Uneasy allies? Progressive dilemmas revisited

8:35 pm - February 2nd 2009

by Sunder Katwala    

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This moment of political flux offers opportunities to connect debates bubbling up at the level of ideas to more immediate political contexts. Both Phillip Blond’s Red Tory thesis in Prospect and my advocacy of a renewed Lib-Lab coalition politics of realignment in the New Statesman are political interventions motivated, in different ways, by the concern to do that.

Yet the difficulties in connecting ideas and politics are reflected in my scepticism about how far Red Toryism could influence David Cameron, and in what could be seen as a somewhat analogous sceptical challenge to me, particularly from LibDems including Richard Huzzey and James Graham who would both in principle be open to a liberal-left realignment yet who sought to ask of the barrier of the Labourist political culture “is it even possible to change?”.

Those are political questions and challenges – and we will find out how they are resolved. Yet, at the same time, these are also both arguments about political ideas – and how ideologies can rediscover traditions which have not been recently dominant – which might usefully be separated from the political cycle. David Marquand’s major new book Britain Since 1918, published last Autumn, offers an important starting point for debate, by illuminating the historic evolution – and potential future – of Britain’s ideological traditions on both right and left.

The renewal of the ‘democratic republican’ tradition which Marquand advocates is something which Stuart White has written a lot about (having edited a recent book on this theme). And his recent blogging has connected that perspective to musing on themes ranging from Obama’s inaugural to Milton, Bagpuss and Bernard Crick. (I also wrote an appreciation of Crick for OurKingdom which discussed this). I am no expert on this, but think it is a vital direction for many different parts of the progressive left, but one which needs much interrogation and fleshing out. My central question is how we can ensure that calls for a less statist politics don’t end up losing the egalitarian mission of the left. I expect that’s also an important concern for many others on Liberal Conspiracy, from different philosophical and political perspectives.

As is easily evident, Marquand’s ‘The Progressive Dilemma’ (published when I was taking my A-levels in the early 1990s) had a very formative influence on my political thinking and so I found much to engage with in a new book although the Fabian democratic collectivist tradition is somewhat cast as the villain of the piece.

Here’s my own review of the book, which was published in the current Fabian Review. I would be very interested to know what others who have read the book think of it both as history of ideas and as a contribution to contemporary debates.

Uneasy allies

Historians seeking the threads of 20th century British political history ought to have as much, and probably more, to say about the right as the left. Property’s fear of democracy did much to shapepolitics from 1789 to 1918. But it wasthe Conservatives who dominated electoral politics in Britain after mass enfranchisement, though rarely on their own terms.

David Marquand’s illuminating and original thesis is that the history of British democracy is best understood as an argument between the four ‘grand stories’ of Whig imperialism, Tory nationalism, democratic collectivism and democratic republicanism. His regret is that the nobler traditions were too often snuffed out.

Stanley Baldwin’s accommodation of the rising Labour movement dominates the inter-war chapters and Harold Macmillan dominates the middle of the century. Knowing how and when to retreat was in large part the Whig secret of Tory political success. Yet, despite the self-destruction of both Enoch Powell and Keith Joseph, it turned out that the Tory nationalist drum could reverse the ‘ratchet effect’ leftwards after all. Casting Ted Heath as a flawed, tragic hero Marquand declares Margaret Thatcher by far the most radical prime minister of the century.

But it is worth also remembering what Thatcher did not change. With so few defenders of the post-war welfare settlement – as the Thatcherite right, Bennite left and SDP centre offered competing prescriptions for a clean break – what is striking is how much of it endured: public spending was 43 per cent of GDP in 1980 and 41.9 per cent in 1996. Marquand perhaps underestimates how far democratic collectivism entrenched its vision in public attitudes, not just in welfare institutions. He acknowledges that the Attlee Government ”did more good to more people than any previous or subsequent British government” while emphasising that Government’s intellectual, political and often physical exhaustion by 1951.

