Six decades on, Crosland would have been horrified by the rise of populism and the spread of “post-truth” politics

7th December, 2016 8:39 am

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Anthony Crosland’s momentous treatise on The Future of Socialism was published 60 years ago, in a Britain afflicted by a sense of national crisis not dissimilar to the one we confront today. The year 1956 was a torrid one for the British governing class: Suez had graphically demonstrated the limits of imperial power, leaving Britain without any viable world role. The Soviet invasion of Hungary signalled the intensification of the Cold War, underlining Britain’s descent from its status as one of the “big three” global powers. The Labour party itself was in turmoil, racked by the bitter internecine conflict between Bevanite “fundamentalists” and Gaitskellite “revisionists” over the party’s direction after the Attlee years.

In these tumultuous circumstances, Crosland’s unique achievement was to define a new social democratic project for Britain. He argued that the purpose of socialism was to reform and modernise a country that was still afflicted by rampant class divisions, heavily tainted with the hierarchies of Empire and hereditary privilege. In the words of his close friend, the sociologist Michael Young, Labour’s mission was to construct, “a free, democratic, efficient, public-spirited country with its material resources organised in the service of the people”. Crosland’s vision was of a more equal and free society, characterised by genuine equality of opportunity combined with the broad assault on material disadvantage and economic inequality. British society would no longer be held back by the corrosive class divide.

Crosland’s ideas had a formative influence on the Wilson governments of 1964-70 in which he served as a minister, defined by the commitment to build a “New Britain” through radical education reform (including the vision of comprehensive education now threatened by Theresa May’s Conservative government), by sweeping away restrictive legislation to advance personal freedom, and sustained investment in public institutions to create a more civilised, tolerant country. For all the radical changes to the economy, society and culture of Britain since the fifties, Crosland’s vision of social democracy remains enormously relevant to today’s circumstances.  

His revisionist spirit emphasised adapting the Left’s politics to changing times. The new challenges on the horizon from the implications of demography for society and public services, to the impact of global technological advances for the future of work, are ones to which social democracy needs answers. The Left requires a revisionist “cast of mind”, applying its values adeptly to new circumstances.    

Crosland had a vision of who Labour should govern for. He would have been scornful of the argument that all Labour needs to do to ensure electoral recovery is to win back the support of the English “white working-class”; and Crosland would have been dismissive of the Tories’ superficial appeal to the so-called “just about managing”. His political approach was built on comprehensive analysis of structural changes occurring in British society, combined with the view that Labour should appeal to all classes and occupational groups. Like Keir Hardie, he believed that socialism was a war against a system (a class-bound, restrictive, hierarchical society) rather a class.     

Moreover, Crosland’s vision of political economy recognised that capitalism was constantly mutating and evolving. He is regularly lambasted for insisting that British capitalism had been civilised while taking for granted economic growth; but in the forties and fifties, many on the Left still believed that the capitalist model of production was destined to collapse. Crosland attacked the notion that the dynamics unleashed by capitalism was necessarily harmful to working people. He acknowledged that technology and global economic integration potentially brought great benefits.

Of course, the global economy and technological change risks exacerbating inequalities while heightening anxieties around identity and national belonging when combined with mass migration; active state intervention and robust public regulation are vital to protect those at risk of being “left behind”. Crosland would have been appalled at the rise of inequality in Britain and America in recent decades: he viewed the US as a harbinger of the future. He would have conducted a rigorous intellectual inquiry into the structural forces that are driving the scandalous growth of inequalities in the advanced capitalist states. But Crosland would not have viewed economic development as inherently negative: he would almost certainly have recognised that the Internet has opened up new frontiers for the working-class, creating unprecedented freedoms and opportunities. Globalisation has dramatically cut the price of consumer goods and services, while creating new possibilities for travel and exposure to a diversity of cultures.         

Crosland would have been horrified by the rise of populism and the spread of “post-truth” politics. His mentor, Hugh Gaitskell, once said that politics was “the pursuit of truth until the bitter end”. Crosland would have viewed the attack on expertise and rationalism popularised today by forces on Left and Right from Donald Trump to Boris Johnson as morally repugnant; of course, he was no admirer of the cold, technocratic utilitarianism of the Webbs. However, Crosland recognised that evidence-driven social and economic programmes were more likely to improve the lives of working people and their communities.   

Finally, Crosland had an abiding faith in representative politics as a vocation. He could have had a brilliant career in academia, Whitehall or elsewhere in public service, but Crosland dedicated himself to the battle to the save the Labour party fashioning it into a credible, competent party of government. Towards the end of his life, he came to acknowledge the limits of elite governance, embracing the importance of bottom-up community participation, partly under Michael Young’s influence. He wanted to be a minister so he could help to build a better society; Crosland believed that above all, Labour had to be a party of power, not protest, if it was to help the most needy and vulnerable in Britain to flourish.     

Dr Patrick Diamond is a lecturer at Queen Mary, University of London, and a former head of policy planning at 10 Downing Street during Labour’s time in government.

The Crosland Legacy: The Future of British Social Democracy is published by Polity Press.

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