With or without the workers

Ross McKibbin

  • The Progressive Dilemma: From Lloyd George to Kinnock by David Marquand
    Heinemann, 248 pp, £20.00, January 1991, ISBN 0 434 45094 4

This book contains reflections on both history and theory, and is written with David Marquand’s usual elegance and intelligence. Its 19 essays concern themes familiar to readers of his biography of Ramsay MacDonald and his distinguished study, The Unprincipled Society: how can we devise for modern Britain an appropriate ‘social democratic’ theory of social action, and how can we construct a ‘progressive’ coalition which might give it adequate electoral support. Twenty-five years separate the first essay from the last, and they are not published in the order they were written. They have been tailored to bestow unity, but the stitching sometimes shows: thus on page 89 we find the Attlee Government chided for not undertaking a ‘revolution of production’ which would ‘smash the structures and root out the habits which had already produced more than half a century of relative economic decline’. But ten pages after this Saint-Simonian utterance, we find it conceded that the Attlee ministry could hardly have done this ‘in the lifetime of a single government’. How is this to be resolved? The answer is that the second judgment was written 21 years before the first. These essays are, in fact, chapters in the intellectual and political biography of a young Croslandite (once a Bevanite) who became an increasingly bruised and disenchanted Labour MP, a founder member of the SDP, and who now (I imagine) stands between the Kinnockian Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats. From the point of view of the reader interested in understanding how he has come to argue what he does it might have been better had this been made more explicit.

The essays are of several kinds. Some clearly had their origins in book reviews; others are more sustained pieces. Some are primarily historical; others political-theoretical. Eleven of the 19 are biographical studies and are often outstandingly good: the essay on Douglas Jay and Michael Stewart (‘The Tortoise and the Hare’), for example, is absolutely just and that on David Owen – which I doubt that Owen will like very much – is remarkable. On the whole, I think the theoretical essays are more successful than the historical – in the sense that Professor Marquand’s analysis of what has gone wrong seems to me better than his account of why it has gone wrong. Furthermore, it is these essays, despite the tailoring, which in practice give The Progressive Dilemma an overall argument.

That argument proceeds from what is the central paradox of the book: despite the fact that the British people have repeatedly (at least via surveys) asserted their adherence to the achievements of ‘progressive’ governments, they have historically been reluctant to vote for the parties which have comprised these governments. British progressivism has had only two real moments: 1906-1914, when it appeared as if it might attain hegemony, and a more ‘fleeting’ one in 1945. This book is, therefore, a study of failure. Why has progressivism failed? In part, its failure has been one of theory. The predominant Anglo-American political tradition has been an asocial liberalism whose outcome has been a reductionist individualism. This in the past freed people from superstition and oppression, but it now utterly undermines any collective or social purpose. Allied to this tradition has been the poverty of England’s civic culture, which has permitted individuals only to obey or to exchange in the market; and that is because the English are not citizens but subjects of a monarch; nor can they become citizens simply because the monarch delegates his or her powers. In part, the failure has been political: the ‘mechanical’ statism of the Labour Party – whether in its Labourist, revisionist or Fabian mode – while it may provide people with what they need does not persuade them actively to seek it or to combine in the attempt. In other words, like Toryism, it encourages them to obey. Similarly, the exclusive attitudes of Labourism, its denial of legitimacy to other progressive forces and its assumption that the ‘working class’ (by which is meant the trade-unionised working class) has a special virtue, and a special claim on society, has alienated many who might otherwise support a progressive politics. This explains the paradox that a substantial majority of the people vote for anti-Conservative parties – and Marquand points out how narrow the electoral base for the Thatcher revolution actually was – while leaving the Conservatives masters of the field.

What is to be done? It is in the nature of a dilemma that there is no satisfactory answer. Curiously, Professor Marquand nowhere says what the dilemma is. I infer from the argument that it is this: a successful progressive politics in this country is possible neither with nor without the organised working class. If that is the dilemma, then there is no resolution and progressive politics is futile. Marquand, however, believes progressivism can be saved. Social change is moving in its favour – and he points out that parties of the Left have elsewhere exploited these changes to their own benefit – by weakening the ideological and structural basis of Conservatism. It can be promoted by the proliferation of participatory and intermediate institutions and by the actions of individuals. Not much can be expected from the leaders of the progressive parties, but their supporters have some freedom of manoeuvre – by means of such things as tactical voting, I take it. Whether this is thought to be a satisfactory answer depends on the native optimism or pessimism of the reader.

