Britain seems to be fragmenting but English socialism is being reborne


by Tom Kelsey and Jon Wilson

The referendum brought to light deep fractures that risk destroying the left, and with the prospect of a bruising leadership election the divisions seem to be getting wider. Working class voters in once industrial towns and cities think their political leaders are out-of-touch with no understanding of life in a country many feel is rapidly changing for the worse. The idea of the nation, particularly of a resurgent England, has become a channel for revolt for many who need to vote Labour if we are to win a majority. But middle-class liberals are appalled, aghast at how many of the poorest seem to have turned towards little-Englandism and sometimes racism. Progressive politics, they think, can wrap itself in the saltire, the Welsh dragon or the EU’s 12 stars, but it never wears the cross of Saint George. To many of us, England has only ever been a reactionary idea.

The innate conservatism of England has been a staple of left-wing political argument for the last few decades. England has been castigated for its “separateness and provincialism” as the Marxist scholars Perry Anderson and Thomas Nairn put it in the 1960s. England needed to turn to the supposedly more rational political cultures of continental Europe. No wonder so many on the left fear what’ll happen after Brexit.

But these fears forget the existence of a vibrant English socialist tradition. Until the last quarter of the twentieth century, three key themes ran through a distinctly English form of socialist politics. Freedom was celebrated so individuals could choose their own course in life against the “dull uniformity” all too often produced by modern capitalism; it was their freedom which socialists thought allowed people to work together to create a jointly-recognised common good. Democracy emerged out of England’s vigorous forms of dissent and offered a radical challenge to elites monopolising power. It then provided the means for people to co-ordinate their actions in contrast to the chaos produced by competitive individualism. Tradition, local and national, rooted the politics of socialism within the lives of particular communities.

From the 1890s to the 1980s, socialism in England aimed to direct the productive forces of the national economy in the interests of the community at large. But it did so with a non-revolutionary politics that emphasised the reconciliation of groups and interests who otherwise would have been rivals. In practice, as the English Marxist E.P. Thompson put it, “each assertion of working-class influence … involved them as partners (even if antagonistic partners) in the running of the machine”.

Our problem now is that too many do not feel partners within the machine. The rediscovery of the themes from England’s socialist idiom might help restore a sense of involvement within our polity and economy.

For example, inter-war English socialist thinking about the relationship between a self-governing nation and international institutions speaks to Britain’s present predicament. English socialists were pro-war and anti-war, just as the Labour Party is now. But for most of the men and women who spoke in this tradition, patriotism is compatible with internationalism, about engagement not isolation from the rest of the world.

Similarly, English socialism allows us to challenge the ideology of free market capitalist with something other than vague and abstract values. The Labour economist Evan Durbin challenged the first generation of neo-liberal economics in the 1950s – Hayek, for example – as abstractions alien to the practical solidarities of domestic life.

Arguments in the English socialist idiom made in the 1970s aimed to increase the power of workers in the economy without creating a revolutionary crisis. When mainstream parties seem to have nothing to say to working men and women, we could do well to revisit Alan Bullock’s long-forgotten plan for worker representation in boardrooms.

Rediscovering English socialism is not about mobilising nostalgia or merely engaging the cultural proclivities of those “left behind” by globalisation. It offers a bigger outline of a practical political project suited for our time, when elites are questioned and people are demanding greater participation in the decisions that effect them.

From Ernest Bevin to Tony Benn, Thompson to Barbara Castle, different members of these English socialist traditions shared something many on the left seem to have abandoned: a concern with the nation, and the national community, as an important theme and focus for political life. Terrible deeds have been done in the name of our country; but racism and imperialism have been opposed in its name too. There is more to life than the nation-state, of course: we need to be localists and internationalists too. But – like it or not – the nation is the place where many of our institutions and identities cohere, so it should still be an important concern. Socialism is about collective action; and it is nothing other than an abstract dream unless we can name the community on whose behalf we work or the idiom in which we act.

For too long, radical politics in England has been ruled by abstract theory and “principles” devoid of a real life. We, in England, have forgotten ways of thinking and doing politics which are rich, radical and potentially very useful now. As Britain seems to be fragmenting, and politics ruled by vague promises and meaningless categories, the recovery of the arguments of English socialism would help us create ideas and plans which open the prospect of practical action. Leave or remain, bourgeois or working class, metropolitan or rural, Corbyn or Smith, rediscovering the vernacular idioms of the English left offers a path over the terrifying gulfs that have opened up within our society.

Tom Kelsey and Jon Wilson are historians at King’s College London. Tom’s PhD is on science in post-war British politics; Jon’s book India Conquered. Britain’s Raj and the Chaos of Empire is published by Simon and Schuster in August.

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