Über-Tony

Ben Pimlott

  • Crosland’s Future: Opportunity and Outcome by David Reisman
    Macmillan, 237 pp, £47.50, October 1997, ISBN 0 333 65963 5

Why is Tony Crosland one of the few Old Labour heroes that nobody mocks? Keir Hardie, G.D.H. Cole, Stafford Cripps, Gaitskell, even Nye Bevan, have become the subject of New Labour locker-room ribaldry. Yet to describe yourself as a ‘Crosland socialist’ still carries meaning. Maybe it is because of that sardonic smile, and an uneasy feeling that, if he were alive today, he would be doing the mocking. For if much of the Crosland canon seems dated, there remains a core which has increased in relevance with the passage of time. Such, at any rate, is the theme of David Reisman’s two volumes of intellectual biography and analysis – the most careful and thought-provoking exegesis yet to appear.

Crosland was a man of contradictions, as Reisman shows, a hedonist who was also a puritan, and so on. Perhaps the biggest contradiction was that such a thoroughly English politician should have been so passionately interested in ideas. It is important to remember that today’s obsession with doctrine is new. Before Margaret Thatcher, British political culture looked down on theory, treating it as foreign and totalitarian. The Tories sneered at Labour for allegedly adhering to Continental doctrines, and Labour, embarrassed, sneered at its own intellectuals, calling them ‘desiccated calculating machines’. Attlee regarded theory as stuff and nonsense and Harold Wilson doused his food with HP Sauce to project a plain-man image. It was the people’s dominatrix who caused a turnaround. Pragmatic to the core, she took up philosophers she agreed with and allowed her instincts to be dignified as an ideology. Since Thatcherism, everybody has wanted an ‘ism’, and think-tanks have been set up to produce them.

There were theorists in the old days, even great ones, but it is a moot point how much effect they had in the political arena. Genuine innovators, like Keynes and Beveridge, tended to be eclectically empirical. Indeed, those contemporary writers who seek to unravel recent political history – especially the history of the Left – by studying the history of theory are in danger of anachronism. As Henry Drucker pointed out in The Doctrine and Ethos of the Labour Party, a gulf always existed between the thinkers quoted in set-pieces – Marx, Tawney, Orwell and the rest – and the trade-union argot of the smoke-filled rooms, where decisions were brokered.

In short, picking out ‘influential’ left-of-centre thinkers is tricky. Yet there have been a handful of works that have helped to put the aspirations of the Labour Movement into a coherent frame, and of these the most sophisticated – perhaps, the only one with staying power – is Crosland’s The Future of Socialism, first published in 1956.

Was Crosland an ‘intellectual in politics’ or a politician who took a rare creative interest in political thought? Reisman’s claim that he might ‘have made a greater contribution to the future of socialism if he had remained with his books and not opted for the rainbow of action’ seriously misses the point. For the essence of The Future of Socialism is that it is neither the product of an ivory tower nor a work of propaganda, but the result of sifting advanced ideas through a filter of experience. Consoling Crosland over the loss of his seat in 1955, the ex-Chancellor Hugh Dalton observed that no good book ever got written between division bells. Crosland may have benefited from an enforced sabbatical. The Future of Socialism is not an academic study, however. The energy it conveys comes from the sense of its author as somebody recently bloodied in battle, waiting for the next push.

Nor should Crosland be seen as a don fallen among politicians. He joined the Labour Party in his teens – and his interests in theory and practice were always intertwined. Born in 1918, he espoused the conventional Marxism of his generation but was soon put off by what he called ‘the hard core of beastliness’ in the Soviet Union. ‘The intellectual foundations of my socialism,’ he liked to say, ‘were laid by Christian thinkers like Berdyaev and Niebuhr rather than by Marx.’ It was partly true. The son of a senior civil servant who was also a Plymouth Brother, Crosland inherited a fringe version of Nonconformist ethics and had no need to wave a hammer and sickle to prove his outsiderdom. Yet his work – mixing sociology, political theory and policy prescription – was steeped in Marx, in contrast to the work of Tawney, say, which barely acknowledges that Marx even existed.

Crosland went to a suburban public school, Highgate, and thence to Oxford, where he began a lifelong friendship and rivalry with Roy Jenkins, a steadier if equally ambitious intellectual, but one who always conceded Crosland’s superior brain. The Second World War interrupted and leavened his student politics, active service providing its own kind of filter. Afterwards, he returned to university, became president of the Union, wrote a few articles on economics, inherited the college fellowship of his tutor, Robert Hall, taught (inter alios) the undergraduate Anthony Wedgwood Benn, and entered Parliament in 1950 as MP for South Gloucester.

