In search of spooning socialists

Ideas that Shaped Postwar Britain
January 10, 1997

Books of essays by different authors, however eminent, rarely hold together well, and this is no exception. The first and last chapters are of a piece - the first by David Marquand himself on "Moralists and hedonists" and the last by Will Hutton on "The stakeholder society" in a brief evocation of his famous book - and so is Raymond Plant's thoughtful chapter on "Social democracy". The rest do not make a whole.

Marquand's "project" (to use one of the fashionable words of the 1990s) is his search for the ideas which could underpin a new wave of reform. It is the best contribution in the book.

Marquand sees the second half of the century as a drama in five acts. Act one lasted from the mid-1940s to the mid-1950s. "The postwar generation of Keynesian social democrats exercised moral and intellectual leadership. Their collectivism was active and moralistic. For them, rights went hand-in-hand with duties, security with activity." Our socialism was, in Gaitskell's phrase, "about equality". I say "our" because I was a bit-player in that act who does not quite recognise the stage I am supposed to have been on the edge of.

In act two the Keynesian social democrats abandoned the moral activism of Attlee, Beveridge and Cripps. The emblematic figure was Anthony Crosland in his The Future of Socialism and its plea for private pleasure - "for a greater emphasis on private life, on freedom and dissent, on culture, beauty, leisure, and even frivolity."

Neither Marquand nor Lord Plant, who fastens on Crosland later on, explains that he was hoping to strike out for good the preaching, humourless strain in socialism. I remember him, vividly, laughing at Beatrice and Sidney Webb's encomium for the Soviet Union on the grounds that in that country there was "no spooning in the Parks of Culture and Rest".

Beatrice Webb was preparing herself for these spooningless parks when she proposed to the 1932 Royal Commission on Unemployment Insurance (as Jose Harris in her essay delights Crosland's ghost by recounting) that for benefit drawers there would be "a prescribed attendance for a Health Course giving a varied day at Swedish Drill and other appropriate exercises varied by lectures, etc." Lectures, I expect, given by you-know-who and etc given by Sidney.

Geoff Mulgan, brilliant as he always is, in his essay on "Culture" goes some way towards Crosland. He also raises the hedonist flag for fun - the "sort of literature, everyday, prosaic, about fun and pleasure and intimate passions" which has always been looked down on by elite culture. He is not sympathetic to the moralists. His attack is on Reith and the early BBC's role of cultural and moral improvement. Reith described commercial broadcasting as akin to the introduction of "dog racing, smallpox and bubonic plague". The left agreed, bad cess to them, and so did the elite generally, bad cess to them too. Mulgan is sarcastic about Lord Goodman's hope that "a dose of culture could turn hooligans into citizens". His essay is about some of the ideas that failed to shape postwar Britain except a little at the beginning of the drama.

On this subject I am more with Marquand (and Reith) than Mulgan, and certainly more than with Murdoch, who seems almost the precise opposite of Reith. Marquand attributes to hedonism the responsibility for undermining the moral foundation of egalitarianism. There was a moral vacuum at the heart of social democracy and in act three the new right rushed in to fill it. Market forces could not only produce more efficiency and higher productivity, they could free people to become moral agents. A dependency culture, on the other hand, made its creatures into moral cripples.

In this account act four began in the mid-1980s when Thatcher repeated the earlier story and moved away from moral individualism to hedonistic individualism - "from the vigorous virtues to the easy-going vices". With easy credits, tax cuts and a consumption boom, Thatcher became the Conservative counterpart to the socialist Crosland.

We are now moving into Marquand's act five where the deeply entrenched moral activism in Britain's political culture is once again reasserting itself. The drummers are again collectivists, not individualists. The moral activism of the Blair generation of collectivists "draws on essentially the same reservoir of virtues and traditions". Too hopeful a reading of British social history? Too hopeful a view of what is to come? Perhaps we shall soon know. Chris Pierson in his chapter on "Social policy" suggests that history has repeated itself in a different way. New Labour has joined the Conservatives in espousing a free-market economy just as the Conservatives once adopted Labour's welfare state.

