As yet, the Social Democrats have no historian. There have been a few breathless attempts to recall the more obvious events. Roy Jenkins’s memorable (and memorably pronounced) announcement in his Dimbleby Lecture of a runway ready for a take-off, the page of signatures in the Guardian, the Lime-house Declaration, and the constitutional convention in Kensington. There have been pieces – not least in this paper – which sketch the start of a political explanation – invoking the Parliamentary Labour Party’s inability to control the unions after 1960, the failure of the Campaign for Democratic Socialism in the 1970s, and the successes of the very differently-inclined Campaign for Labour Party Democracy, and the outcome of these and other changes in the new electoral college in 1981. There is the frequently flaunted economic fact that there is no future in Anthony Crosland’s sort of socialism because there is no firm future for the growth which – although less unequivocally than subsequent commentators have assumed – Crosland supposed adequate public spending to require. There have even been a few sociological reflections: Gareth Stedman Jones’s, for instance, which fix on the reforming middle class’s long and slow but now perhaps terminal loss of faith in the working class in whose name the reforms were to be made. But there has been, as yet, no connected account.
It might of course be said that although the Social Democrats do now have a history, it is far too soon for them to have a History. Also, Histories, however strongly some professional historians may dispute the fact, have to have a point in the present, and it is by no means clear what this point, for the Social Democrats, should be In 1981 and 82, in the first flush of success, it might have seemed that it was to explain the beginning of the breaking of the misnamed mould. But in 1984, although there is no certain sign that the party will within a few years actually disappear, there is by no means any certain sign that it will not. Indeed, the more likely it seems that it might, with its alliance, win more seats at the next election, the more likely it also seems that the Alliance will fall apart. It is perfectly possible that the Social Democrats will turn out to have been one more bump in a gathering political night.
The politics indeed are unpredictable, as politics always are. Margaret Thatcher may, despite herself, fail to maintain her pretence of leadership. Neil Kinnock may, despite himself, take over. David Owen may come out of his increasingly conservative camouflage to capture that middle ground on which success in British politics has been said, with decreasing plausibility, to rest. None, however, has a politically able team behind them. Almost anything could happen. Nevertheless, the economic and social changes which all recent administrations have failed to see in time, and, having seen, to do much about, will continue.
Not the least of these, in Britain as in France, West Germany and Scandinavia, is the increasing volatility of the electorate itself. In each of these countries, age, sex and class have become less good predictors of political preference, fewer voters are voting, more of them are switching from party to party, and those that switch, in contrast to the 1950s and early 1960s, are the better-educated and the better-informed. Where there is proportional representation and where there is not, the political reflexes on which the parties in north-western Europe have relied are breaking down. There would seem to be a change in the interests which these parties have presumed and been presumed to reflect.
What these interests have been presumed to be is, in general, clear. On the right, they have been bound up with something called capitalism, which seemed to mean private ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange, and a reliance on the natural beneficence, and where not the beneficence at least the justice, of what is described as the market. On the left, they have been bound up with something called socialism, which seemed to mean public ownership. They have in large part been interests related to the control and consequences of production. Or at least they have been presumed to be. For in all such societies, politicians of both left and right have tended to exaggerate the extent to which those they claim to represent care about production at all. In these societies, and in others, politicians become, by the time they get into power, preoccupied with staying there, and the ideological currency of their attempts to do so is often a currency coined in and for the fight itself. The Labour Party in the 1960s and 1970s was in this respect an extreme case. Rather like the German Social Democrats in the years before 1914, most Labour Party politicians had ceased, it seemed, to be able to hear any voices but their own.
