Party Man

David Marquand

  • Tony Crosland by Susan Crosland
    Cape, 448 pp, £10.95, June 1982, ISBN 0 224 01787 X

I first met Tony Crosland 25 years ago, at a seminar at Nuffield College. I took an instant dislike to him. I was then a rather priggish Bevanite, and I was shocked by his politics. I was even more shocked by his manner. He seemed to typify what I most disliked about the Southern English mandarinate. He had a cut-glass accent. He was insufferably sure of himself. He was appallingly and gratuitously rude. Then I read The Future of Socialism. Slowly, reluctantly, and with many backward glances, I was converted. Capitalism, it seemed, had changed, after all. Public ownership was not essential to socialism. It was merely a means to an end, and not a very important means. What mattered was equality, and equality could be achieved in other ways. Bevan dropped out of my pantheon, and Gaitskell took his place. Crosland did not join the pantheon, exactly, but he became a sort of candidate member. The next time I met him, the qualities which had previously shocked me seemed forgivable, perhaps even endearing. Very well, he had a cut-glass accent. Who can help his upbringing? Very well, he was sure of himself. If the author of The Future of Socialism did not have a right to self-assurance, who did? Very well, he was rude. That was a sign of a fundamental seriousness and egalitarianism.

By the mid-Sixties, when I got into Parliament, I had become an admirer. Gaitskell was dead, and the revisionists needed a champion. George Brown was too unreliable, and Roy Jenkins too remote. Crosland seemed to be the man. After all, he was the high priest of revisionism. He had charted its course in happier days. Who better to lead it through the storms that followed Gaitskell’s death? For most of my Parliament – the strange, confused, ultimately tragic Parliament of 1966-1970 – I thought of myself as a Croslandite. I used to go to clandestine meetings in his room in the House, where an ill-assorted group – Christopher Price, David Owen, John Mackintosh, Jack Ashley and myself – drank whisky and talked devaluation. When devaluation finally came, I hoped he would become Chancellor of the Exchequer. When he did not, I hoped – incredible as it seems in retrospect – that he would save the Party by leading a putsch against Harold Wilson.

Then came the 1970 election defeat, and the Common Market split. It seemed to me then, and it seems to me now, that a Croslandite revisionist was logically bound to support entry into the Community: that the xenophobia and Little Englandism which lay at the heart of the opposition to it, and which would have been hugely reinforced had it been defeated, were irreconcilably opposed to the values for which Crosland had always stood, and to which The Future of Socialism was the most eloquent recent testimony. Believing that, I also believed that it was necessary to vote for entry, even if it meant splitting the Labour Party and keeping the Conservatives in office. As everyone knows, Crosland did not agree. Community membership, he declared when David Owen and I tried to persuade him to sign a declaration in favour of it, was seventeenth (or perhaps seventh or seventieth, I cannot now remember) on his list of priorities. He was still in favour of it, of course. But the workers of Grimsby were not interested in it, and it was nothing like as important as housing finance. It was certainly not worth a split in the Labour Party, and we should stop being so childish about it.

At the time, this felt like a betrayal. Crosland was not any old revisionist, after all. He was not a mere apparatchik, like Denis Healey, or a burnt-out case, like Douglas Jay. He was the revisionists’ guru – our teacher and mentor. We were what we were, in part at any rate, because of him. To watch him sulking in his tent, when the cause being fought over was, in reality, his cause, and when the troops fighting for it were his troops, was unbearably painful. In such situations, the myth of the Lost Leader is a comforting stand-by.

Not least among the virtues of Susan Crosland’s affectionate and moving portrait of her husband is that it shows that in his case, the myth was baseless. Not that her account of the episode is complete. Her book is a memoir, not a biography. Sensibly, she makes no pretence at objectivity; and she concentrates on the private man, not on the public figure. We learn a fair amount about the swashbuckling, hard-drinking ex-paratrooper of the Forties and early Fifties, and a great deal about the husband and stepfather of the Sixties and Seventies. We learn almost nothing about the author of The Future of Socialism, and little of importance about the Cabinet Minister and would-be Labour leader. There is a lot of good gossip, some of which is illuminating. But it illuminates character, not events. It tells us what Crosland thought was happening – or rather, what he told his wife he thought was happening – not what happened. That does not mean that it is valueless. He told her a great deal, and her memories of it have the ring of truth. The fact remains that the account we are given here is a one-sided picture of what, even at the start, was a one-sided picture.

