Über-Tony

Ben Pimlott

  • Crosland’s Future: Opportunity and Outcome by David Reisman
    Macmillan, 237 pp, £47.50, October 1997, ISBN 0 333 65963 5

Why is Tony Crosland one of the few Old Labour heroes that nobody mocks? Keir Hardie, G.D.H. Cole, Stafford Cripps, Gaitskell, even Nye Bevan, have become the subject of New Labour locker-room ribaldry. Yet to describe yourself as a ‘Crosland socialist’ still carries meaning. Maybe it is because of that sardonic smile, and an uneasy feeling that, if he were alive today, he would be doing the mocking. For if much of the Crosland canon seems dated, there remains a core which has increased in relevance with the passage of time. Such, at any rate, is the theme of David Reisman’s two volumes of intellectual biography and analysis – the most careful and thought-provoking exegesis yet to appear.

Crosland was a man of contradictions, as Reisman shows, a hedonist who was also a puritan, and so on. Perhaps the biggest contradiction was that such a thoroughly English politician should have been so passionately interested in ideas. It is important to remember that today’s obsession with doctrine is new. Before Margaret Thatcher, British political culture looked down on theory, treating it as foreign and totalitarian. The Tories sneered at Labour for allegedly adhering to Continental doctrines, and Labour, embarrassed, sneered at its own intellectuals, calling them ‘desiccated calculating machines’. Attlee regarded theory as stuff and nonsense and Harold Wilson doused his food with HP Sauce to project a plain-man image. It was the people’s dominatrix who caused a turnaround. Pragmatic to the core, she took up philosophers she agreed with and allowed her instincts to be dignified as an ideology. Since Thatcherism, everybody has wanted an ‘ism’, and think-tanks have been set up to produce them.

There were theorists in the old days, even great ones, but it is a moot point how much effect they had in the political arena. Genuine innovators, like Keynes and Beveridge, tended to be eclectically empirical. Indeed, those contemporary writers who seek to unravel recent political history – especially the history of the Left – by studying the history of theory are in danger of anachronism. As Henry Drucker pointed out in The Doctrine and Ethos of the Labour Party, a gulf always existed between the thinkers quoted in set-pieces – Marx, Tawney, Orwell and the rest – and the trade-union argot of the smoke-filled rooms, where decisions were brokered.

In short, picking out ‘influential’ left-of-centre thinkers is tricky. Yet there have been a handful of works that have helped to put the aspirations of the Labour Movement into a coherent frame, and of these the most sophisticated – perhaps, the only one with staying power – is Crosland’s The Future of Socialism, first published in 1956.

Was Crosland an ‘intellectual in politics’ or a politician who took a rare creative interest in political thought? Reisman’s claim that he might ‘have made a greater contribution to the future of socialism if he had remained with his books and not opted for the rainbow of action’ seriously misses the point. For the essence of The Future of Socialism is that it is neither the product of an ivory tower nor a work of propaganda, but the result of sifting advanced ideas through a filter of experience. Consoling Crosland over the loss of his seat in 1955, the ex-Chancellor Hugh Dalton observed that no good book ever got written between division bells. Crosland may have benefited from an enforced sabbatical. The Future of Socialism is not an academic study, however. The energy it conveys comes from the sense of its author as somebody recently bloodied in battle, waiting for the next push.

Nor should Crosland be seen as a don fallen among politicians. He joined the Labour Party in his teens – and his interests in theory and practice were always intertwined. Born in 1918, he espoused the conventional Marxism of his generation but was soon put off by what he called ‘the hard core of beastliness’ in the Soviet Union. ‘The intellectual foundations of my socialism,’ he liked to say, ‘were laid by Christian thinkers like Berdyaev and Niebuhr rather than by Marx.’ It was partly true. The son of a senior civil servant who was also a Plymouth Brother, Crosland inherited a fringe version of Nonconformist ethics and had no need to wave a hammer and sickle to prove his outsiderdom. Yet his work – mixing sociology, political theory and policy prescription – was steeped in Marx, in contrast to the work of Tawney, say, which barely acknowledges that Marx even existed.

Crosland went to a suburban public school, Highgate, and thence to Oxford, where he began a lifelong friendship and rivalry with Roy Jenkins, a steadier if equally ambitious intellectual, but one who always conceded Crosland’s superior brain. The Second World War interrupted and leavened his student politics, active service providing its own kind of filter. Afterwards, he returned to university, became president of the Union, wrote a few articles on economics, inherited the college fellowship of his tutor, Robert Hall, taught (inter alios) the undergraduate Anthony Wedgwood Benn, and entered Parliament in 1950 as MP for South Gloucester.

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