One of those they should have been hearing was Michael Young’s. Young is the country’s most compelling sociologist. Not lower-middle-class in origin, not indeed English at all, but half-Irish and half-Australian, educated outside the normal rut at Dartington, and then, after a spell at Gray’s Inn, by Richard Titmuss at the LSE, free therefore of the resentment, deference, fantasy and fear which drive a large part of the rest of the profession, he has an innocent energy in the face of what he once called ‘the chipped white cups of Dover’ which has carried him through a remarkable career. Secretary of the Labour Party’s research department after 1945, a friend and adviser to Anthony Crosland at the Department of Education twenty years later, instigator of the Institute of Community Studies, the Consumers’ Association, the National Extension College and the Advisory Centre for Education, one of the first sociology lecturers at Cambridge, the founding chairman of the Social Science Research Council, and the inspiration of all sorts of other enterprises. He is tireless, optimistic and original.
It was original of him, for instance, to see and to say in a Labour Party pamphlet of 1948, ‘Small Man, Big World’, that there was already and was increasingly going to be a difficulty in pursuing efficiency, which required large enterprises, while pursuing democracy, which required small ones. A few 19th and early 20th-century socialists, although never the Fabians, had had their nervous moments. But after 1945, at the point of power, such doubts had disappeared, and it was not until the 1970s that others came to see that it was an issue that mattered: that an aversion to the inevitable impersonality of large organisations could breed an aversion to the ‘socialism’ in whose name such organisations were created. It was even more original of Young, however, to see and to say in 1960, in ‘The Chipped White Cups of Dover’ itself, that ‘politics will become less and less the politics of production and more and more the politics of consumption’: to argue that the interests which seemed still to preoccupy the two main parties, and even to justify their existence, were not the interests of the voters. As Young tried to tell the Labour Party, most of its members, and certainly most of those who might imaginably vote for it, cared more about their private lives than they did about anything else. But the Labour Party, he saw, was saddled with the growing liability of the unions, and they, or at least their leaders, were still obsessed with the politics of production. ‘Labour will remain so obviously a producers’ party,’ he concluded, that ‘an independent party of the left will have to take up the cause of reform which Labour can no longer serve.’ The Fabians turned the pamphlet down and Young had to publish it privately.
His originality, then as now, lay partly in his refusal to accept the conventional categories of debate. But it also lay in his having initiated and himself conducted a good deal of social research. The older tradition of inquiry into the conditions of the English working classes, which had begun in the depression of the 1870s, had faded. It was anyway more paternalistic, more distinctively Fabian, in its inspiration. By the early 1950s, when Young started the Institute of Community Studies in Bethnal Green and did a series of studies from there with Peter Willmott and others, there was simply no adequate information on what most people might want from politics.
This research – done, it is true, in the South-East, away from the areas of heavy industry – strengthened his conviction that there were no irremediable conflicts of interest in the society. Those who think about production tend still to take a different view. But so now do many who think about consumption. Their reasons are familiar. Selwyn Lloyd’s tentative pay pauses at the beginning of the 1960s had become incomes policies by the middle of that decade and disasters by 1974. The cause of almost all ills, many people came to think, was not the question of who owned what or controlled it, but a roller-coaster of irresponsible wage demands, demands which, after 1974, were pressed most remorselessly against an employing Labour state itself. And in 1977, Fred Hirsch, a professor at Warwick, came up with what appeared to be an explanation of how this had come about.
Commentators seized upon Hirsch’s book. Peter Jay even called it profound Academics picked at it and still do: Adrian Ellis and Krishan Kumar’s collection of papers from an Acton Society seminar is the latest instance. In fact, it was simple almost to the point of simple-mindedness. Hirsch started from the premise that our pleasure in consuming a good or a service is in inverse relation to its availability. I want it because you can’t have it, because my having it gives me distinction, status, some sense of being above and ahead of the herd. But in a growing economy, or at least, an economy with rising real incomes, what I can buy today you can buy tomorrow, and my distinction will vanish. I shall accordingly set off in pursuit of something else. And so, soon, will you. The result is that neither you nor I nor anyone else will be satisfied for more than a passing day. Conflicts over incomes ensue, and eventually, we come to question the society in which this happens, and we come increasingly to the conclusion that something of a more co-operative, less competitive kind has to be put in its place.