It was a swashbuckling rise by a young man full of glamour. ‘I am more fond and proud of that young man than I can put into words,’ recorded Dalton, who had been in love with him for years. Dalton was not the only one: Crosland’s grace, charm and narcissism attracted people of all ages and orientations. ‘To a young undergraduate,’ the former Labour minister and SDP leader Bill Rodgers recalls, ‘his reputation for having fought with the 1st Airborne Division and for entertaining girls who left his college rooms at dawn was an irresistible combination.’ Lurching between intense concentration and reckless frivolity, he was the delight of the bohemian and aesthetic worlds. Cyril Connolly once observed that, at his own prep school, prettiness alone was suspect but prettiness that was good at games meant Character and was safe. Crosland was pretty, and good at everything, and – if you were female, or an ambivalent male – darkly unsafe. ‘He was lovable,’ Michael Young said, ‘because he did not mind whether he was loved or not.’ Of course, this was artifice: he craved popularity and acclaim as much as any performer; but he was also capable of standing back and appreciating the wider picture.

If clever people were bewitched, non-clever ones were often disconcerted, which made his early years as a politician difficult. He did not enjoy Westminster, and kept away when he could. (Upbraided for being drunk in the House, he replied: ‘How else is one to endure being here?’) There was a bad patch: early promise nearly turned to dust in 1952, when his marriage broke up and, shortly afterwards, he was out of Parliament. Indeed, The Future of Socialism needs to be understood as not just a political credo, but a bid to put its author back on the political map. It worked. Until the book appeared, Crosland had been little known outside a small coterie. Its publication caused a minor sensation, especially as it compared so favourably with Bevan’s lacklustre In Place of Fear, establishing its author as the leading progressive thinker of his generation. Crosland’s life now settled down. He met and later married an American journalist, Susan Barnes, and was selected at Grimsby, a seat he held from 1959 until his death. Thus based, he was well equipped to become a shaper of the nation’s future, which was what he had always intended.

Somehow it did not happen. In conventional terms, Crosland’s career prospered. He was continuously in government while Labour held power, mainly in important cabinet posts. Yet his record is lean on lasting achievements. You could say that he suffered from bad luck: in the modern Downing Street monarchy, only courtiers ever really flourish. Gaitskell’s death in 1963 deprived him of his patron, and he never got on more than superficially civil terms with Harold Wilson. Privately, he thought Wilson ‘a shit – but a clever shit’. He was not a Wilson hater and once remarked that Wilson was ‘probably as good a peacetime prime minister as this country ever gets’. A mutual unease, however, stood in the way of his admission to the inner circle. Hence it was Jenkins, not Crosland, who got the plum jobs, and the opportunities to bring about reform.

As a junior minister under George Brown at the Department of Economic Affairs in 1964-65, Crosland advocated the devaluation of sterling: but his opinion did not carry weight, and devaluation was postponed. His promotion to the job of Education Secretary gave him much more scope. His vision was bold. He was under no illusions about the necessity for reforming a school system which he saw as ‘divisive, unjust and wasteful’. As minister, he presided over a heroic expansion of higher education, establishing a proudly innovative tier of new ‘polytechnics’. He also presided, less heroically, over a key stage in the comprehensive revolution – issuing Circular 10/65, which requested but did not require local authorities to provide plans for comprehensivisation, and so permitted the old secondary-school apartheid to survive under a different name.

At the same time, and most culpably, he failed to grasp the nettle of public-school integration, at a time when it was mooted, and possible. Though he favoured taking over 25 per cent of public-school places, he neglected to act, arguing that private education would wither away as state schools improved. Crosland’s period at the DES is probably best known for a private promise to destroy ‘every fucking grammar school in England’ – a remark that was intended to indicate his commitment to creating comprehensives, but is usually quoted because of a feeling that more was lost than gained in the exchange. Meanwhile, he regarded with scepticism and lack of foresight the greatest innovation in tertiary education of the age, the Open University.

After leaving Education, Crosland held a series of cabinet posts at the Board of Trade, Local Government and – in the second Wilson Government – the Environment. The job he most coveted, the Chancellorship, eluded him, and he had barely begun as Foreign Secretary before dying of a stroke, at the age of 58. Reisman remarks that there were ‘no great disasters and no rumours of incompetence’. He was appreciated by his civil servants and adored by his personal staff. But, as a minister, he left few monuments.

