Born Again

Phillip Whitehead

  • Face the future by David Owen
    Cape, 552 pp, £12.50, January 1981, ISBN 0 224 01956 2

When a young man who has thrust himself to the centre of the political stage writes a book on politics, he will suffer the condescension of his seniors, the condemnation of his critics, and the faint sniggers of academics offstage. David Owen has had his prescription for Britain patronised by Grimond and Powell, dissected by Ken Coates, and treated like a first-year undergraduate’s essay by Professor Peter Townsend. With his publishers bringing its publication forward to catch the crisis, the book might look like a hastily-written manifesto for the alliance of born-again social democrats and ancient political re-treads among whom he may be doomed to reside. He deserves better, and so does the book. It is written by a socialist, and for socialists.

This is its first fascination. The sage of Morgan Grenfell will wince over its strictures on public expenditure and the role of government intervention. Shirley Williams, who has brought to the cause of Europe the passion which her mother gave to pacifism, will find Dr Owen’s advocacy of a tough line within the Community somewhat disagreeable. Bill Rodgers may not be happy with some of the confessions about defence with which our former Foreign Secretary regales the Soviets. The rest of us can venture a cautious approval. Some of us may hope that the ideas contained in this book may interlock with other ideas on the left, where they belong.

Like Tony Benn’s Arguments for Socialism, the book has been too hastily written, is sometimes repetitious, and contains gobbets of former speeches and articles. Given the pressure on their time, it would be a miracle if it were otherwise. Owen’s book is better planned, but ends abruptly, almost in mid-sentence. It is as though he were still writing the great work when the call came. There is no last chapter drawing together the themes of a book which too often loses its conclusions among its narrative. Perhaps he is writing it now. What we have is a portmanteau treatment of the issues facing British socialists. Almost everything is there, with the exception of a chapter on education and – a stranger omission – of anything more than a few lines on the democratic reform of the Labour Party itself, which has supposedly set off the Long March of the Social Democrats.

Dr Owen puts his faith in decentralised socialism, the winning of hearts and minds rather than the commanding heights. This has been, as he shows, an inspiration for socialists from the earliest days. He echoes G.D.H. Cole’s distinction: ‘The familiar brands of collectivist socialism were somehow things one wanted for other people rather than oneself, in order to eradicate the injustices of the depredations of capitalism, whereas the Guild doctrine offered me a kind of socialism that I could want as well as think right.’ Owen contrasts his decentralised socialism with corporatism, the collusion of huge unresponsive bureaucracies, trade unions and multinational companies in running the state apparatus with the minimum involvement of the citizen. His criticisms here are not very far from Mr Benn’s, who talks of ‘a disciplined society where the men at the top in government, industry, banking and the unions would sit down together and work out a common approach’. Owen and Benn also share an admiration for the co-operative ideal, though with a difference of emphasis. Owen sees the co-op as a wholesale alternative to nationalisation, whereas Benn’s supporters would say that it will by and large only be possible after public ownership has been accomplished. There ought to be common ground between them on the midwife role of the Co-operative Development Agency under any future government bent on changing market capitalism.

Where else might Dr Owen find supporters to his left? His defence of public expenditure and the need to find industrial finance in a society sold short by its bankers will ruffle more feathers at Morgan Grenfell than in the Tribune Group. His energy proposals and his defence of the role of BNOC – ‘the single most successful assertion of the British national interest since the Second World War and an excellent example of wise state intervention’ – would gain general assent except in the case of the section preoccupied (as he is not) with the hazards of nuclear power. He talks of integrated transport and energy policies as though he means it. He can see the argument for some industrial protectionism without swallowing the whole of the Cambridge case. It is when he comes to incomes policy that he will find his support more to his right. It is a contradiction of the old Left that most of them are in favour of planning everything except incomes, but, as he himself admits, the contradiction is present in Owen too, decentraliser, libertarian and advocate of shop-floor power though he is. For all socialists there is a conflict between these things and the corporatism which any successful long-term incomes policy would require, although it is an argument from which Mr Benn has consistently ducked out. Owen’s conception of a single huge national Comparability Commission can hardly be said to be a solution. Professor Meade (an early Council for Social Democracy supporter) and Bill McCarthy have offered the high road and low road to incomes policy in The Socialist Agenda.[*] Owen’s thoughts on incomes policy are best read in conjunction with theirs, just as his chapter on Equality is better read with Nicholas Bosanquet’s recent pamphlet, ‘Signposts for the Eighties’,[†] which points to the new challenge of inequality within the working class in conditions of high unemployment.