Thus the ‘Jenkinsites’, as Mrs Crosland calls them, march through these pages like a malevolent phalanx, drilled by Bill Rodgers. When he tells them to advance, they advance. When he tells them to turn, they turn. Recognising that Crosland’s balanced judgment of the European issue is a threat to them, they decide to blacken his character and question his motives. Later, they decide to punish him for his refusal to march with them, and deny him the Deputy Leadership. The confusions and uncertainties, the bruised feelings and angry swings of mood, the divisions and jealousies which in fact characterised that motley coalition of future Social Democrats and old-style Labour right-wingers are not recorded. They could not be recorded, of course, because Crosland did not know about them. But because they are not recorded, the truth is simplified and distorted. And the truth is that the ‘Jenkinsites’ had mostly been Croslandites as well. They reacted as people who feel that they have been let down usually do react. No one told them to react in that way. No one needed to.

Though Mrs Crosland does not understand the ‘Jenkinsites’, she does understand Crosland. She makes it clear that he was being true to himself – or, at any rate, to the self he had by then become – when he behaved as he did over the Common Market. The workers of Grimsby, housing finance and the unity of the Labour Party really did matter more to him than the future pattern of Britain’s relations with her Continental neighbours. He was not a Lost Leader, after all. No handful of silver had seduced him from his allegiance. He had not shared our allegiance in the first place, or, if he had, he had ceased to do so. It was not his fault that he fell off the pedestal on which we had placed him. It was our fault for putting him there. Whatever may have been true of the Crosland of the Fifties, the Crosland of the Seventies was no longer emotionally a Croslandite. The swashbuckling ex-paratrooper had settled down, politically as well as in his private life. We persisted in seeing him as our mentor, but he no longer wanted to be anyone’s mentor. He wanted to be a sober, respectable departmental minister – not for base reasons, but because he genuinely believed that that was how he could make his most effective contribution. We still thought of him as the author of The Future of Socialism. He thought of himself as an ex- and future Secretary of State. And he took it for granted that his only possible vehicle was the Labour Party.

Even now, more than a decade after the Common Market vote, I cannot help feeling that this was a personal and political tragedy. It is also a biographical puzzle. Secretaries of State are two-a-penny. The Future of Socialism was one of the half-dozen greatest works of social theory written in this country in this century. It is out-of-date now, and Crosland could not bring himself to see how out-of-date it was growing. But it has lost none of its sparkle and panache, and none of its marvellous intellectual power. For the author of The Future of Socialism to narrow his horizons to the Department of the Environment was, in a way, a betrayal – not of others but of himself. It was as though Beethoven had decided that the most important thing in his life was to become bursar of a musical college.

Why did he do it? This is the question that matters most about Tony Crosland: the question that his biographer will one day have to answer. Not much help is to be had from Mrs Crosland. Indeed, I have an uneasy feeling that she would not understand the question if it were put to her. Still, she gives some hints. One is contained in her account of Crosland’s attitude to the running battles over public expenditure which dogged the 1974 Government’s first two and a half years in office, and which reached their climax during the Cabinet’s semi-public agonising over the IMF loan in 1976. If she is to be believed, Crosland viewed these battles as a manichean struggle between vice and virtue – the vicious seeking to cut public expenditure, while the virtuous fought to maintain it. Yet, in his capacity as a departmental minister, he was quite prepared to tell the local authorities that the ‘party was over’, and in his capacity as a Fabian pamphleteer he was one of the first to point out that the old notion that high levels of public expenditure are ipso facto egalitarian could no longer be taken for granted.

Then why the manichean approach to an issue which, on his own showing, was one of management rather than of principle: of differing shades of grey rather than of black against white? The answer, of course, is that he had got stuck. In the Fifties and Sixties he had argued that the way to create a more egalitarian society was to combine high levels of public expenditure with progressive taxation. By the Seventies, he half-saw that life was more complicated than this: that public expenditure was a bureaucratic juggernaut, proceeding under its own momentum, rather than a tool of social change. But he only half-saw it, and he could not bring himself to explore the implications of what he had seen. If he had, the whole elaborate edifice, in which he had spent twenty years of his life, would have come crashing down. He would have had to go back to first principles and rethink, not merely his tactics, but his strategy, and perhaps even his goal. And if he had done that, his conclusions would almost certainly have been incompatible with continued membership of a statist party, dominated by public-sector unions.

Hence the significance of the second hint. This is contained in the dedication: ‘for the people of Grimsby and the Labour Party’. The dedication is, of course, Mrs Crosland’s, not her husband’s. But her central message is that he would have approved of it. He did identify himself with the ‘people of Grimsby’, or at least with what he imagined the people of Grimsby to be. It was not a pose: it was part of him. By the same token, and probably for the same reasons, he identified himself with the Labour Party. His loyalty to it was not, as party loyalty so often is, a mere matter of convenience, or habit, or personal ties. It sprang from the deepest recesses of his complex and elusive character. For him, breaking with the Labour Party was unthinkable. It followed that thoughts which might have led to a break with the Labour Party were unthinkable too. To judge from the ecstatic reviews of this book, some will find this conclusion uplifting. I find it unbearably sad. Party loyalty has destroyed many great men. Potentially, Tony Crosland was one of the greatest.