If Jenkins was better at getting the top jobs, and getting his way when he held them, this was partly because Crosland, for all his charm, could not conceal his impatience with the PLP. When he stood for the party leadership in 1976, shortly before his death, his vote was derisorily low. Had he lived, Reisman speculates, he ‘might have led a social democratic Labour Party to victory in 1983’. It seems improbable. Unlike Jenkins, he never acquired a Commons constituency. Fence-sitting on Europe (he was a yes-but man, who ‘never wavered in his tepid support’ for British entry), he was renowned for not taking a distinctive line on key issues. His proposals to Cabinet were impeccably argued, but frequently shot down. ‘Tony Crosland is fifteen times the man Fred Mulley is,’ Richard Cross-man noted on one occasion, ‘but dim little Mulley boring away at his departmental brief gets the Department’s way ... whereas despite his brilliance Tony often doesn’t even succeed in helping his Department.’ Crosland gave a bleakly philistine episode a human and cultured face: nobody could have been more witheringly dismissive of the creeping intolerance infesting left-of-centre politics in the years before he died. Yet, as Reisman puts it, there was a consensus that he was ‘not at his best’ as a minister.

The consensus is probably right. If so, what was he best at? Offering logic and precision to a world of froth and cant is probably the answer, which takes us back to The Future of Socialism. Although Crosland wrote other books (including The Conservative Enemy, published in 1962, and Socialism Now in 1974), it is the first that continues to be read. It is strange in a way that this should be so. Even more of a disappointment than its author’s ministerial career, The Future of Socialism is a blueprint for transforming a society that no longer existed into one that was no longer possible.

Crosland was addressing a post-Attlee intelligentsia reared on the belief that capitalism was doomed, and disoriented by growing working-class affluence. He rejected left-wing religiosity, and talked straight. Instead of deploring the visible success of capitalism, he celebrated it. It was absurd, he suggested, even to hope that socialism would displace something that had brought so many advantages to working-class people in the prospering West. Instead of seeking to destroy capitalism, socialists should harness and milk it. Old-fashioned socialist utopias should be abandoned. Rather, forward-looking governments should take advantage of the postwar expansion, and use it to create a fairer and more fulfilling society.

In some respects, Crosland was starry-eyed. The society he described was shortlived, and never as he portrayed it. He misread the indicators: the year of the book’s publication was as good economically as any since the war, with unemployment at 1.2 per cent, price rises at 3.3 per cent, wage rises at 7.6 per cent, and the balance of payments in surplus. The idea of a secure and ever-expanding economy, in which poverty had been abolished and prosperity was available for all, was soon to be undermined by international crises and domestic reverses. Yet in other respects, the book was bravely cussed.

In particular, Crosland was pro-American at a time when an envious anti-Americanism – disguised as anti-materialism – was virtually the norm. Where others saw greed and corruption, he saw freedom, presenting the United States as a more open, egalitarian and cohesive society than Britain. Defiantly, he pitted himself against the puritanism of his youth and of Crippsian austerity. ‘Generally,’ he wrote, ‘I have never been able to see why high consumption and brotherly love should be incompatible.’ A.J. Ayer condemned him for having an idea of socialism that ‘resembles present-day America’, while another critic sneered that there was ‘a jukebox struggling to get out of him’. Yet so far from seeking sameness, his book can be read as a path-breaking socialist plea for choice: a Fabian tract that rejected asceticism in favour of a good time.

Crosland’s view of the future was not wholly transatlantic. He might call for an accommodation with capitalism, but he was not a capitalist apologist. Taking for granted the desirability of a large public sector, he elevated the idea of a ‘mixed’ economy, with a sizeable state element, into a creed. An ardent supporter of French indicative planning, he was uncompromising on both the need and the capacity of governments to stimulate faster economic growth, as the sine qua non of social improvement.

Given all this, would Crosland now be a supporter of Tony Blair? Or of his own disciple, Lord Hattersley? Or even Paddy Ashdown? Would he have supported the Third Way? He believed in Labour as an ordinary people’s party – like other middle-class socialists of his generation, he was sentimental about the working class – and would not easily have joined a party that opposed the manual trade unions. Hence it is easier to imagine him siding with the Healey/Hattersley faction at the time of the 1981 SDP split than with Roy Jenkins. Yet, 17 years later, Cowley Street – with its hypothecated taxation, commitments to higher spending and the rest – is a good deal closer to Crosland’s message than Millbank Tower.

