The social democracy of fear

John Gray on Ralph Miliband.

In my recent piece about Ralph Miliband, Marxist intellectual and late father of David and Ed, I quoted his erstwhile collaborator and former student Leo Panitch, who observed that it is a "great irony that people are saying of David and Ed that they are the inheritors of Croslandism in the Labour Party."

As Ed himself has said, "in the household in which [we were] brought up, [Anthony] Crosland and his ideas were not popular -- his critique of Marxism, his views on public ownership".

The New Statesman's lead book reviewer, John Gray, echoes this in a piece about Ralph Miliband in the Guardian today (which doesn't appear to have made it on to their website yet):

He would surely have appreciated the curious dialectic through which it has fallen to his sons to defend the social democracy he so fiercely attacked.

The thrust of Gray's argument is that Croslandite social democracy, not to mention its New Labour descendant, is based on the assumption that capitalism has been tamed definitively and that steady and continuous economic growth can be taken for granted. Crosland's model was undone by the oil shocks of the early 1970s, just as the latest global financial crisis has done for the "happy conjunction of neoliberal economics with social democracy on which New Labour was founded".

In Gray's view, neither David nor Ed has grasped the extent to which Ralph's pessimism about the future of social democracy looks as if it being vindicated. They are "harking back to Crosland . . . at a time when Crosland's thinking is no longer applicable". Both brothers, he thinks, are in thrall to a social-democratic illusion their father spent all his working life trying to puncture, namely that "government [is] capable of controlling market forces":

Rather than controlling or reshaping capitalism, a Miliband government would find itself struggling to preserve Britain's social-democratic inheritance in the face of capitalism's renewed disorder.

What moral should we draw from Gray's characteristically gloomy prognosis? Perhaps it is that, after the crash of autumn 2008, 21st-century social democracy will, at best, be what the late Tony Judt called a "social democracy of fear" -- that is, social democracy minus the Croslandite optimism about progress and growth.

"If social democracy has a future", Judt declared in his now celebrated 2009 lecture on "What Is Living and What Is Dead in Social Democracy",

it will be as a social democracy of fear. Rather than seeking to restore a language of optimistic progress, we should begin by reacquainting ourselves with the recent past. The first task of radical dissenters today is to remind their audience of the achievements of the 20th century, along with the likely consequences of our heedless rush to dismantle them. The left, to be quite blunt about it, has something to conserve. It is the right that has inherited the ambitious modernist urge to destroy and innovate in the name of a universal project. Social democrats, characteristically modest in style and ambition, need to speak more assertively of past gains.

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

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Leader: Labour and the Brexit debacle

The party appears to favour having its cake and eating it – yet the dilemma is not insuperable.

In the year since a narrow majority of people voted to leave the European Union, the Brexit project has not aged well. Theresa May’s appeal to the electorate to “strengthen” her hand in negotiations was humiliatingly rejected in the general election. Having repeatedly warned of a “coalition of chaos” encompassing ­Labour and the Scottish National Party, the Prime Minister has been forced to strike a panicked parliamentary deal with the Democratic Unionist Party. European leaders have been left bewildered by events in the United Kingdom.

The Brexiteers, who won the referendum on a fraudulent prospectus, have struggled to cope with the burden of responsibility. In the manner of Dr Pangloss, they maintain that the UK will flourish outside the EU and that those who suggest otherwise are too pessimistic, or even unpatriotic. Yet wishful thinking is not a strategy. Though the immediate recession forecast by the Treasury has been avoided, the cost of Brexit is already being borne in squeezed living standards (owing to the pound’s depreciation) and delayed investment decisions.

At the same time, far from disintegrating as the most ardent Leavers predicted, the EU is recovering, with a revival of the Franco-German axis under Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel. Donald Trump’s antics have dispelled the illusion that “the Anglosphere” can function as an alternative to the bloc. Britain has embarked on the great task of withdrawal at a time of profound national and global instability.

For all this, the Brexiteers retain an indisputable mandate. What the Brexiteers have no mandate for is their model of withdrawal. And there is a nascent majority in the House of Commons for a “soft” exit. Roughly two-thirds of voters remain supportive of Brexit but they have no desire to harm the economy in the process. A recent YouGov survey found that 58 per cent believe Britain should trade freely with the EU, even at the cost of continued free movement into Britain.

In these circumstances, Labour has profited from ambiguity. Jeremy Corbyn’s promise to uphold the referendum result and to end free movement won the respect of Leavers in the election. His pro-migration rhetoric and promise of a “jobs-first” Brexit impressed Remainers, who were in the mood to give the Tories a bloody nose. Although Labour fell 64 seats short of a majority, it partly spanned a divide that had been considered unbridgeable.

Mr Corbyn’s desire to avoid the cross-party Brexit commission proposed by some commentators and MPs is understandable. As Ed Smith observes on page 22, Brexit is a metaphorical “plague” that contaminates all those who touch it, claiming one Conservative prime minister and fatally infecting another. The Tories, who inflicted an unnecessary EU referendum on the UK, must not redistribute the blame.

As the Brexit negotiations progress, however, Labour cannot maintain its opacity. While vowing to retain “the benefits of the single market and the customs union”, it has also pledged to “end” freedom of movement. Like the risible ­Boris Johnson, Labour appears to favour having its cake and eating it. Yet the dilemma is not insuperable.

The logical extension of the party’s vow to give the economy priority over immigration control is to support continued single-market membership. This is the most practical and reliable means of ensuring that Britain’s dominant services sector retains the access it requires. Membership of the customs union would ensure the same for manufacturers. Economic retreat from the EU, which accounts for 44 per cent of all UK exports, would unavoidably reduce growth and living standards.

Such an arrangement need not entail continued free movement, however. Under existing EU rules (not applied by the UK), immigrants resident for longer than three months must prove that they are working (employed or self-employed) or a registered student, or have “sufficient resources” to support themselves and not be “a burden on the benefits system”.

It falls to Labour, as a reinvigorated and increasingly popular opposition, to chart an alternative to the ideological Brexiteers on the Tory benches as well as in the virulent right-wing press. Is Mr Corbyn a covert Brexiteer? It does not really matter. What matters is that he leads a party of committed Europeans who have no wish to see Britain humiliated, its influence in the world reduced, and its economy damaged by the folly of the Brexit debacle. 

This article first appeared in the 29 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit plague

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