Beyond Proportional Representation

David Marquand

  • The People and the Party System: The Referendum and Electoral Reform in British Politics by Vernon Bogdanor
    Cambridge, 285 pp, £20.00, September 1981, ISBN 0 521 24207 X

The ‘Attlee consensus’, under the aegis of which the welfare state was consolidated and the mixed economy established, has been in ruins for some years now, but it is still too soon to tell whether a new consensus will replace it, or, if so, what the shape of that new consensus will be. The neo-liberal and neo-Marxist models offered by the Thatcherite Right and Bennite Left respectively are patently archaic and barren. Both rest on assumptions drawn from the primitive industrialism of the early 19th century. Neither is remotely relevant to a post-industrial society in the late 20th. But huddling in the rubble, gamely pretending that the familiar old building is still intact – the alternative offered by the Tory Wets and the traditional Labour Right – is not a satisfactory option either. With all their faults, the Thatcherites and Bennites have at least realised that the world of the Forties and Fifties is dead. The Gilmours, the Priors, the Healeys and the Hattersleys seem to think it can be resuscitated by mellifluous invocations of the spirit of Disraeli or cosy chats in a trade-union country house.

This is the real justification of – and, at the same time, a daunting challenge to – the SDP and the emerging SDP-Liberal Alliance. The ‘Attlee consensus’ was the child of an inchoate and inexplicit, but nevertheless deep-rooted and persistent social-democratic tradition, which went back to the early Fabians and the ‘New Liberalism’ of 1906-1914. That tradition has been the majority tradition in this country since 1945, perhaps since 1940. Though it was on the defensive for most of the Seventies, it is still the majority tradition today.

Mrs Thatcher’s attempts to uproot and destroy it have failed. It has turned out to be stronger than she is; and, after nearly three years of nagging and hectoring from her and her ministers, it is stronger now than it was when she came into office. The overwhelming probability is that it would also survive a Bennite government. The British are still the same kindly, anti-ideological, instinctive Social Democrats whom that archetypal Social Democrat, George Orwell, celebrated forty years ago; and, as every British prime minister from Churchill to Callaghan has known in his bones, they can be governed successfully only from a social-democratic position. If a new consensus does replace the ruined ‘Attlee consensus’ – and it is hard to see how a pluralist political order can survive indefinite dissensus – the new consensus will have to be social-democratic too.

But it will have to be genuinely new, not a disguised version of the ‘Attlee consensus’ of the past; and the social democracy it embodies will have to be applied in a different way, and through different instruments, from those of the Forties, Fifties and Sixties. It will have to be decentralist where the ‘Attlee consensus’ was centralist, libertarian where the ‘Attlee consensus’ was dirigiste, power-diffusing where the ‘Attlee consensus’ concentrated power. Above all, it will have to be self-consciously and explicitly constitutional, in a sense in which the ‘Attlee consensus’ was not. It will have to be concerned, not just with the ends for which state power can be used, but with the way in which power is won and held: not just with the content of public policy, but with the way in which policy is made and implemented: not just with what governments do, but with what government is.

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