Perhaps he would have seen merit and demerit in both camps, with the ambitious politician Crosland backing Blair’s realism, and the philosophical, ethical Crosland regarding New Labour’s moralism with languid contempt. For while the starting point of New Labour was Neil Kinnock’s 1983 promise that the Party would never again suffer such a humiliating defeat, Crosland began at the opposite end. Instead of seeking to adjust values in a way that would meet the voters’ wishes, he wanted to make sense of traditional values in a rapidly changing world.

Crosland went further than earlier writers in order to give socialism a practical context. As Reisman puts it, he was a ‘systematic thinker’ who realised that there could be no middle way, and no socialism, without a reliable map. Yet, like his mentor Gaitskell, he saw the pursuit of greater equality as a non-negotiable part of the mission. He had derived from Gaitskell, Dalton, Tawney and the Fabian tradition a steely belief that the Labour Party was the vehicle, not just for raising living standards, but for narrowing the gap between richer and poorer. On this he was quite clear. ‘Equality and higher public expenditure,’ he declared, in a sentence which, if uttered nowadays by any Labour politician, would produce the kind of shocked reaction depicted in a Bateman cartoon, ‘are what divide us from the Tories.’

Crosland would have had little interest in the constitutional reforming predilections of New Labour and the Lib Dems. (He did not want to see ‘the Queen riding a bicycle ... nor the House of Lords instantly abolished’.) He was much more interested in economic distribution. He acknowledged that the real limit to equalisation was set, in a free society, by how much people were prepared to forgo, in order to finance social spending. But in principle and practice he favoured increasing taxation of the affluent, his conception of affluence extending far beyond fat cats, to take in ‘the whole better-off section of the community which now includes some trade unionists’. We may imagine that in 1997 he would have applauded Ashdown’s announcement that if the public wanted better services, it would have to pay for them.

The fate of The Future of Socialism was mixed. In the years following its publication, it was widely discussed as the definitive statement of Gaitskellite ‘revisionism’. Indeed, it came to define an era. Yet it never found its moment. Crosland had envisaged creaming off the surplus produced by improved growth, and using it for social spending. Unfortunately, Labour ‘planning’ failed under Wilson, and there was no cream. In any case, the 1964 Cabinet took scant interest in the musings of a fairly lowly minister, and Wilson himself did not believe he needed instruction on economics, least of all from the acolyte of a former opponent. As prime minister, he turned to his own band of supporters – left-wingers, like Thomas Balogh and Richard Crossman – for intellectual stimulus. Crosland was much closer to Jim Callaghan, but by the time Callaghan succeeded as premier, this least theoretical of leaders was presiding over a political scene in which Croslandite optimism had become sadly inappropriate.

If Crosland’s theory had little direct impact on government while Labour was in office, it has had even less since. When Labour moved back into the mainstream in the early Nineties it did not rediscover Crosland, who was associated in the minds of the so-called soft Left with the Old Labour Right. With the emergence of New Labour, the ground shifted again. Though Crosland’s realism about Labour’s cloth-cap image struck a chord, and his enthusiasm for American social cohesion could be translated into the Blairite idea of ‘community’, his egalitarianism made him a dangerous authority. Today, he is not often quoted on the government front bench.

In contrast to the Thatcherite philosophers, whose ideas were sometimes put into immediate and drastic effect, Crosland can be seen as a man whose flowering came at the wrong time. If Gaitskell had won in 1959, The Future of Socialism might have become a Labour bible. Instead, it is a snapshot of advanced thinking at a particular moment. Yet that is not quite the whole story. For while the battle plan was never followed, it has stood as an enticing vista of how a more civilised society might be brought about. The economics may be antediluvian, the assumption of nation-state autonomy quaint, but in his urbane attempt to write about people as they really are and society as it was becoming – in his chiding of the pompous, as well as his elegance and rigour – Crosland remains readable, refreshing and modern.

He would not have minded people picking holes. ‘Crosland believed that revisionism had continually to be revised,’ concludes Reisman. ‘He did not believe that social democracy in Britain had reached the end.’ Has it now? Perhaps a youthful apostle of the Third Way will come up with a book of similar or greater power to wind up the argument. But until that happens, Crosland will be a source of hope to glum comrades who, while congratulating New Labour on its successes, secretly hold some beliefs to be immutable.