Elsewhere, the attack on the corporate state is more sustained. Local government is to be made more independent of the block grants of Whitehall. (Paradoxically, Michael Heseltine is already achieving this result in spite of himself by his punitive use of the grant system, which is forcing some councils to raise almost all their own revenue.) The ‘embarrassingly radical proposals’ of the Layfield Committee are exhumed. Neighbourhood councils and elected, revenue-raising local health authorities are to flourish. Resistance to RAWP, the Resource Allocation Working Party, is cited as an example of the centralising tendencies within the NHS, but there would be many in the deprived regions who had to put their faith in central government to redress what would otherwise be a balance of resources that worked against their interests. Devolution is to be revived, and linked (along with the MEPs) to a reformed Second Chamber. The Civil Service is to be checked by more open examination and scrutiny, including the vetting of appointments and of requests to leave the Civil Service for sensitive and lucrative appointments in industry.

As Foreign Secretary, David Owen learned the hard way how disloyal civil servants could be. He speaks with approval of Mrs Thatcher’s negotiating stance with the EEC, and argues for a Labour Cabinet taking the same approach. ‘The problem is that some Foreign Office officials regard their own views as according with the national interest, and feel they should let those views become known to a wider audience.’ They constantly tried to thwart him, and it might be said that the eager Foreign Office support for the good of the Community rather than of ourselves within it has done more to sour the Labour Party and stimulate its present sullen nationalism than anything else. Elsewhere, however, Owen concedes that ‘nothing is more nauseating than the spate of stories from ex-Cabinet Ministers about how they were thwarted by officials’: we know whom he has in mind, and it is all of a piece with the current denigration of the last Labour Government and of the Parliamentary Party. Owen’s account of that government’s errors and omissions, set against the magnitude of its difficulties, is a fair audit.

This is clearest in the chapter which will most antagonise the Left, ‘Negotiate and Survive’, which outlines a rational case against the unilateralists on defence – one very far from the exhausted me-tooism with which the Labour Right often parrots the Pentagon and our own defence lobby. The Reagan Administration, which now proposes to confront the collapsing Soviet empire in Europe with the neutron bomb, Mrs Thatcher’s histrionics, and the idealism and polemic of CND have combined to shift the acceptable emphases of Labour defence thinking. Some people date the moment at which David Owen began to ‘flip’ into Social Democracy as being when he was howled down at the 1980 Special Conference for arguing that our presence in wideranging disarmament negotiations depended on our having something to negotiate with. He comes back to the argument here, and should stay to sustain it. Whether a Labour government would stay in Nato – and whether it would stay with or without the deployment of nuclear weapons on its territory – depends on the outcome. There has been so much cynicism on one side of the argument and credulity on the other that the real discussion between the multilateralists and the unilateralists which Michael Foot says he wants to see has hardly got started.

Will David Owen stay to fight his corner? Here he offers clues in both directions. He is angry about the Labour Party’s constitutional upheaval, ‘designed to give inner-party democracy an unprecedented dominance over parliamentary democracy’, but does not expand on the principle of one member/one vote for the party leader, in constituencies and in unions. Yet it is this principle, rapidly making headway in the Party, upon which he now threatens to leave us. He flirts with proportional representation among his proposed constitutional reforms, but elsewhere admits that ‘in terms of making difficult and possibly unpopular economic decisions there is no guarantee that a coalition of small parties, as opposed to the present coalition within the political parties, would strengthen the ability of any government to take difficult economic decisions.’ I am afraid that the bleak honesty of the thought, like the clumsy redundancy of the language, crops up again and again in this book.

It was quite clear from their recent television discussion, with Robin Day trying to play the parson and Frances Morell as a disdainful bridesmaid, that any marriage between David Owen and David Steel is a long way off. For one thing, Steel is in danger of being rumbled for the social democratic infiltrator which he is in a party of declining rural radicals and expanding urban poujadists. Any idea that this book is only of relevance to the political centre is quite wrong. It is, and ought to be, one of the texts of the Left: an assertion of one point of view in the endless debate between the collectivist and the libertarian, a necessary antidote to that mindless ‘manifestoism’ (‘rolling’, in the Bennite version) which now grips the Labour Party. David Owen and his admirers have every right to set up their own ‘tendency’; and if Mr Jenkins is correct in saying that the electorate can tell a hawk from a handsaw, most of Owen’s Limehouse Hundred seem to me hawkish enough to stay on the left. When David Owen takes Kolakowski as his text, and invokes the ‘obstinate will to erode by inches the conditions which produce avoidable suffering, oppression, hunger, wars, racial and national hatred, insatiable greed and vindictive envy’, he is talking to the Left, not to what he himself calls a ‘flabby consensus’. He should wait to see if it will listen, and reply. When it does, the real debate about policy, to which the far Left is also contributing, can begin.

[*] The Socialist Agenda edited by David Lipsey and Dick Leonard, Cape, 242 pp., £7.95, 15 January, 0 224 01886 8. David Marquand will be discussing the book shortly in this journal.

[†] Published by Campaign for Labour Victory (39c Highbury Place, London N5), £1 including postage.