I agree with much of what Marquand says: no one can contemplate except with dismay the wasted hopes and opportunities of the last 20 years. Many of his conclusions seem incontestable. The residual authority of a debased Lockeanism within the Anglo-Saxon countries has been demonstrated by the extent to which all of them adhered (with more or less enthusiasm) to varieties of ‘free-market’ politics in the Eighties, and are now paying the price in economic decline and social disintegration. It is also true, as he suggests, that the Labour Party has not been able to ‘shape’ an electorate in the way the Conservatives have, nor has it historically been able to break out of its older, trade-unionised constituency to establish itself as the party of the ordinary man and woman. That, indeed, has been its most desolating failure. I am, however, more pessimistic than he is, because I am less persuaded that the Labour Party’s failure could have been avoided, and am less confident that a new and stable progressive coalition can be created.

Marquand is very hard on the Labour Party’s exclusivism and intolerance, its suspicion of those who stand outside the ‘movement’. He twice quotes Arthur Henderson as saying that the plural of conscience is conspiracy (a statement new to me and I suspect of doubtful provenance). But, as Marquand knows, Henderson is the man who in 1918 wanted to rename the Labour Party the People’s Party, who freely admitted that if he could start again he would do so without the trade unions; and when he could not start again, he did his level best to make the Labour Party acceptable to everyone of good will. Throughout its history it has repeatedly attempted to entrench itself as a radical democratic party, even at the risk of alienating its organised working-class support – see the 1964 Government. Its long-term failure was external rather than internal: its structural ties to the organised working class have determined not so much how it saw outsiders as how outsiders saw it. And what outsiders saw was not what Labour governments actually did (since what they actually did, as those social surveys confirm, often had widespread electoral support) as what they imagined these governments represented. Nor can it be seriously argued that they have been less successful or ‘competent’ than Conservative ones: the contrary is almost certainly true. The last British government (of whose failings Marquand is well aware – see the essay ‘Harold Wilson: Alibi for a Party’) which had any overall control or came close to achieving its apparent objectives was Wilson’s 1964 government; and Callaghan’s government was brought to grief because it did try to govern with some sense of the national interest – unlike its successor.

Thus the question is not so much what Labour governments did wrong, as what they could have done right. England’s civic culture has undoubtedly made it difficult for Labour to entrench itself: but this is so, not because that culture is non-existent, as Marquand argues, but because it has been incapable of absorbing the organised working class. This has important implications, both historically and for his argument. He sees as the exemplar of the successful progressive coalition the Liberal Governments of 1906-1914. But an indispensable element in that coalition was the civic culture of Nonconformity: the Free Church-Friendly Society network was everywhere the foundation of provincial Liberalism. Between 1918 and 1950 that foundation disintegrated. This was partly a result of secular change, but partly a consequence of the recruitment of provincial Liberalism by an Anglican-Conservative network in the cause of ‘anti-socialism’. It was not in practice the Labour Party which was responsible for this, but the emergence at local level of a competing Trade Union-Co-operative network. What is striking is the extent to which the Unions and the Co-ops were socially isolated and marginalised within the traditional civic culture. This isolation was not entirely ideological: small shopkeepers, for example, were notoriously hostile to the Co-ops and the Unions undoubtedly represented a threat to a ‘traditional’ system of industrial relations. But it was more than that: many, for example, were often genuinely embarrassed, or affronted, when working men became mayors. English civic culture was effectively appropriated by the Conservative Party and its old pluralism destroyed by an anti-socialist, individualistic rhetoric. The Labour Party, because of its institutional ties to this new and competing network, was isolated in the same way.

It is here that Professor Marquand’s criticism of the Labour Party’s failure to ‘shape’ an electorate has force. Why did it not attempt, so far as it could, to replace this traditional civic culture with a democratic civic culture which England plainly did not and does not have? In retrospect, this was a dreadful omission, and very surprising in a social democratic party. Its elaborate consideration for the existing institutions of the state – for Crown, Parliament, judiciary, social hierarchy, electoral system – in the long run simply permitted them endlessly to reinforce an ‘anti-socialist’, status-graded civic culture. At the most basic level, it even obstructed elementary self-protection: thus the Callaghan Government was so immobilised that it could not contemplate the one thing which might have perpetuated it – electoral reform. Yet historically this omission is less indefensible than it seems.

In the first place, the English/British social system was a comparatively open one and the organised working class was able to advance within it fairly easily. In the second, by assimilating itself to Crown-and-Parliament ideologies, it secured for itself the sort of legitimation frequently denied to Labour movements elsewhere. Finally, if you could actually secure a majority in the House of Commons you might be in a position to do as any English executive can – whatever you like. It was not an absurd calculation: but in the long term the wrong one. And, like Marquand, I see little evidence that the Labour Party realises that.