Not everyone wants collectivism, however, and, like Hirsch himself, and David Owen, all are at a loss to explain how to get it. Michael Young, however, seems always to have been convinced that it is there, waiting, to be had. Characteristically, he did not, in the 1970s, merely speculate about what the causes and consequences of a moderately affluent society might be, but with Peter Willmott went out to see. Their conclusion in one of the Institute’s books, The Symmetrical Family – a book which, like all those in which Young has had a hand, includes some of the best sociological writing there is – was that, in the long march of rising private prosperity, the ranks at the back were increasingly happy and those at the front, pace Hirsch and other self-described but resentful realists, were not very visibly disaffected. (In the Sixties, in some research that was published with the Institute, W.G. Runciman had found that the English had always made very narrow social and economic comparisons.) Young did not find any reason to believe that the ungrateful working classes were tearing the fabric apart. They were having an increasingly nice time and having it together. Their pleasures were private, but collective.
Nevertheless, Young might be thought not to have been addressing the crucial question. What is the proper balance between private activity and public responsibility, in the management of the economy – which cannot be avoided – as well as in the consumption of goods and services? Young’s collected papers suggest that he gave little thought to the first part of this question when he worked in the Labour Party’s research department in the late 1940s. And of course, in that party, at that time, the answer to it was widely thought to be clear. But now, directing the Social Democrats’ Tawney Group, he has thought about it. With Marianne Rigge, he has turned to the prospects for co-operatives.
‘The SDP,’ he and Rigge write in their introduction, ‘can make the cause of co-operatives its own.’ ‘The third sector and the third party could go together.’ But co-ops, they freely concede, do conjure up one or another of two dispiriting pictures. One is of the Co-op itself, an unenticing alternative to Sainsbury or Waitrose or the larger Marks and Spencer. The other is of disemployed artisans, left behind by technical change and abandoned by banks, forlornly attempting in some shed to keep on producing what others can now more attractively and profitably produce elsewhere. There is, however, a different picture. Restraining their enthusiasm for a Co-operative Commonwealth, Young and Rigge describe in detail the very various kinds of success that have been achieved – most commonly in retailing, distribution, food-processing, printing and publishing, but also in more capital-intensive activities like electronic engineering; concede that there is a difficulty in raising capital if shares are not to be issued and the direct control of the producers thereby reduced; but conclude that both in the conversion to co-operatives of conventional enterprises – the kinds of conversion introduced by John Lewis into his stores in 1929 and into Scott Bader in 1951 – and in the establishment of completely new co-operatives, a good deal more is possible than might be imagined. Although those who first have the idea and first risk their money are apt, not unnaturally, to acquire a proprietorial attitude to those who come later, although there has to be some direction, not least because suppliers and buyers want to know whom to talk to on the phone, although there’s a great deal of having just to sit about and collectively decide, although there are many practical difficulties of this sort, the commitment and co-operation, and in some cases the commercial success, of these allegedly hopeless ventures are extremely encouraging.
Michael Young can always be relied upon to report that some English people, somewhere, like working, like each other, and are not consumed by a wish to be left alone. If this is a social fact, it is an important one. But the further fact that an effective state has to be directed is one which none of Young’s ventures, for all their verve and undoubted value, can directly address. For the most unfortunate fact is that such a state and whatever society might be required to drive it will not just one day appear. Here, as in Japan, or Sweden, or West Germany, or as now in France, it has to be constructed. (And as the new French prime minister has recently said, it doesn’t much matter whether the result is called ‘socialist’ or not.) Some might like to believe, like Trotsky and Mrs Thatcher, that the destruction of what we’ve previously had will help bring it about. Others might like to believe that increasing economic backwardness will. But they would be wrong. Young himself may be right to think that the will is there. One hopes so. But it’s clear that if the SDP has a more than passingly parochial and purely political history in front of it, this is the issue that it has to address. The Party has to do more than merely save a past for a future it has so far shown little inclination to think about seriously. It has also to get into power.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.