In renewing the author’s longstanding critique of Labourism, ‘Britain after 1918’ at times ventures close to the caricature of Fabianism as a ‘poisoned well’ offered by Phil Collins and Richard Reeves in Prospect last year, though Marquand’s is an infinitely more informed and somewhat more nuanced critique. That Collins and Reeves nominated as their anti-Fabian hero, GDH Cole – among the most active Fabians of the century, and President of the Society – showed an inability to distinguish at all between baby and bathwater. By contrast, Marquand stresses the interplay of competing and overlapping traditions. Still, he pulls a similar trick in making RH Tawney the icon of his democratic republican challenge to collectivist Fabian egalitarians. Many fair-minded Fabians would be willing to concede half of the critique, but Fabianism is a plural tradition too, combining moral and mechanical reform.

The attractions of democratic republicanism – its open-ended discursiveness – have also often proved political weaknesses. The best may lack the conviction and passionate intensity of their rivals but even an inherently plural politics must have some sense of what it wants to achieve. Energy courses through a prologue telling the story – often of glorious defeat – of the demands for democracy from below from the English Civil War to 1848. Yet the extension of the franchise between 1867 and 1918 came largely from above, with the partial exception of votes for women. The democratic republican tradition was missing in action for most of the next half century. If it was revived in the late 1960s, it was not clear to what ends. What did the 1968ers ever do for us? (Those of us who weren’t there – perhaps many who were – have never been quite sure).

The principal agent of its revival was Margaret Thatcher – an unintended consequence of her testing the unwritten assumptions of British politics to destruction. Pressure from below now changed not just political possibilities but outcomes too, perhaps most strikingly with the Scottish Claim of Right and the Constitutional Convention, and the broader democratic reform agenda of Charter88. It did so where it could successfully create alliances between civic pressure and traditional institutions and parties. Crucially, Thatcher did not just provoke a civic counter-mobilisation but also converted her Labour opponents to a much more pluralist idea of democracy than it had held for its first nine decades, or had needed in the age of Baldwin and Macmillan.

Having begun the book arguing that Tony Blair “held essentially the same centralist vision of the democratic state as Sidney Webb in the 1880s”, Marquand acknowledges that New Labour’s first term from 1997 to 2001was the closest we have come to a period of pluralist democratic advance. This, he says, was squandered after 2001. Marquand finds republican instincts creeping out behind Gordon Brown’s collectivist soul but the promise of a new constitutional settlement which would have challenged New Labour’s authoritarian reputation now risks slipping from view.

Marquand believes that David Cameron would return to the Tory Whig tradition of Edmund Burke. There is a strong strand of dispositional conservatism in Cameron who, despite his wariness at acknowledging the lineage, is a recognisable throwback to the Macmillan and Douglas-Home élite. Yet his post-Thatcherite party has inherited a liberal, small-state ideology which is often profoundly un-Conservative in its implications.

The perils of writing history up to the present day are shown by Cameron having ditched, not long after publication, his Whiggish strategy of ‘Tory men and Labour spending plans’. It offers a reminder that Macmillan’s self-proclaimed ‘progressive Toryism’ was not motivated only by the political desire to lay the ghost of the 1930s. Macmillan’s ‘Middle Way’ was deeply rooted in the 1930s experience of Stockton, the promises made in wartime solidarity, and an intellectual commitment to Keynesianism. Marquand cites the rejection of the plan to float the pound in 1952, which would have broken with full employment, as the moment the ‘post-war consensus’ was settled. So Macmillan felt bound to reject serious pressure for traditional fiscal conservatism – accepting the resignation of his Chancellor and Treasury team (including Enoch) in 1958. David Cameron seemed to begin that argument with his party, but changed his mind.

For all its great merits, this is a somewhat uneven book. It is a brilliant history of ideas in politics, provoking both old and new arguments. But the post-war chapters sometimes fall into a more conventional run through the textbook turning points than the distinctive thesis promises. Given how much the personal pen portraits brought to ‘The Progressive Dilemma’, I regretted the author’s decision to distance himself from his own role as participant and observer. (One sparse footnote sources the author’s judgement that anti-Wilson plotting, though constant, was often fantastical: “I write as a former plotter”.)

