Hattersley’s Specifics

Michael Stewart

  • Choose freedom: The Future for Democratic Socialism by Roy Hattersley
    Joseph, 265 pp, £12.95, January 1987, ISBN 0 7181 2483 9
  • Power, Competition and the State. Vol. I: Britain in Search of Balance, 1940-61 by Keith Middlemas
    Methuen, 404 pp, £25.00, October 1986, ISBN 0 333 41412 8

Tony Crosland’s epoch-making book The Future of Socialism was published in 1956. That Roy Hattersley’s aim is to don the master’s mantle in the late 1980s is evident not only from his book’s subtitle, but also from his brief account of a conversation he had with Tony Crosland a week before the latter’s fatal stroke. ‘Give me,’ said Crosland, ‘a simple definition of socialism’. Hattersley obligingly failing to do this, Tony Crosland did it himself. ‘Socialism,’ he said, ‘is about the pursuit of equality and the protection of freedom – in the knowledge that until we are truly equal we will not be truly free’. It is that self-evident truth, says Hattersley, that his book seeks to demonstrate. (Subtle politician that he is, Hattersley refers us to Susan Crosland’s biography of her husband ‘for a full account of the conversation’ between him and Crosland. In fact, Mrs Crosland’s book contains hardly any fuller an account: but it does contain ample evidence of the fact that Tony Crosland liked Roy Hattersley. Ah well, that’s showbiz.)

Hattersley’s main concern is to rescue ‘socialism’ from the charge that it is the antithesis of liberty or freedom. Arthur Lewis’s famous axiom that ‘socialism is about equality,’ he says is true, but only partly true. Equality is a means, not an end in itself. Without much more equality than we have at the moment, a large proportion of the population cannot enjoy freedom or liberty in any deep or meaningful sense. ‘The immediate intention of socialist policies,’ says Mr Hattersley, ‘is the creation of a more equal society within which power and wealth are more evenly distributed. But socialism’s fundamental purpose – indeed, the purpose of the equality we seek – is the extension of liberty’. Hattersley goes on to quote Tawney’s view that a socialist society sees liberty ‘not as a possession to be defended but as a goal to be achieved’. This achievement depends upon the creation of rights – social and economic, as well as political – which, according to Tawney, ‘must be such that wherever the occasion for their exercise arises, they can in fact be exercised’. And Mr Hattersley goes on to state that ‘as we evangelised for equality, we should have made clear that without it, for a majority of the population, the promise of liberty is a cruel hoax. Liberty is our aim. Equality is the way in which it can truly be achieved.’

This point of view is, of course, the exact opposite of that of the libertarian New Right, which, basing itself on the writings of F.A. Hayek and Milton Friedman, holds that most intervention by the state, and particularly any intervention designed to promote greater equality, represents an unacceptable infringement of personal liberty. In what is the best part of his book, Hattersley, with a certain amount of assistance from Tawney, Rawls and others, gives the New Right a good drubbing – Hayek’s work, in particular, being demolished with skill and gusto. But Hattersley is careful not to overdo it. While too little equality results in too little freedom, the active promotion of total equality may, he acknowledges, actually inhibit the freedom that greater equality is intended to make possible. The relationship of the two conditions can be envisaged as a curve, with freedom increasing with the promotion of equality up to a point, but then starting to decline. The problem is to decide when the top of the curve has been reached; in Britain, Hattersley thinks, we are clearly well below it. And that certainly seems an accurate judgment.

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