• The Socialist Way – A Review

    The Socialist Way edited by Roy Hattersley and Kevin Hickson, Palagrave Macmillan, 2013.

    This stimulating and thoughtful collection of essays from across the British Labour movement is long overdue. Throughout what must now be regarded as the New Labour years of wasted opportunity, criticism of the performance of the Blair/Brown government was understandably muted. Now, it seems, a clear judgment of the past and a clear signpost to the future are possible.

    The first hint that times have changed is the title of the book. It is a long time since mainstream British politicians have dared to describe themselves as socialists. It is of course appropriate that one of the two editors is Roy Hattersley – never a left-wing firebrand but someone with an unchallengeable record of commitment to the Labour movement and one of the few to maintain a consistent, reasoned and principled critique of New Labour on the precise grounds that it lacked both reason and principle.

    The second editor is the leading political academic, Kevin Hickson; between the two of them they have assembled an impressive list of contributors – prominent academics, journalists and politicians from both national and local politics. A collection such as this is inevitably uneven, but the best contributions (and there are many of them) strike what is unmistakably a new note.

    That note – belated but for that reason even more welcome – is one of renewed confidence. Perhaps the most striking feature of the political history of Britain in the last three or even four decades has been the left’s loss of intellectual self-confidence. The extent of that loss can be seen in the left’s failure to capitalise on what was on any reckoning the ultimate judgment on neo-liberal politics and economic policy – the global financial crisis.

    Instead of driving home the message that the GFC showed conclusively that unregulated markets would inevitably lead to economic and therefore social disaster, the left (perhaps because of the culpability shared by New Labour) ran scared. What was always obvious, and we now know, is that once you start to run, you can never run far enough. One concession (or failure to make an argument) will inexorably be followed by demands from emboldened opponents for the next concession, and the next.

    What The Socialist Way does is to raise once again a powerful voice that has not been heard in British politics for a long time – the calm and thoughtful voice of democratic socialism, of those who understand that a more equal society in which not only the material rewards of living in society but the respect owed to each individual citizen are fully and fairly delivered is a society that is both stronger and more efficient.

    The remit identified by Roy Hattersley in his opening essay is largely fulfilled by his contributors. What is refreshing is the willingness to take long-established values and to show their relevance to the solution of current and future problems. From economics to the environment and industrial and social policy, from the constitution to the international context, the tone is one of moving forward to grapple with real issues from the starting-point of principle and the traditional left values of compassion, tolerance, social solidarity and equity.

    There is still the sense, however, that left commentators are more comfortable with social issues than with the hard issues of economic policy. There is clearly a growing confidence in developing an effective critique of the failures of neo-liberalism and of austerity as a response to recession; but there is perhaps less willingness to offer a fully developed alternative economic strategy that would address not only the immediate weaknesses and failures of current Tory policy but offer as well a longer-term solution to endemic problems that are now so familiar a part of the landscape that they are scarcely noticed.

    The real significance of this book, however, is that it reflects an understanding of the difficult truth that, in democratic politics, there are never any final battles. The goal must always be to persuade, convince and prevail; but what matters is never giving up, never vacating the battlefield and continuing to fight the battle. The Socialist Way shows that that commitment is alive and well.

    Bryan Gould.

    28 August 2013.

  • A Tale of Two Decades

    Book Review for the New Zealand Listener

    When the Lights Went Out by Andy Beckett: Faber & Faber

    Thatcher’s Britain by Richard Vinen: Simon & Schuster

    Popular wisdom has it that – in Britain as in the rest of the world – the 1970s and 1980s taken together straddled a decisive turning-point that saw the progressive disintegration of the post-war consensus on the one hand followed by a positive striking-out in a new direction on the other. Those of us who lived through the period – and especially those, like me, who were close to events – will testify to the turbulence of the 1970s and to the sense of fundamental change ushered in by the 1980s; but, as these two books in their different ways demonstrate, the history of the period is not as simple as it seems.

    At first glance, the 1970s were a decade of failed British Prime Ministers – Heath, Wilson and Callaghan – each of whom was defeated in turn by a combination of economic under-performance, the loss of faith in Keynesianism, irresponsible trade union power, and increasing self-doubt about the integrity of the United Kingdom and Britain’s place in the world. This catalogue of tribulations was followed by a very different Prime Minister who grasped the situation by the scruff of the neck, faced down both her critics and the country’s problems and, as a consequence, transformed Britain (for good or ill) and made the 1980s her decade.