Marquand’s ‘Progressive Dilemma’ concluded that Labour would be necessary, but not sufficient, to a successful, sustained challenge to Tory dominance. That argument may now be both more difficult and as important as ever.

This may depend on understanding the republican and collectivist traditions not as opposing armies but as potential, if uneasy, allies. It is their on-going, mutual interrogation which could fuse social democratic and liberal thought. There would be several tensions: a thin, majoritarian idea of democracy would be one barrier; a left-libertarian allergy
to the necessary role of government in dismantling class disadvantage could prove another.

Still, this offers the best hope of creating a politics which could speak in the causes of equality and democracy to the spirit of Lloyd George, Tawney, Orwell and Amartya Sen, and seek to link mobilisation from below with progressive state action. It would not be easy, but the history of British democracy suggests it could also do much to determine which type of Conservativism we face.

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About the author
Sunder Katwala is a regular contributor to Liberal Conspiracy. He is the director of British Future, a think-tank addressing identity and integration, migration and opportunity. He was formerly secretary-general of the Fabian Society.
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Reader comments

Sunder with the greatest respect , it is far from clear what you are in about here old sausage . ‘democratic republicanism ‘ , whats that ?

i recommend the Marquand book. But I managed to publish this without the links, and am adding some to the para on democratic republicanism which may or may not illuminate that somewhat.

Forget, please, “conservatism,” please. It has been, operationally, de facto, Godless and therefore irrelevant. Secular conservatism will not defeat secular liberalism because to God both are two atheistic peas-in-a-pod and thus predestined to failure. As Stonewall Jackson’s Chief of Staff R.L. Dabney said of such a humanistic belief more than 100 years ago:

“[Secular conservatism] is a party which never conserves anything. Its history has been that it demurs to each aggression of the progressive party, and aims to save its credit by a respectable amount of growling, but always acquiesces at last in the innovation. What was the resisted novelty of yesterday is today .one of the accepted principles of conservatism; it is now conservative only in affecting to resist the next innovation, which will tomorrow be forced upon its timidity and will be succeeded by some third revolution; to be denounced and then adopted in its turn. American conservatism is merely the shadow that follows Radicalism as it moves forward towards perdition. It remains behind it, but never retards it, and always advances near its leader. This pretended salt bath utterly lost its savor: wherewith shall it be salted? Its impotency is not hard, indeed, to explain. It is worthless because it is the conservatism of expediency only, and not of sturdy principle. It intends to risk nothing serious for the sake of the truth.”

Our country is collapsing because we have turned our back on God (Psalm 9:17) and refused to kiss His Son (Psalm 2).

John Lofton, Editor, TheAmericanView.com

Recovering Republican


My central question is how we can ensure that calls for a less statist politics don’t end up losing the egalitarian mission of the left.

That is, in fact, a key question I think.

Otherwise, I got a bit lost in what ‘democrat republicanism’ and other terms mean in this context. Or mayhe I should read this at a better hour…


This made me giggle.

My central question is how we can ensure that calls for a less statist politics don’t end up losing the egalitarian mission of the left.

Sunny’s right, this is crucial. At the most recent Lib Dem conference, there was a fringe event which featured David Lammy and Charles Clarke (along with Stephen Williams and Vince Cable) which focused on precisely this topic. Lammy in particular argued that the onus was on the Lib Dems to, as it were, “stop worrying and learn to love the state”.

There certainly are ways to lessen the fears that people have about statism. Stronger democratic controls would help. Greater transparency, local accountability, stronger individual rights, greater personal control over the access of state bodies to our private spheres of influence and so on would all help. The problem is that ID cards, “information sharing orders”, the continued lack of democracy in the running of not just the House of Lords but also various regional NHS trusts, regional development agencies and various other bodies, databases of children (except the children of MPs and celebrities) and so on are all the polar opposite of what might make the state a more acceptable ally for many liberals. It is impossible to talk about a progressive consensus on these issues at present, because there is a split right down the middle on almost all of the issues I mentioned above.

