David Selbourne is one of nature's curmudgeons. At times, The Principle of Duty, first published in 1994 and reissued in the Faber Finds series, reads like the harrumphing of an elderly clubman about the depravity of the young and the degeneracy of the times. One imagines Selbour banging the floor with his stick at moments of special agitation.
His prose can be circuitous, glutinous, deliberately opaque and almost unbearably pompous. It is peppered with references to the great names of the past - Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Hobbes, Rousseau, Mill, de Tocqueville and even Marx - and with contemptuous attacks on the "sophists" of academia and the "rank undergrowth" they inhabit. It is also exasperatingly self-regarding. Selbourne depicts himself as a brave truth-teller, cleaving a lonely path through the serried ranks of right and left, and defying their taunts. He clearly believes that he is a major thinker, far eclipsing those who dare to criticise him.
Yet, for all his pomposity and self-regard, he offers one critically important insight that the contemporary left ignores at its peril. This is that the proletariat of the old days - "free-standing, proud, respectful of education, and predisposed to the principle of duty to self and others" - has been replaced by a miscellaneous gaggle of demoralised and resentful "plebeians", consumed by a culture of dutiless rights. These plebeians are the heirs of the lumpenproletariat that Marx and Engels excoriated and (though Selbourne does not say so) of the Roughs that haunted the imaginations of George Eliot and Matthew Arnold. They form swelling "armies of the civic night", constantly chipping away at the foundations of the civic order. They would be today's barbarians at the gate, had they not already penetrated to the citadel.
But - and this is the most refreshing, and at first sight bewildering, element of Selbourne's insight - the plebeian ranks are not confined to the flotsam and jetsam of the decaying proletariat. In an earlier book, he painted a graphic picture of drunken plebs on a foreign holiday, engaged in an orgy of mindless violence. In this book he casts his net more widely. The threat to the civic culture, and to the web of mutual obligations that sustains it, he now insists, comes from the "universal plebeian": a category that reaches to the top of the income scale, and includes the managers and personnel of the state itself. By implication, at least, thuggish policemen, house-flipping members of parliament, poodle-like civil servants and shameless City bonus-hunters are joined at the hip to drunken louts on package tours. They are all part of the culture of dutiless rights, and they are all nibbling away at the moral ligatures that hold the civic order together.
On one level, there is nothing very new in this. The propensity of self-interested individuals to engage in free riding at the expense of the wider society (and thereby of each other) is almost a cliché of social science. But Selbourne is saying more than that. His harsh, dismaying message is that, in our society, free riding is positively encouraged by ever-expanding demands for ever more extraordinary rights: that the universal plebeian is both child and parent of what has become one of the dominant strands in our culture. Confronted with that message, the left's instinctive response is to denounce it as evil, right-wing claptrap. But Selbourne is no right-winger. He is patently a social conservative, but so were Clement Attlee, Aneurin Bevan and Harold Wilson. Indeed, social conservatism was more common in the early labour movement than among the ultra-rich of its era.
The truth is that the left commentariat's default position - social permissiveness combined with economic regulation; toughness towards bankers, but softness towards cannabis hawkers - was always incoherent and has now become disastrous. Of course, the right's alternative - economic permissiveness combined with social regulation - is equally incoherent. But for the left to rely on that kind of yah-boo retort only deepens its current malaise. After all, the right has been out of power for the past 13 years; and however unfair it is for David Cameron to blame our "broken society" on the present regime, his charge rings bells with large parts of the electorate. The truth is that our society is broken, and by pretending that it is not, the left merely proves that it is in denial.
The beginning of wisdom for the battered and bewildered left, as it approaches what may be an electoral disaster, is to acknowledge openly that casino capitalism, family breakdown, asset stripping, binge drinking and welfare dependency are all part of a single web; and that the crisis of capitalism which has overwhelmed the global economy is part of a wider social and moral crisis. Selbourne does not say that in so many words, but it seems to me that it is the purport of what he does say. Despite his convoluted prose and exaggerated pretensions, I salute him unreservedly for that.
The Principle of Duty
Faber & Faber, 334pp, £15
David Marquand's "Britain Since 1918" is published by Phoenix (£14.99)