With or without the workers

Ross McKibbin

  • The Progressive Dilemma: From Lloyd George to Kinnock by David Marquand
    Heinemann, 248 pp, £20.00, January 1991, ISBN 0 434 45094 4

This book contains reflections on both history and theory, and is written with David Marquand’s usual elegance and intelligence. Its 19 essays concern themes familiar to readers of his biography of Ramsay MacDonald and his distinguished study, The Unprincipled Society: how can we devise for modern Britain an appropriate ‘social democratic’ theory of social action, and how can we construct a ‘progressive’ coalition which might give it adequate electoral support. Twenty-five years separate the first essay from the last, and they are not published in the order they were written. They have been tailored to bestow unity, but the stitching sometimes shows: thus on page 89 we find the Attlee Government chided for not undertaking a ‘revolution of production’ which would ‘smash the structures and root out the habits which had already produced more than half a century of relative economic decline’. But ten pages after this Saint-Simonian utterance, we find it conceded that the Attlee ministry could hardly have done this ‘in the lifetime of a single government’. How is this to be resolved? The answer is that the second judgment was written 21 years before the first. These essays are, in fact, chapters in the intellectual and political biography of a young Croslandite (once a Bevanite) who became an increasingly bruised and disenchanted Labour MP, a founder member of the SDP, and who now (I imagine) stands between the Kinnockian Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats. From the point of view of the reader interested in understanding how he has come to argue what he does it might have been better had this been made more explicit.

The essays are of several kinds. Some clearly had their origins in book reviews; others are more sustained pieces. Some are primarily historical; others political-theoretical. Eleven of the 19 are biographical studies and are often outstandingly good: the essay on Douglas Jay and Michael Stewart (‘The Tortoise and the Hare’), for example, is absolutely just and that on David Owen – which I doubt that Owen will like very much – is remarkable. On the whole, I think the theoretical essays are more successful than the historical – in the sense that Professor Marquand’s analysis of what has gone wrong seems to me better than his account of why it has gone wrong. Furthermore, it is these essays, despite the tailoring, which in practice give The Progressive Dilemma an overall argument.

That argument proceeds from what is the central paradox of the book: despite the fact that the British people have repeatedly (at least via surveys) asserted their adherence to the achievements of ‘progressive’ governments, they have historically been reluctant to vote for the parties which have comprised these governments. British progressivism has had only two real moments: 1906-1914, when it appeared as if it might attain hegemony, and a more ‘fleeting’ one in 1945. This book is, therefore, a study of failure. Why has progressivism failed? In part, its failure has been one of theory. The predominant Anglo-American political tradition has been an asocial liberalism whose outcome has been a reductionist individualism. This in the past freed people from superstition and oppression, but it now utterly undermines any collective or social purpose. Allied to this tradition has been the poverty of England’s civic culture, which has permitted individuals only to obey or to exchange in the market; and that is because the English are not citizens but subjects of a monarch; nor can they become citizens simply because the monarch delegates his or her powers. In part, the failure has been political: the ‘mechanical’ statism of the Labour Party – whether in its Labourist, revisionist or Fabian mode – while it may provide people with what they need does not persuade them actively to seek it or to combine in the attempt. In other words, like Toryism, it encourages them to obey. Similarly, the exclusive attitudes of Labourism, its denial of legitimacy to other progressive forces and its assumption that the ‘working class’ (by which is meant the trade-unionised working class) has a special virtue, and a special claim on society, has alienated many who might otherwise support a progressive politics. This explains the paradox that a substantial majority of the people vote for anti-Conservative parties – and Marquand points out how narrow the electoral base for the Thatcher revolution actually was – while leaving the Conservatives masters of the field.

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