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The dynamics of power

In his new study of British democracy in the 20th century David Marquand identifies four strands of

Britain Since 1918: the Strange Career of British Democracy, David Marquand, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 496pp, £25

David Marquand is a member of that lesser-spotted breed, the British public intellectual. A politics scholar, he is also a former Labour MP and a regular on commissions of the great and good. Few men and women have participated so fully in our public life. It seems to run in the Marquand blood: his father, an academic economist, was a Labour MP and minister for pensions and health in the Attlee government.

Marquand the Younger is not, however, a historian. His previous books have been concerned with contemporary politics, Europe and political economy. The principal exception is his best-known work, The Progressive Dilemma - from Lloyd George to Blair, which traced the history of the split between liberal and social-democratic forces in British politics. A desire to heal this fracture has dominated Marquand's political life. A founding member of the SDP and then a Liberal Democrat, he returned to the Labour fold with Blair's ascent only to be disappointed by Blair's tepid Europeanism, attacks on civil liberties and market-leaning approach to public services.

It comes then as a surprise, a pleasant one, that his latest work, Britain Since 1918: the Strange Career of British Democracy, is his best yet. Marquand is still testing out ideas about the dynamics of British politics - still, in the best sense, thinking out loud - but working with the materials of history has made his story both more complex, and more compelling.

Marquand writes with verve, insight and humour. His goal is not to add to the well- rehearsed history of the past century, but to act as a convivial guide through some turbulent years. He scores political points along the way - in particular by applying a new anthropological structure to British political history. He sorts British political thinkers and politicians into one of four categories: Whig imperialists, democratic collectivists, Tory nationalists and democratic republicans. This results in some odd bedfellows, but breathes life into the historical treatment.

The finest passages of the book concern the democratic collectivists. The term itself was coined by Sidney Webb, father of the Fabian socialist movement, and maps almost exactly on to the Fabian tradition on the British political left. Democratic collectivists start with a plan and set out to make society conform to it. Marquand points to the utilitarian Jeremy Bentham as an early model democratic collectivist, which is fair enough. Bentham certainly lacked any respect for the value of individual difference or agency, once declaring: "Call them men, call them monks, call them soldiers, call them machines. I care not so long as they be happy ones."

Sidney and Beatrice Webb provide Marquand with most of his ammunition, however. They were socialists stripped of the early socialists' fear of the state. They wanted to "constrain" the individual in order to make each one "a healthier, nobler and more efficient being". For the Fabians, the state had become the instrument of socialism - which is what made them democrats. As George Bernard Shaw put in it an influential essay for the six-year-old Fabian Society in 1889: "Consequently, we have the distinctive term Social Democrat, indicating the man or woman who desires through Democracy to gather the whole people into the State . . ."

After their visit to the Soviet Union, the Webbs became even more convinced of the possibility and need for a quicker move to a state-run socialist society. Marquand records the wonderful detail that for the second edition of their book Socialist Communism, a New Civilisation? the Webbs deleted their question mark.

The democratic collectivists were those for whom the means of parliamentary democracy was ultimately subordinate to the goal of social equality. Labour's postwar chancellors were in the Fabian lineage. Hugh Dalton wanted to streamline parliamentary procedure to give more power to the executive; Stafford Cripps drew up plans for a temporary dictatorship in the event of the capitalist resisters gaining control of the military. Evan Durbin, who straddled two Fabian organisations in the shape of the London School of Economics and the postwar Labour Party, wrote: "The interests of the whole are sovereign over the interests of the part". A supreme economic authority, Durbin suggested, needed to take charge of a massively nationalised British economy.

Marquand is correctly horrified by the extremes of Fabian socialism, and laments their influence on the Labour Party (notwithstanding his own spell in the SDP). He is in fact kinder on the one nation Tories who make up the bulk of his second tranche of thinkers and politicians, the Whig imperialists.