    But, as Andy Beckett shows in his wonderfully lively reportage of the 1970s, that decade offered much more than chaos, confusion and decline. If we widen the lens to take in not just the economics and the politics, but a more complete picture of how the 1970s felt to the majority of British citizens, we see a British society that was unusually creative, surprisingly contented, and – especially towards the end of the decade – beginning to feel that many of the most pressing problems were well on the way to resolution.

    Even the much-touted economic problems were, perhaps, not quite as intractable as they seemed. Growth rates may have been lower than in some of the countries the British liked to measure themselves against, but we now know that most of those countries were about to face the same problems as had troubled the British. And, despite those issues, unemployment in Britain through the 70s was at lower levels than were matched over the next thirty years.

    The fortunes of the political leaders, however, seemed to tell a different story. Heath was a decent and thoughtful leader who proved – rather like a twentieth-century Gordon Brown – to be almost totally lacking in political skills or human warmth. Wilson was clearly ill-prepared – perhaps even reluctant – to take up the burdens of office again when he narrowly and slightly unexpectedly won the 1974 elections and he duly laid those burdens down within a couple years, to the surprise and discomfiture of his supporters. And Callaghan, despite his experience and calm good sense, badly misjudged a less than competent and responsible union leadership and came to grief over the “winter of discontent”. More seriously, none found a way to overcome the problems of comparatively poor economic performance while maintaining the commitment to full employment, good public services and social justice.

    That is not to say that this was an impossible or even a difficult task. It was simply beyond the conventional thinking of the time. Concern about the value and role of sterling, the priority given to the interests of the City, a touching faith in the curative powers of North Sea oil which was about to come on stream, and a fatalism about the competitiveness of British manufacturing industry all combined to close off avenues that could have seen a constructive evolution of policy, rather than allowing it to be seen to hit the buffers.

    Beckett is brilliant at evoking the mood of the moment (and there were many of them) and at painting the dramatis personae in full colour. His is essentially, however, a journalist’s account; there is surprisingly little analysis or exploration of issues. This is a minor quibble perhaps, but a New Zealand readership will understand the deficiency with a tiny example drawn from his account of British membership of the Common Market which resulted, he says, in New Zealand butter becoming “more expensive” – perhaps one way of putting it but not quite getting to the nub of the issue.

    Richard Vinen’s study of “Thatcher’s Britain” is a different sort of book. Whereas Beckett aims at (and largely succeeds in) painting a full, even if at times superficial, portrait of the 1970s, Vinen takes a more analytical approach, lingering – as befits an academic rather than a journalist – over those aspects that interest him and not bothering too much about covering the whole waterfront. The result is a curiously partial account of Margaret Thatcher – partial in the sense both of being less than complete and of being quite opinionated.

    It is perhaps a reflection of my own strong opinions on the subject that I found that I enjoyed what he has to say. He is good on both Thatcher and Thatcherism and quite properly makes a clear distinction between them. This accords with my own view, that it was one of those mysterious accidents of political life in a modern democracy that someone who seemed to have a surprisingly limited contribution to make was reckoned to have made such an impact.

    Margaret Thatcher had a collection of largely conventional – and partly anachronistic – views, rather than the coherent and ground-breaking political philosophy that is often attributed to her. She saw the world exactly in the way that could be expected of someone of her limited background and experience. It is the very conventionality of that view, untroubled as it was by doubts or complications, that proved to be the source of her strength. It accorded exactly with the way the world seemed to so many of her supporters, and it was their enthusiasm for her, coupled with her own strength of personality, that gave her the confidence to push forward with her agenda.

    It must not be forgotten, however, that Thatcher was a product of the particular combination of circumstances she encountered as Tory leader. As Vinen reminds us, she was a largely accidental Party leader, and a pretty ineffective Leader of the Opposition; for most of her first term, she was also an unusually unpopular Prime Minister.

    She had the good luck, though, to enter a political battlefield which her likely opponents had either abandoned of their own volition or from which they were distracted by other, internal, preoccupations. To the gratified surprise of the Prime Minister and her supporters, she found that she could push forward without encountering much by way of opposition.

    Thatcher found herself as the standard-bearer for what became known as Thatcherism; but the doctrine itself was a much more formidable construction – contributed to by a wide range of thinkers in many different fields, and assisted by opponents who had lost confidence in their own prescriptions – than her own quite simplistic political philosophy would have allowed. As so often in politics, luck and timing were almost everything, and by the end of the 1980s, they had run their course.

    The two decades are not, after all, a simple parable of decline and renewal. As Enoch Powell, copiously quoted by Vinen, remarked, “All political careers end in failure.” Margaret Thatcher, along with Heath, Wilson and Callaghan, was no exception. These two books offer at least a part of the explanation of why that was.

    Bryan Gould

    9 July 2009