Saturday, March 28, 2015

Socialism may, as Jamie Foster says, be "entirely wrong". But in Britain we've never really tried it !

The above Tweet, from one of Twitter's most active members of the political "Right" is rather nostalgic for me. It takes me back to me childhood when my Mum and Dad would express similar thoughts about the perils of Socialism. Neither of my parents was particularly politically aware and they were not activists. They voted Conservative as a matter of course, as did the rest of my family on both sides. My Uncle, however, was an activist and should have been a Tory MP. He was offered a (then) safe seat in Cornwall in the early 1950s but his father stood in his way to protect the family business - a hotel in which my Uncle was the hands on Manager. I think my Uncle would have done well in national politics but he had to restrict himself to Cornwall where he became the long-serving Chairman of the County Council. 

I mention my family because I think that their attitude to Socialism was very typical of much of the Middle Class at the time. They regarded the immediate post war years (the Attlee Government) not with pride but with anger. The problem was "Socialism" - essentially Labour's decisive moves towards "Common Ownership" - Nationalisation. With hindsight, however, this "Socialist" Government  is, rightly in my view, rather more highly regarded cross the political spectrum. Take this for example from a Conservative  writing in 1995:

"Clement Attlee...I was an admirer. He was a serious man and a patriot. Quite contrary to the general tendency of politicians in the 1990s, he was all substance and no show. His was a genuinely radical and reforming government."

This was Margaret Thatcher's view of Attlee as expressed in her own memoir! So was Attlee's Government as well as "radical and reforming" also "Socialist"? I would argue that it was, but not strongly so. And that further that it was the only truly, but mildly, socialist administration that Britain has ever had. The socialism of Attlee was not particularly extreme. Chips Channon - a Right Wing Conservative writing in his diary of a meeting with Attlee in 1940 said of him "...he seems more Liberal than actually Socialist: but he could never control the energies of his wilder followers." Hindsight teaches us that Channon was half right - Attlee was certainly no firebrand Red and was firmly in the Liberal tradition. But he did "control" the more extreme members of his Party. To such an extent that famously, In 1951, Aneurin Bevan resigned from the government in protest at the introduction of prescription charges for dental care and spectacles. 

The Bevanites never took over Labour except, perhaps, when Michael Foot was leader for three years in the early 1980s. Oddly the leadership of "Red Mike" (as the Tory press didn't call him, but would now!) was the death knell of hard core Socialism in Labour. This was formalised under Tony Blair when "Clause 4" of the  Party Constitution, which called for "...the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange", was abandoned for good. 

In his seminal book "The Future of Socialism" published in 1956 Tony Crosland argued as follows:

"In Britain, equality of opportunity and social mobility... are not enough. They need to be combined with measures... to equalise the distribution of rewards and privileges so as to diminish the degree of class stratification, the injustices of large inequalities and the collective discontents."

The means to do what the Social Democrat Crosland saw as Labour's goal were not traditionally socialist means - the extension of "Common Ownership" played little or no part in them. The way to the victory of the Social Democrats in Labour, of the inheritors of the Gaitskell and the Jenkins and the Crosland tradition, was paved by the Wilson and Callaghan Governments of the 1960s and 1970s. And the Foot period, on the face of it a setback, actually helped as it led to the creation of the "Social Democratic Party" (SDP) which was the precursor of Blair's   "New Labour" in almost every respect.

Margaret Thatcher was as "radical and reforming" as Attlee - which is no doubt why she admired him of course. And without Thatcher there would have been no SDP, no Blair and no "New Labour" . By privatising some publicly owned assets Thatcher did make a major shift in the public/private mix of the Economy. None of these privatisations were subsequently overturned by Blair and Brown. Indeed as David Marquand puts it in his 2013 book "Mammon's Kingdom":

"market principles would reign...supreme..The Thatcher and Major governments bequeathed that vision to their successors; despite differences of emphasis here and there, it has encapsulated the common sense of most of the political class, most of the commentariat and most of the business elite for the best part of a generation."
Another crucial change of the accepted status quo is in regard to social liberalism. When Bevan said in 1948:

"No attempt at ethical or social seduction can eradicate from my heart a deep burning hatred for the Tory Party... So far as I am concerned they are lower than vermin."
he was referring to a Conservative Party that was not only deeply resistant to change, and in particular to the National Health Service, but socially illiberal. Intolerance took a long time to fade away - but it did. Some will still call the Conservatives the "Nasty party" - and there are certainly some very nasty people in, though quite a few have decamped to UKIP! But in the main Marquand is right. Labour has not been "socialist" for a long time, and nor have the Tories overthrown such key pillars of our mixed economy society as the NHS . The ideologists of both sides have given way to the pragmatists.

To return to Mr Foster's tweet which prompted these thoughts. He may be right that pure Socialism is "entirely wrong" , but in Britain we can't really say that because its never been tried! I'm not advocating that it should be - I am arguing only that the charge by the likes of Mr Foster and his fellow travellers that Ed Milliband ("Red Ed") is some sort of crypto-socialist is risible.


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