Their story is one of "gradual progress, timely accommodation, responsible evolution and subtle statecraft". Edmund Burke, their intellectual forefather, railed against the abuse of sovereign power of George III, but was equally excoriating in his attacks on the instigators of the French revolution in his famous Reflections on the Revolution in France. The Whiggish mindset was one of patient optimism about human nature, gradualism in policy, and moderation in politics. The Whig line, according to Marquand, includes Lord Grey, architect of the Reform Act of 1832, Benjamin Disraeli, father of the Reform Act of 1867, but also John Maynard Keynes, Winston Churchill, Harold Macmillan and now David Cameron. They are progressive but not ideological, and share a pragmatism about the role of the state - as Keynes put it, the distinction between the "agenda" and "non-Agenda" of government cannot be determined on "abstract grounds" but only "on its merits in the detail". As Tony Blair might have put it, what matters is what works. The yoking together of Keynes and Cameron demonstrates the dangers inherent in any kind of classification. But Marquand is less interested in specific policy than in their attitudes and backgrounds: posh, patient and paternalistic. Burke sketched his own ideal, which could apply to them both: "A disposition to preserve, and ability to improve, taken together, would be my standard of a statesman."

David Cameron has worked hard to put some distance between himself and Margaret Thatcher and Marquand gives him a hand, lumping the Iron Lady into a separate category: the Tory nationalists. Their lodestar is Thomas Hobbes, who famously warned that human existence is "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short". These are the politicians, like Lord Salisbury in the 19th century and Margaret Thatcher in the 20th, who believe a strong central state - the Hobbesian Leviathan - has to hold the ring between essentially selfish individuals at home and repel enemies abroad. Tory nationalism is a mix of patriotism and pessimism.

But, as with many of the leading politicians, Thatcher was a hybrid. Her instinctive distrust of the Establishment is represented as a "superficially incongruous and largely unrecognised streak of democratic republicanism". As Marquand points out, Thatcher "would have been more at home in Cromwell's New Model Army than any prime minister since Lloyd George". While Marquand is no Thatcherite, this anti- Establishment side appeals to him. This much she shared with the heroes of Marquand's tale: the democratic republicans.

This democratic republican pantheon includes John Milton, John Stuart Mill and - perhaps most controversially - R H Tawney. The list demonstrates the fragility of the category. Mill thought Milton had "the soul of a fanatic, a despot and a tyrant", not least for his intolerant views on religion. And Mill would have been appalled by the grand nationalisation plans of Tawney, and deeply suspicious of his elevation of equality over individual liberty. What the three share, as Marquand points out, is a deep opposition to arbitrary authority. For them, to be at the mercy of another - whether landlord, husband or king - is to be less free, even if the person or institution holding the power stays their hand. They share, Marquand writes, "a tradition of 'neo-Roman' liberty for which dependence on another's will was itself a denial of freedom". Liberty lies not only in the facts of one's life, but in the power of another to alter them. But it's not clear how many of Marquand's list make the cut: Tawney did not worry about the arbitrary power of the state as much as he should have, nor Milton the authority of the Church of England. And Mill ended up supporting a constitutional mon archy, albeit without much enthusiasm.

Marquand's own views map on to the democratic republican template pretty well, with one key exception. He rails against the "marketisation" of public services under Blair, and the associated assault on the "public service ethos". Alan Milburn's attempt to introduce some choice and competition to the NHS is described as a throwback to the Webbs, an odd claim. This is in fact the main weakness of Marquand's overall pos it ion: his last book, The Decline of the Public: the Hollowing Out of Citizenship, represented a plea for public services to be spared the rigours of com petition and user choice. But the power of a hospital or school or local authority over the indi vidual citizen can resemble the arbitrary auth or- ity from which Marquand and his heroes resile.

For my money, the virtues of a democratic republican are to be found in any self-respecting liberal. If the term implies a certain reverence for public services in and of themselves, then it looks as if there is only one great democratic republican of the 20th century, and one for whose efforts we should all be grateful: David Marquand.

Richard Reeves is the director of Demos and author of "John Stuart Mill: Victorian Firebrand", just published in paperback by Atlantic Books

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2008 issue of the New Statesman, The crash of 2008