If the book had carried on from Marquand and further essayists had told us in a little detail what should be done to strengthen moral collectivism, this could have been an outstanding book. But the thread is not followed. Instead, Robert Skidelsky gives a magisterial, historical review of the reasons for the downfall of Keynesianism. Much the same ground is covered in the next essay by Peter Clarke on "The Keynesian consensus and its enemies".

Raymond Plant picks up again on Crosland's great book. Crosland thought that moral outlook was a kind of axiomatic matter, a matter of personal commitment and emotional predilection. Since this was so, how was he to convince the better off without that predilection to pay more taxes to alleviate poverty, poor schooling and limited health provision? Those like him who could not give a good account of why they believed in social justice were therefore vulnerable to attacks from the new right, from Hayek, from Keith Joseph and from Friedman.

Plant summarises the powerful case put forward by the new right, and lays blame on the progressives for not having done more to counter it. He bravely sets off to outline a counter-attack and reassert the claims of social justice, and within that of equality, against all the forceful offensives that have been launched against it. He does not conclude that the Croslandite agenda can be revived in toto. "We do not have to assume that public provision is the only way of addressing social disadvantage, we do have to look at dependency and find ways of countering that by welfare-into-work approaches."

What is the general verdict? The book is rather a hotchpotch and that must be partly because it is difficult to get any kind of consensus among any collection of people on the ideas about ideas that have shaped society. One person writing on his or her own on this large subject would make an easier read. Strangely, there is only one passing mention of Eric Hobsbawm, and that an old publication of his on industrial relations.

The concentration on political ideas means, more seriously, that there has to be an equal concentration on the people who had them and, in a sweep of 50 years, on the outstanding people who had ideas acknowledged to be influential. Keynes and Beveridge have to stand out, and stand out they do in chapter after chapter, along with Crosland for a later period, and Hayek after that. It is like a potted history of eminent thinkers who had a political punch.

But such a concentration lacks edge. Ideas that move people need a context. One wants to know more to be able to assess the significance of any ideas person. One wants to know more about the other forces at work, about the institutions which were in play, and the counter-forces.

Anthony Seldon gets nearest to recognising this when he has a quick run at enumerating the conditions necessary for any change in history. Circumstances have to be favourable or not unfavourable. Individuals have to be present with a coherent set of ideas (Thatcher) or capable of rising to the occasion (Churchill). Ideas, to be taken up, need to have a dominant theme which is "benign or positive" and need to be launched in a favourable financial environment. If Seldon is right it must be a kind of miracle when any grand idea is ever adopted.

But the book most obviously lacks a wider social and ecological context. The most important changes in society which have incorporated and affected ideas vitally - female and racial equality apart - have not owed much, if anything, to particular actions of government or to influential thinkers. The globalisation of trade and technological progress has raised the standard of living, and this has affected everyone for good and bad. Shakespeare in Coriolanus had the truth of that. Hardship (as in war) promotes human solidarity, easement the opposite. The book is also resolutely insular, apart from a good chapter on "The European question" by Jim Bulpitt.

Growing up together and living together also promote solidarity as they used to do in the working-class communities which were the seedbeds of socialism. The welfare state has been more salient in that respect. It has done more to undermine solidarity in the working classes by its housing policy - requiring people to move away from their kindred and friends - than by any other of the policies associated with it. Changes in industrial location have made their own deadly contribution to the sundering of social ties.

But the strangest omission of all is religion. Where, oh where, is Tawney? The connection between Methodism and socialism is an old story in social history, and not just Methodism. We read in the Gospels that "As a branch cannot bear fruit all by itself, unless it remains part of the vine, neither can you unless you remain in me." Fellow feeling is a feature of the human species, and has to be central to any major project of reform. Crosland was right about axioms, even if he did not make much of this one. He, presumably, was not an admirer of the New Testament or even of David Hume. I never asked him.

Lord Young was the author of Let Us Face the Future, the Labour party's manifesto for the 1945 general election.

Ideas that Shaped Postwar Britain

Editor - David Marquand and Anthony Seldon
ISBN - 0 00 638449 8
Publisher - Fontana
Price - £7.99
Pages - 351

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