- 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.
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.
Vol. 20 No. 18 · 17 September 1998
Ben Pimlott omits to mention one of Anthony Crosland’s major contributions to the thinking of his day. At a time when the Labour Party believed in public ownership on moral and economic grounds, he argued that the aims of socialism could be achieved by controlling industry without having to own it. It has taken a long time for (most of) Labour to accept this argument. Today, some of our industries are among the most highly regulated in the world, don’t have full control of their own prices and have constantly to justify themselves to consumer watchdogs. I refer of course to the public util ities, privatised by a Conservative Government. The point is that we had to wait for Thatcher to vindicate Crosland. How very English.
Ben Pimlott (LRB, 3 September) refers to Lord Hattersley as Anthony Crosland’s ‘own disciple’. In fact, Hattersley deserted Crosland in the 1976 leadership election and was told by him, with 1st Airborne Division vigour, to fuck off when he went to explain himself. With disciples like that … It was not, as Pimlott asserts, ‘a mutual unease’ between Crosland and Wilson which kept Crosland from the plum jobs enjoyed by Jenkins. The latter had a gullible fan club in the Parliamentary Labour Party which Wilson (wrongly) felt it was prudent to appease.
Vol. 20 No. 19 · 1 October 1998
Ben Pimlott’s conclusion (LRB, 3 September) about Tony Crosland’s ministerial career – great guy, good thinker, hopeless minister – is, I suspect, a by-product of the consistent denigration of Crosland by the Jenkins pro-Europe camp which never forgave his mild Euroscepticism. The description of his record at Education could not be more inaccurate. Legislative enforcement of comprehensive education would have caused endless bickering with local councils; encouraging them to eliminate eleven-plus selection through a range of different mechanisms on a voluntary basis achieved a rapid cross-party consensus with such astonishing momentum that Mrs Thatcher, when she became Education Minister in 1970, could do nothing to stem the tide. Pimlott is also wrong to say that Crosland was ‘culpable’ in the failure to abolish public schools. Some public schools had wanted a measure of integration in the aftermath of the Second World War, which had hit their finances very hard; but by 1965, with new laboratories built for them gratis by British industry, they were in an immensely powerful economic position once more. The attempt of the Public Schools Commission to integrate them by threatening their charitable status was a nice try but never a runner. Neither local councils nor the public schools themselves wanted any truck with integration. All the postwar ‘one nation’ idealism had dissipated and Britain’s educational apartheid was already re-set in concrete. It is true Crosland disliked the Open University, partly because Jennie Lee, with her exclusive access to Wilson, was using it to eat into his own education budget. But the polytechnics, which he did invent, have just as big a claim (many would say a far bigger one) in terms of access and curriculum development to be ‘the greatest innovation in tertiary education of the age’. No Labour minister since the war has a better record of opening up opportunities to those who would otherwise have been denied them and acting as an advocate for an inclusive education system – not just with mumbled phrases about social exclusion but with a personal integrity which is both refreshing and instructive to look back on today.
Settle, North Yorkshire
Vol. 20 No. 20 · 15 October 1998
My review of David Reisman’s books on Tony Crosland was intended to save a political hero from the myth-makers. Christopher Price (Letters, 1 October) misinterprets the piece and adds to the obfuscating myth. It also caricatures what I wrote. In particular, I did not conclude that the auth or of The Future of Socialism was a ‘hopeless minister’, as Price suggests. On the con trary, I presented him as a good and successful one, who missed some catches.
Price takes me up on Crosland’s role in the development of post-school learning, implying that I did not give him enough credit for widening access to degree courses. In fact, I stressed that, as education minister, Crosland ‘presided over a heroic expansion of higher education, establishing a proudly innovative tier of “new polytechnics”’.
Price also takes me up on schools, and my criticism of the half-cock way in which Labour launched the comprehensives. This is a matter of opinion. He writes with direct knowledge of the obstacles in the way of a more fundamental reform. Nevertheless, I do not believe that a policy of pushing state grammar schools into the comprehensive scheme without doing any thing about the private sector was the best or only available way of going about it.
The issue was not ‘abolishing the public schools’, but finding a method of bringing good independent schools into the national mainstream – something Labour had long promised, and many teachers and parents wished for. Then it was a widely discussed option: now it would be much harder, if not impossible. Price’s excuse for government paralysis (’Neither local councils nor the public schools themselves wanted any truck with integration’ – i.e. vested interests might have got cross) scarcely disposes of my argument that an opportunity was missed.
But what surprises me most is that Price should think Crosland’s memory needs earnest defending. As I indicated, Crosland was one of the postwar giants, whose writings reflect a deep understanding of politics and society, based on practical participation as much as theory. It detracts from his achievement to paint him as a lost messiah who never made a mistake.
Goldsmiths’ College, London