That is why I question his argument that the ‘class war was one of the chief causes’ of Britain’s ‘decline’. I do not believe that to be true; furthermore, it is difficult to see how it could be true. Centre politicians do us no service by constantly asserting it, since it shifts our attention away from what has been responsible for our relative economic decline. The ‘class war’ (in the sense we are accustomed to use the expression) has been no worse in Britain than elsewhere: indeed, that must follow from both our arguments. In his essay here ‘The Politics of Deprivation’ he emphasises how defensive and defeatist British working-class culture was, and how little did it have a sense of grievance, how easily it was mobilised by its ‘class enemies’. Britain’s remarkable political stability has been due precisely to the fact that such a large proportion of the industrial working class has voted for a middle-class right-of-centre party. But it is also precisely that fact which has rendered the English civic culture so attenuated: a large proportion of the population has traditionally abdicated its political functions to those whom it concludes are more suited to discharging them. That is to say, it has withdrawn from participation in civic life and abandoned the duties of the citizen – the very functions Marquand believes necessary to any new progressive coalition. If the class war is interpreted to mean bloody-mindedness, or a sense of grievance, or a suspicion that ‘they’ are usually out for themselves – which is what it usually means in our political rhetoric – then Britain’s problem is perhaps not too much class war, but too little.

I am also somewhat sceptical of his argument – held today across the political spectrum – that the Labour Party’s failure is the result of the failure of the state. The Fabian or the Keynesian state (either will serve), by its overweening, bureaucratic clumsiness, it is argued, has alienated those whom it was supposed to serve, while its assumptions of omnicompetence have led it into areas of society and the economy where it should not have entered.

Marquand, of course, makes this criticism much more acutely than those on the right who, for example, claim to speak for the beneficiaries of social security payments so rudely treated at DSS offices. Nonetheless, he clearly believes that the ‘mechanical’, pessimistic reformism of the Labour Party contrasts unfavourably with the ‘moral’, optimistic reformism which animated Edwardian New Liberalism. The moral reformers were, he says, pro-Boer, against the 1902 Education Act and for free trade. I assume this is meant as commendation: if so, it is hardly a convincing argument for the superiority of moral reform. Support for the Boers, in hindsight (and even at the time), does not seem to have been a very good idea; while there were serious grounds for opposing the 1902 Act, the ones moral reformers chose were usually not these; and ideological adherence to free trade was simply wrong. If moral reform is to be defined – as it here appears to be approvingly defined – as reform that comes from within the individual, there is little to suggest that it will be very efficacious in Britain: the state has been drawn – rather reluctantly – into the economy because no one else will perform certain necessary economic functions. And as a result of the follies of the 1980s, that is truer than it ever was. In any case, the fashionable attack on the state is itself surely to some extent an example of the reductionist individualism Marquand elsewhere rightly criticises.

The progressive dilemma – how to make the organised working class acceptable to middle-class civic culture – is not confined to Britain: indeed, Britain’s is only a mild case. It has been a dilemma in almost every capitalist society, and the ‘solution’ has often been very messy. The historic inability of bourgeois civil society to assimilate the industrial working class led, for instance, to the disastrous failure of middle-class politics in much of Continental Europe. One way out, suggested here by David Marquand, is something like the New Deal Democratic Party: a large coalition under middle-class leadership in which the organised working class was an essential but ideologically subordinate part. This is an attractive possibility. It produced, as he notes, something like a progressive hegemony in the United States for thirty years. Again, however, I am more pessimistic. The actual achievements of this coalition were meagre: the Attlee Government did more in six years than the Democratic Party did in thirty. Furthermore, the subordination of the European working class has not been easy: in fact, usually impossible. The coalition is rendered even more fragile as the industrial working class, the only reliable element in it, declines in numbers – as it has everywhere.

I am more optimistic about the possibilities of two other ‘solutions’ which Marquand proposes. Social change, which has hitherto not seemed to favour a progressive politics, could still do so. By diminishing the size of the trade-unionised working class, it might reduce its centrality to political debate, and thus free people from fears which are almost wholly unreal but which have confined them to a rather simple-minded ‘anti-socialism’. While reducing the traditional Labour vote it might also reduce – and probably has reduced – the traditional, diffident apolitical Conservatism which has been such an obstacle to a progressive coalition. The second real possibility is our membership of the EC. Many of its social and electoral institutions (like those of its original founding members) were devised after the Second World War to enable the middle and working classes to live together. If they have not always produced perfect harmony, they have at least compelled people to recognise each other in ways which were previously inconceivable. And they have compelled civil society to take account of the culture of the organised working class instead of simply mobilising against it. The institutions of the EC, from which there is now no escape, by implicating us in different forms of social and political action, might rescue us from the provinciality of English political discourse, where no alternatives ever seem possible.