Diary

W.G. Runciman

I began this series of daries with some reflections prompted by a re-reading of Halévy’s volumes on England from 1895 to 1914, and I propose now to end it with some reflections prompted by a re-reading of Tawney’s Equality. If the conclusion which again suggests itself is plus ça change, that is not because there have not been changes in our society which neither Halévy, Tawney nor anybody else can be claimed to have foreseen. It is because the responses to these changes, whether by academics, journalists, politicians, or the electorate at large, have been articulated within a set of ideological assumptions and constraints which are not significantly different under Thatcher from what they were under Asquith and Lloyd George.

This may seem a curious observation to make in the aftermath of a Conservative Budget which has reduced the marginal rate of income tax for even the richest of the idle rich to 40 per cent while numbers of the poor are left in the trap of marginal rates of 85 per cent – to say nothing of a ‘reform’, if that is the right word, of the social security system which deliberately sets out to turn paupers into debtors. But these top tax rates are no lower than they were immediately before the Second World War, which is very much higher than they were immediately before the First; and the level of welfare benefits is still higher in real terms than it was in the Thirties, when exactly the same arguments were conducted between Left and Right over whether they were too generous or not generous enough. To be sure, there are some commentators, on both left and right, who see the Yuppie Culture of Eighties Britain as peculiarly offensive in its overt worship of wealth. But there is nothing new about this either: as Beatrice Webb wrote in her diary after dining with the South African financier Sir Julius Wernher, ‘there might just as well have been a Goddess of Gold erected for overt worship.’

How well, then, does Tawney’s plea for equality stand up after fifty years? It has not been overtaken in the sense that his arguments have been more effectively put by some latter-day successor. Indeed, the statement of a coherent intellectual case against the present government’s social policies seems for the moment to be largely left to the features writers of the Financial Times, which might have surprised Tawney a little. But he would recognise the issues at stake only too well. To reread him is, not unexpectedly, to find him on some issues dated, on some naive, and on some perhaps a little too rhetorically eloquent. But it is also to be reminded of the persuasive force of his repudiation of a system governed by unrestrained market forces and to wonder, therefore, whether the same arguments might not again have the same effect when the political pendulum starts to swing back, as it sooner or later will do, towards the left. Could it be that Tawneyism will re-emerge in the Nineties as the triumphant creed of humanistic socialism, British style?

Yet before this prospect – as lamentable to some as it would be exhilarating to others – starts to be taken seriously, let us remind ourselves of what has since Tawney’s day become a commonplace: the ‘socialism’ of the government which Tawney’s writings helped to bring to power in 1945 was utterly remote from the single-party stale, collectivised economy and revolutionary proletarianism of socialism in its authentic sense. A modest extension of nationalisation, the provision of universal welfare services financed by progressive taxation, limited intervention in the economy to promote full employment, and the more active involvement of the representatives of organised labour in the direction of industry, were all aims entirely consistent with the New Liberalism of the years when Tawney, Beveridge and Attlee were young. The underlying conviction was that the small cost in individual liberty was outweighed by the larger gain in collective equality – a gain without which, indeed, individual liberty was virtually meaningless to those of the population to whom the unfettered operation of old-fashioned, laisser-faire capitalism left too few resources to put it to use. But Tawney added to the fourth edition of Equality in 1951 a postscript in which he recognises that the assault on ‘indefensible disparities’ must not be pushed so far that it has to be ‘forced down reluctant throats’ or that the nation’s stock of capital is dissipated in ‘an indiscriminate provision of superfluous indulgences’.

Those two modest provisos hardly make Tawney a Thatcherite malgré soi. But the impression with which I have found myself left most strongly at the end of my re-reading is – to my surprise – the extent to which he was both a pragmatist and a populist. His kind of populism is, to be sure, the antithesis of Thatcher’s in that it rests on the belief that an efficient industrial economy can be based on cooperation rather than competition. But both share a common faith in the capacity, and indeed the right, of ordinary citizens to take their own decisions about their own lives. If it turns out as a matter of sociological fact that that can be better achieved by allowing more scope to market forces rather than less, would Tawney – however disinclined to believe it until proved beyond doubt – actually seek to prevent it? Can one really imagine him siding with Eric Heffer against Bryan Gould, or Ron Todd against Gavin Laird?

However little he liked to contemplate the rapacious pursuit of private profit by industrialists pretending that money spent on the social services ought instead to be left in their own pockets, Tawney had equally little liking for bureaucratic authoritarianism. He wanted to see sufficient investment in the health, education and employment of the population as a whole for all ‘to grow to their full stature, to do their duty as they see it, and – since liberty should not be too austere – to have their fling when they feel like it’. He thought this could only be done by public provision on a scale which no government between the wars had been prepared to contemplate, and he refused to accept that it could not be achieved without sacrificing the investment necessary for economic growth. But he was no less explicit in saying that ‘the question of the degree to which expenditure can be described as a “burden” is to be decided by considering, not who spends it, but how it is spent.’