The problem is that some people see this illiberalism as a means to a broadly positive end. For example, when I see lack of local accountability, they see universal standards. When I see a dangerous (in the sense of the risk it creates) database of personal information about vulnerable people, they see a vital tool in tackling persistent failure to meet the needs of children. When I see legislation that enables greater powers for the state, I see something that creates a great risk of that power being misused (not the same thing as abused; the misuse can simply be in error rather than malice); others might see it as creating the possibility of doing great good.

Fundamentally, I think the objective has to be to disperse power to people so that they can act for themselves. The present government seems to want to centralise power so that they can act on behalf of the powerless. I don’t believe that anyone has yet worked out which approach is the more beneficial in terms of its effects on fairness and justice in society, so we are simply left with our own prejudices. I just think that, to the extent that we might consider ourselves to be the liberal left, we should be in favour of dispersal of power rather than centralisation of it. I’m not holding my breath waiting for the Labour party to agree.

Thanks. For those trying to get their heads around ‘democratic republicanism’ (or the other Marquand ideological traditions, this link given in the piece is the most useful useful starting point, though perhaps we should also invite Stuart White to open a discussion about it over here on LC

As Tom Griffin describes it: “The tradition goes back to the Levellers and John Milton in the 17th century, and includes later figures such as John Stuart Mill and R.H. Tawney. It is exemplified by Mill’s belief that “people have got to govern themselves, and they’ve got to learn how to govern themselves,” and by Tawney’s view that “democracy is not just a matter of counting heads, democracy is a matter of having a democratic culture … Unlike the other three traditions, democratic republicanism has never enjoyed a period of dominance”.

So it is the approach which many on LC are instinctively sympathetic to, though it is a disparate political tradition, with different strands within it, which is both a weakness and strength.

Marquand says: “The Whig Imperialists, the Tory Nationalists, the Democratic Collectivists, have all been tested almost to destruction. Democratic republicanism I think has had enormous influence on the changes that have taken place in civil society in the last thirty years. I think feminism in many ways has been democratic republican. The Green movement in many ways has been democratic republican. The nationalist movements in Scotland and Wales too. The Blair Government acted in what I would call a Democratic Republican spirit when they did their most important and lasting achievement, which was to create elected Assemblies in Wales and Scotland. But it’s still kind of boxed in, and I think the real question now for Britain is whether we may just conceivably be at the beginning of a democratic republican moment”.

Tawney’s idea was certainly that this would embed an effective egalitarian project more effectively. But a point to be wary about is that it is easy to adopt the rhetoric and then chuck the state out (Cameronism) without any strong view about outcomes. The results if it is done like that could be predictable. Many have a similar fear about say Alan Milburn’s advocacy of a less statist approach from a Blairite New labour perspective. Hence my question about the place of equality in a bottom-up politics.

This discussion has led Stuart White – who teaches political theory and directs the public policy unit at Oxford University – to post on ‘What is democratic republicanism?’ at next left. (If Sunny wants to use that as a post in itself on LC, please feel free to do so; I have linked it below and quoted the concluding paragraph).


“Democratic republicanism, therefore, is not simplistically ‘anti-statist’. It suspects the state; it wants to limit its power to act arbitrarily; it wants to restructure the state so as to make it more open to popular participation. But it also seeks to use the state to combat economic inequality and, thereby, to protect individual liberty and popular sovereignty from subversion by the market. It seeks not, as some socialists have done, to absorb society into the state; nor, as ‘neo-liberals’ want, to absorb society into the market. It seeks to put market and state in their place so as to build a citizen society”

Stuart’s conclusion here (which is seeking to address the issues Rob Knight raises @5 above) does, I think, bear out that this approach to politics does speak to the centre-of-gravity of many of the discussions on Liberal Conspiracy, and contributions here from different participatory, democratic, green, feminist, liberal, reformist social democratic and other perspectives … While this informs much progressive pressure politics, I think the particular challenge in this moment for several of these diverse perspectives – and for democratic republicanism itself – is whether and how it might seek to forge a broader, overarching political or ‘governing’ strategy while retaining its distinctive, participatory nature, what sort of movements and institutions it advocates to do that, and so on.

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