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26 April 2024

The strange career of David Marquand

How the intellectual historian and Labour MP foresaw Britain's dark future.

By Anthony Barnett

A politician, a moralist, a professor and a deeply original historian, David Marquand, who was born in 1934 and died on 23 April, was arguably the most important thinker, polemicist, and theorist of the democratic left in Britain during a crucial period between Margaret Thatcher’s election victory in 1987 and David Cameron’s in 2015.

At the end of the 1980s , when the journal Marxism Today headed towards extinction, Marquand published The Unprincipled Society (1988). It analysed what he saw as a century long failure to create a Keynesian developmental state, and critiqued neoliberalism for its assertion of market supremacy and hostility to government, finally declaring: “There is only us”. It was a call for a ‘we-society’ similar to the one that the commentator Will Hutton has just reproduced in This Time No Mistakes, his pitch to Keir Starmer.

But Marquand went on to adopt more radical positions. His opposition to market primacy and support for European-style democratic constitutionalism made him a key supporter of Charter 88 after it was launched by the New Statesman in November 1988. He served on Charter 88’s executive board, which is when I first got to work with him.

In 1991, he published The Progressive Dilemma. It became an influential, ecumenical call to arms of early Blairism. Marquand concluded that what was “needed for anti-Conservative Britain…is a marriage between the communitarian, decentralist, participatory radicalism to which the Liberal Democrats are heirs, and the communitarian, decentralist, participatory strands in the socialist inheritance: a marriage, if you like, between Thomas Paine and William Morris”.

A quarter century later he opened his last book, Mammon’s Kingdom (2014), with the ominous words, “There is a dark fascination about money and its power to exalt and destroy”, before going on to consider whether “British democracy can survive the market state’s invasion of the public realm”.

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Originally a supporter of the centre-right Labour leader, Hugh Gaitskell, and a contributor to the CIA-backed monthly magazine Encounter, Marquand became a Labour MP between 1966 and 1977. He left the House of Commons to follow Roy Jenkins to Brussels, then helped Jenkins and the other members of the ‘Gang of Four’ – David Owen, Shirley Williams and Bill Rodgers – to found the Social Democratic Party in 1981. After which he supported its merger with the Liberals to create the Liberal Democrats in 1988. But he soon became disenchanted with the new party’s policy of equidistance from both Labour and the Tories, as first Neil Kinnock and then Tony Blair brought Labour in from the cold. He re-joined Labour in 1995. By then he was an editor at the academic journal Political Quarterly, and had left full-time party politics to become a professor of political economy at Manchester, later Sheffield and finally Master of Mansfield College Oxford.

This apparent flip-flopping earned him scorn from the shrivelled club-land mentality that passes for political judgment in Westminster.

As Marquand explained in a compelling interview in 2020 with the historian Ben Jackson in Renewal, his trajectory was an expression of his inner consistency, as he uncompromisingly sought the best way to give political expression to a pluralist, progressive majority.

The real change in his thinking developed after Blair took the Labour government down the road of authoritarian war-mongering and neoliberalism. He became a fierce opponent of the political order Blair created, which Cameron and Clegg then intensified after 2010, whose collective indifference and hubris led to the present implosion of British government.

Marquand theorised what had happened in his outstanding history, Britain Since 1918: The Strange Career of British Democracy (2010). Its organising thesis provides an essential framework for comprehending today’s grim realities. He shows that politics in the UK simply cannot be understood in binary terms of Tory vs Labour or Conservatives vs Social Democrats, or by sticking a ‘third way’ between them.

On the contrary, four traditions have always been woven through all sides of British government and opposition to it. Marquand called them “four distinct strands of rhetoric and feeling”: Whig imperialism, Tory nationalism, democratic centralism (the term Sidney Webb used when he helped turn Labour into a governing party), and democratic republicanism.

Each party has, until now at least, been home to elements of all four strands; while the best politicians have traditionally fused two or even three of them in different ways. Whig imperialism seeks a negotiated global role and laissez faire consensus at home; Tory nationalism a belligerent assertion of British interests abroad and populist division within; democratic centralism an inclusive, paternalist consensus based on directing the domestic economy. Finally, while democratic republicanism has never had a place in the Cabinet since John Milton was Oliver Cromwell’s Secretary for Foreign Tongues, its spirit in the land has never been extinguished.

Thus, the constitutional reforms that Blair permitted — new parliaments in Scotland and Wales, a London Mayor, a Human Rights Act, Freedom of Information — were conceived under the influence of democratic republicanism, even as Blair himself led New Labour down the road of modernised Whig imperialism.

Marquand saw his own journey as one that took him from democratic centralism to democratic republicanism. He scorned the honours system in Britain Since 1918:“the knighthoods, dameships, commanderships and orders of a non-existent empire… still scattered like confetti over the eminent and safe”. And he grasped the way England acted as a coloniser of its fellow nations in the UK and how this bound the English to Westminster’s now corrupted “Mammon’s Kingdom”.

In 2016, two years after the publication of that book, his response to Brexit was to move with his wife, Judith Marquand, an author and economic civil servant, to his native Wales. There, he joined Plaid Cymru and became ‘a Welsh European’, repeating the trajectory of Raymond Williams 40 years before. It was around then that he came to recognise Tom Nairn’s intellectual contribution to thinking about the British state, and I was happy to introduce them. 

Personally, he was a warm, engaging but difficult friend. Anecdotes aside, conversations with him were a competition to finish your sentence before being interrupted. He had been formed by the culture of his early career, first as a Guardian leader writer after 1959 (which helped make him a wonderful essayist), then as an MP, and then as a militant in the cut and thrust of party creation. And it showed.

But this also gave him a grasp of the way politics is personal rather than ideological in a way that most professors of political ideas can barely comprehend. It is striking that he describes the four elements of British politics as “strands of rhetoric and feeling” rather than grand traditions or ideological badges. He knew at first hand that terms such as Tory or Social Democrat were camouflage for something much deeper and more visceral.

While his reading was formidable and his passion for Europe deep, his focus was domestic. He never expanded his early and far-sighted critique of neoliberalism into a global analysis that might have touched the generation that grew up within its devastating inhumanity, even though he was one of the first to warn against it.

Looking back at his writings, I’m struck by their consistent moral passion. While he never addressed issues of race and identity with any seriousness, in 1959, he and Judith went to meet Martin Luther King in his home in Montgomery Alabama, an encounter that made a deep impression on them both. The humanism and love of liberty that were central to David Marquand’s critique of Britain’s monarchical class system drew inspiration from the civil rights movement in America rather than any love of Washington. 

They also reinforced his obstinate refusal of tribalism, an openness to new ideas and arguments, as well as his passion for radical thinkers going back to the Levellers. While the obituarists of the Telegraph and Times see his failure to become a Minister as a mark of his ultimate insignificance, we can admire his ability to escape from the centralism of Westminster and its corrupt media, and his embrace of republicanism as an example the nations of Britain need to follow.   

[See also: Humza Yousaf is finished]

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