Pious yearnings from a weary child of Attlee

The New Reckoning
March 20, 1998

The New Reckoning is David Marquand's attempt to take the measure of British politics today: as he says in his opening chapter, "an overview of the territory in which I now find myself". Marquand comes from a strongly political background, with a father who himself in due course became a Labour minister and a great-grandfather who had been one of the founder members of the Independent Labour Party. After a reasonably successful parliamentary career of his own, as admirer of Tony Crosland and colleague of John Mackintosh and David Owen, he retired with some relief from "the feverish inconsequence of parliamentary life", first to a briefer spell in the European bureaucracy in Brussels, and then to the not always notably more consequential milieu of the academy, as professor successively in Salford and Sheffield, and now as an Oxford head of house. As an academic his principal claim to fame has been a large, accomplished and illuminating biography of Ramsay Macdonald. The New Reckoning is blessed jointly by Roy Jenkins and Will Hutton, who between them ascribe to the author not merely rigorous and disinterested intellectual courage, but also flair, raciness, wisdom, brilliance, and the reinvention of the British liberal tradition, and describe his book as challenging, thought provoking, subtle, intelligent and persuasive. How many readers are likely to agree?

The book contains three groups of essays, on the global crisis of socialism and its significance for the future of societies, polities and economies ("Granted that socialism, as traditionally understood, is no longer with us, does it have something to say to us from beyond the grave?"), on the politics of the European Union, and on the politics of the United Kingdom itself and its pressing need for constitutional reform. It is hard to imagine anyone being greatly struck by any of these on its own, and I do not myself see that they add up to much more when laid end to end. None of them offers views that are arrestingly odd or strikingly false. But in the end none of them really offers much in the way of views at all. The opening chapter, "Journey to an unknown destination", chronicles more than anything else a lengthy and somewhat bemused retreat: as the "child of the Attlee government" peers into the future "the only thing I am sure of is that there will be more new turnings which I cannot now foresee". This is certainly not a stupid thing of which to be confident. But even by academic standards it offers pretty limited instruction to anyone else.

When such an obviously attractive and principled person offers the lessons of a lifetime of political experience and these add up to so little, it is of some importance to try to judge why. When he writes of politics today Marquand writes in disappointment and understandable nervousness. What he renounces in his past is not the purposes he once espoused or the values that made these purposes compelling to him, but the means which seemed at the time prospectively effective for bringing them about. In Blair's Britain (if that is still a permissible phrase) the ghost of socialism may not any longer be an audible cry of pain, but it perhaps is still discernibly a shudder of fear. The reinvested tradition of moral reform, new liberalism almost a century on, still carries a keen desire to embody principle in the tissue of society and economy and do so through political action. What it has lost is any reasonably concrete and specific proposals for how to carry out this exceedingly exigent ambition. (Whatever the political history of the world may have taught us, it has surely shown that it is quite hard to do this.) If the domestic project of the Blair government is to fudge through the political aftermath of socialism with a degree of fiscal control sufficient to permit the purchase of the next election, and its principal international ambition is to fudge the politics of European monetary union without conclusively painting itself out of the institutional coordination of Europe's advanced economies for the imaginable future, its most buoyant line of political initiative may well prove to lie in the constitutional recomposition of the UK itself. Marquand has been thinking about the latter issue for some time but not on this evidence with great intellectual energy or force. Here his political instinct seems more alert than his academic insight. Read symptomatically his book reveals all too much of the political debility and inertia of the erstwhile British left.

Only in the essays on the EU does he at times think and write incisively enough to show his readers how to think further effectively for themselves. He does not appear to have much enjoyed his stay in Brussels. But judging by his 1982 essay on European monetary union, he certainly learnt something distinctive from his time there which was not widely understood by practising British politicians until well after the signing of the Maastricht Treaty. What he learned, moreover, of the political scale of the challenge of European construction, it is still unclear that any European political leaders have fully mastered. Unfortunately, here too the gain in understanding itself involves a recognition of even starker political constraint. If this really is the New Reckoning, things look fairly grim in the decades to come for much of the population of the British Isles. It is not at all what Mr Attlee (or even L. T. Hobhouse) led us to hope. But if we are to recover their expectations by rational means we shall have to discover how to make it add up very differently, not just yearn piously for a nicer world.

John Dunn is professor of political theory, University of Cambridge.

The New Reckoning

Author - David Marquand
ISBN - 0 7456 1744 1 and 1745 X
Publisher - Polity
Price - £45.00 and £13.95
Pages - 225

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