Geoffrey Hawthorn

  • Social Scientist as Innovator by Michael Young
    Abt Books, 265 pp, $28.00, April 1984, ISBN 0 89011 593 1
  • Revolution from Within: Co-operatives and Co-operation in British Industry by Michael Young and Marianne Rigge
    Weidenfeld, 188 pp, £12.95, July 1983, ISBN 0 297 78234 7
  • Dilemmas of Liberal Democracies: Studies in Fred Hirsch’s ‘Social Limits to Growth’ edited by Adrian Ellis and Krishan Kumar
    Tavistock, 212 pp, £12.95, September 1983, ISBN 0 422 78460 5

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.

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