmes - for democratic socialism was for ever "a mirage, beautiful in the eye of the beholder, but beyond reach". The book chronicles the Labour Party from its emergence until its transformation into new Labour. Concentrating on the party's spells in government, the story he tells is an unremittingly bleak one.

Not even the postwar Attlee administration is spared. Its accomplishments were meagre: Dell has little time for the welfare state or even for the jewel in the party's crown, the National Health Service. Far from full employment constituting an achievement, its pursuit was wholly misplaced, leading the government to sacrifice price stability, the indispensable condition of economic efficiency. Indeed, he holds Labour's postwar government responsible for initiating the policies that turned Britain into "the laggard of Western Europe".

His assessment of later Labour governments is equally harsh, for all displayed ineptitude in their management of the economy. Why? Partly it was a matter of intellectual formation, of "too much Keynesianism and too much of the detritus of socialism", and of "insensitivity to world financial opinion". And partly a matter of human failings, for Dell paints unflattering portraits of virtually all Labour politicians. Attlee, lacking any leadership qualities, was complacent and ignorant; Hugh Dalton was shallow and bombastic; Stafford Cripps "ignorant of the realities of economic management"; and Nye Bevan, though "a man of eloquence, imagination and wit", suffered from "the disease common to most socialists, a reluctance to learn from experience".

In Dell's world, there are two types of people: dogmatists and realists. Labour's leading figures fell into the first camp: they were incapable of facing the world, dwelling in a land of "make-believe" and "fantasies". They also lacked courage to face up to the party and to the unions - for whom Dell has nothing but contempt. "It hardly needs confirming that the leadership of British trades unions was either naturally stupid or had been left by the membership pressures no alternative other than stupidity."

Reality for Dell is the world of capitalism. For those who indulge in dreams of a fairer, more equitable society he has a plain, unvarnished message: any collective endeavour to use the public power of the state to better the lot of mankind is bound to end in tears. Among politicians, Margaret Thatcher alone emerges as a realist, for she understood that there is no alternative to privatisation, to strict control of public expenditure and borrowing or to the unfettered free market. Dell's simple distinction between ideology and naivety, and reality, and his fondness for ad hominem reasoning reflect his impoverished explanation of Labour's failure. Deep down, he seems to believe that if businessmen and Treasury mandarins had been in charge, all would have been well. The Bank of England, the Treasury and "world financial opinion" are presented as repositories of "realism" and sound thinking. Dell dismisses the arguments of those who try to reconcile the market with human need as so many "panaceas". Insofar as there is any "beacon to the rest of the world", it is the laissez-faire US economy.

The book can be read as a rationale for new Labour. Industrial intervention, planning, public ownership, high levels of social spending and redistributive taxation are all blind alleys. Dell's voice is that of the man of experience, who knows business (he worked for ICI), the sombre realist, with no illusions. As such, he does make penetrating comments - he is impatient with the successive generations of leaders who deluded themselves about Britain still being a world player, and he spells out the stark predicament for all social democrats who wish to humanise the capitalist economy while retaining the confidence of those who run it.

He is dismissive of new Labour's "third way" as a vacuous attempt "to mask the acceptance of the constraints" imposed by the market. "New Labour," he pronounces, "will not fully have entered the modern world until it learns to love capitalism with all its warts."

This catches the judgemental tone of the book - one of Olympian weariness as he unmasks the limitless follies of the players on the political stage. No reader would realise that Dell was for a decade and a half MP for Birkenhead on Merseyside, one of the most deprived constituencies in the country. He seems to have inhabited a totally different world from his constituents for he shows no interest in poverty, unemployment, a deteriorating social fabric, inadequate funding of public services: all the traditional concerns of the Labour Party. In his long recitation of what cannot be done, he would have done well to ponder Max Weber's words:

"Certainly all historical experience confirms the truth - that man would not have attained the possible unless time and again he had reached out for the impossible."

Eric Shaw is senior lecturer in politics, University of Stirling.

A Strange Eventful History

Author - Edmund Dell
ISBN - 0 00 255937
Publisher - HarperCollins
Price - £24.99
Pages - 623

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