This year is the 50th anniversary of the publication of Tony Crosland's groundbreaking revisionist work, and everyone I have spoken to in the Labour Party seems to be re-reading this remarkable work in its new edition. Crosland began the book when he was MP for South Gloucestershire in the early fifties. He finished it when the Labour Party was going through a period of serious self-doubt after a second successive general election defeat and the loss of Crosland’s own seat. It was a cry for "third way" politics, famously written in marathon 15-hour sessions at Crosland's South Kensington flat, more than thirty years before New Labour was invented.
Much of it is embedded in the now irrelevant economic arguments of the period. But the central core of the book, an analysis of the residual inequalities at the heart of British society, is as relevant today as it has ever been.
Crosland, who attended Highgate School, is credited (or castigated) as one of the architects of the comprehensive system, and the opening sentence of the chapter on education is chilling. "The school system in Britain remains the most divisive, unjust and wasteful of all the aspects of social inequality." What follows is a devastating critique of the meritocratic ideal as expressed in the grammar school system. He and others at the time were wary that selection by academic ability would simply replace a social elite with an intellectual elite.
What he could never have guessed was that the comprehensive system that eventually flowed from his ideas would do little to address the underlying social divisions in society. Nor could he have imagined that the Labour Education Secretary responsible for passing the act which would dismantle comprehensives, Ruth Kelly, would come, like himself, from one of the country’s top public schools. Kelly went to Westminster.
Crosland's fears about what would happen if the grammar school meritocrats won out has a terrible comic resonance: "Society's educational talent scouts will spot the future Bevins and Morrisons at an early age, and rush them off for training as members of the elite; and the Trade Unions will be led by the indifferent residue, and the Labour Party entirely by Old Etonians." His prophecy has come true despite the creation of the comprehensive school. That is Crosland's tragedy.
Martin Bright is Political Editor of the New Statesman