This still leaves differences both wide and deep between British socialism, Attlee style, and British Conservatism, Thatcher style. But look at how much they both continue to exclude. If Attlee’s ‘socialism’ was utterly remote from a full-blooded Marxist-Leninism, so equally is Thatcher’s Conservatism from a full-blooded Spencerian Liberalism in which the state reverts to a strict ‘nightwatchman’ role, trade unions are again brought within the scope of the law of criminal conspiracy, the top rate of income tax is back to Is 2d in the pound, and in-patient medical care is once again shared between charity-funded teaching hospitals, locally-funded municipal hospitals, and paupers’ hospitals administered under the Poor Law. The Conservative Party of 1987, like the Labour Party of 1945, presented themselves to the electors in a multi-party system as respecters of liberty and seekers of prosperity for the nation as a whole; and if Labour favours the poorer against the richer and the Conservatives the richer against the poorer, it is still true to say that Thatcherite Conservatism’s defence of the inequalities of wealth which it tolerates and indeed encourages is that the poorer as well as the richer will – in due course – be better-off as a result. Both, therefore, tacitly acknowledge the principle that inequalities are justified to the extent that the least well-off are better-off as a result of them. It is a principle equally unacceptable to those on the far left, who would impose greater equality even if the poor were made marginally poorer, and to those on the far right, who would welcome greater inequality even if the poor gained nothing in consequence. But in the ideological context of 20th-century Britain, the dispute is, and has been since 1901, more over how to reconcile rewards for the deserving rich with help for the deserving poor than over how to implement some radically different principle of distributive justice.

This might seem to suggest that British politicians and electors alike should be seeking guidance from empirical sociologists rather than political philosophers. But at this point, enter Professor Marsland,[*] who believes that British sociologists are, by and large, irreversibly biased towards the left and determined, therefore, to misrepresent the workings of the market, to overemphasise the degree of social inequality, and to deny the importance of the production of wealth in the same breath as they complain about its distribution. Well, yes: there is undoubtedly a molehill here out of which a mound, if not a mountain, can be made. But again, plus ça change. The very same thing used to be said in the days of Tawney and the Webbs; and the LSE went on being regarded as a hotbed of leftism long after it had come to be dominated by impeccably right-wing economists. Besides, sociologists can hardly be blamed for being preoccupied with social inequality when the palpably unequal distribution of resources in our society, by any statistical measure you choose, is a fact which admits no dispute. The trouble isn’t bias so much as ignorance: we just don’t know (some hopeful sociologists would add ‘yet’) enough about the enormously complex workings of our institutions to be able to say what the consequences of alternative economic and social policies will turn out to be. It may be that those who set the A-level sociology papers would prefer Tawney’s alternative to that of the Institute of Economic Affairs. But Professor Marsland, I suspect, underestimates the scepticism, and sometimes downright contrariness, of the students on the receiving end, many of whom take a robustly cynical view of the romantic anti-capitalism of the fading swingers of the Class of ‘68. As Henry Adams wrote of himself after his brief experience as a Harvard professor in the 1870s, a teacher ‘makes of his scholars either priests or atheists, plutocrats or socialists, judges or anarchists, almost in spite of himself.

Once the pendulum has swung back the other way, it will not be all that surprising to find some left-wing academic writing a book complaining that A-level sociology papers reflect too much of a tacit acceptance of the now outdated conventional wisdom which was a product of the Thatcher years. But that brings me back to the question which I raised in the first of these diaries: how far is the present political dominance of Margaret Thatcher a function of the state of an Opposition which is both divided and feeble? Granted that every pendulum swings back in the end, might it not be a very long time before this one does?

To help us towards an informed and dispassionate answer, we now have the Nuffield volume on last year’s election.[†] in which David Butler and Dennis Kavanagh recount the ebb and flow of battle in that relentlessly detailed and studiously prosaic style which has characterised the Nuffield studies from the beginning; and there is precious little comfort in it for Neil Kinnock, even without the subsequent determination of Anthony Wedgwood Benn to cling to his starring role as Maggie’s Secret Weapon. True, Labour’s television campaign was surprisingly slick, and there was a rogue poll or two to encourage foolish fears in Tory Central Office. But as an unnamed member of the Communications Agency is quoted by Butler and Kavanagh as saying: ‘The presentation was nearly as good as it could be. It was the product that was poor.’

In the face of the demographic, economic and ideological trends which continue to undermine the Labour Party’s electoral base except in the inner cities and outer regions, where can they look for hope? They can, as Butler and Kavanagh point out, remind themselves that after three successive defeats in ’51, ’55 and ’59 they won in ’64; they can point to opinion poll evidence which suggests that Thatcherite social policies as such are none too popular with the electorate at large; and they can reasonably expect any downturn in the country’s always precarious economy to work to their advantage. But is that enough for Kinnock to be in with a chance next time, when he needs an 8 per cent swing in his favour? Or is even a radically modernised Labour Party doomed to go down to defeat at least once more against the 40 per cent of the vote which is the most that the Conservatives are likely to need in 1991 for an overall majority of Parliamentary scats? The Tories will not stay in office for ever, any more than they have done in the past. But when change does come, it will be in the same old British mould. It will not be very fast, it will not go very far, and it will in due course be reversed in its turn. I have been hesitating all week between rival claimants to the last word on my four-part theme. But it has to be Disraeli, in his often-quoted remark to H.M. Hyndman, the dedicated Marxist whose Social Democratic Federation so notably failed to make effective inroads among the Late Victorian working class: ‘It is a very difficult country to move Mr Hyndman, a very difficult country indeed!’

[*] Seeds of Bankruptcy: Sociological Bias against Business and Freedom, by David Marsland, was published by Claridge on 31 March (238 pp., £12.95 and £8.95, 1 870626 40 0).

[†] The British General Election of 1987 was published by Macmillan on 14 April (379 pp., £29.50 and £14.95,0 333 44612 7).