NS Essay - 'Little by little, the ''social'' element in social democracy has drowned out the ''democratic'' element. Freedom, tolerance, human rights, civil liberty and the rule of law slowly fell off the radar screen. It is time to redress the balance'

Twenty-five years after the SDP was born, it is fashionable to say that Blair and new Labour are the

Twenty-five years ago this month, the Limehouse Declaration signalled the deepest crisis in Labour history since the split of 1931. The Social Democratic Party was born a few weeks later and, for a brief but brilliant moment, the SDP-Liberal Alliance dominated the political debate and the electoral battleground. As late as 1983, it came within an ace of equalling Labour's share of the popular vote and for four more years it continued to attract media attention out of all proportion to its slender parliamen- tary presence. Labour did not recover from the crisis which had given birth to the SDP until the end of the decade. It was not until 1997 - more than 15 years after Limehouse - that the electoral and rhetorical territory which the SDP had set out to occupy was unmistakably under "new" Labour control.

The long-term significance of the SDP's rise and fall is much more complex than it seems at first sight. In some quarters it has been blamed for splitting the anti-Tory vote and giving the new right two crushing majorities. In others, it has been credited with forcing Neil Kinnock's Labour Party to embark on the long journey that led to Tony Blair, while Blair himself has been seen as the political son of Roy Jenkins. Charming though the last thought is, none of this holds water. Labour would have suffered catastrophic defeats in 1983 and 1987 even if the SDP had never been invented; "new" Labour came into existence to jettison the version of social democracy that the SDP was founded to save. The true meaning of the story and its true moral for our own day lie elsewhere.

In this country, unlike its Continental counterparts, social democracy was the child of a marriage between the labour movement and the radical intelligentsia. Before 1914 most radical intellectuals were Liberals in politics. The nascent Labour Party was little more than a trade-union pressure group - all brawn and no brain. What turned it into a serious contender for state power was the collapse of the Liberal Party during and after the First World War and the radical intelligentsia's revulsion at Lloyd George's grubby postwar coalition. Asquithian Liberals seemed fixated on the lost glories of Edwardian progressivism; Lloyd George Liberals were little more than the praetorian guard of an opportunistic populist, desperate to cling to power at almost any cost. Some radical intellectuals stuck to their Liberal allegiance, Keynes among them, but most threw in their lot with Labour. No big battalions followed them, but they brought something even more precious - ideas, moral authority and intellectual elan.

In the 1970s and early 1980s the marriage broke down. Labour was swept by a wave of resentful anti-intellectual proletarianism and half-baked quasi-Marxism. The old Callaghan-Healey right did its best to withstand the wave but this resistance was purely mechanical, not moral or intellectual. It had no ideas to offer, only the tired old tricks of machine politics. The point of the Limehouse Declaration and the SDP was to offer a refuge to the alienated radical intelligentsia, where it could regroup its forces and recharge its moral and intellectual batteries. In those terms they were astonishingly successful. Thanks to Neil Kinnock's tactical skill, Labour slowly dug itself out of the electoral pit of 1983, but the SDP easily outclassed it in the battle of ideas. Not until the 1990s did the radical intelligentsia begin to drift back to Labour.

Now there are ominous signs that the cycle has begun to repeat itself. New Labour's authoritarian populism, disdain for legality, attempts to curtail free speech and assaults on judicial independence appal today's radical intellectuals as much as the Lloyd George coalition's unprincipled opportunism appalled their great-grandfathers and the quasi-Marxist enrages of the 1970s appalled their fathers and elder brothers. The big difference is that this time there is no SDP to offer radical intellectuals a refuge and a hope. There are only the Liberal Democrats - honourable people, with good liberal instincts, but without an idea to rub between them. Meanwhile Blair and the Blairites seem intent on distancing themselves from the tradition once exemplified by R H Tawney, Orwell, G D H Cole, Richard Titmuss and Karl Popper, among many others. The radical intelligentsia is in no man's land, watching in near-agony as the government in which it placed its hopes spurns some of its most precious values.

At this point I can almost hear the new Labour commentariat berating me for putting my tender conscience ahead of the claims of the poor and excluded. Don't I know, I shall be asked, that this is the most redistributive government in modern times? Don't I realise that nothing is more important than quality public services and high public spending? Can't I see that it would be frivolous to put them in jeopardy for the sake of arcane concerns with due process and civil liberty? The answer, I'm afraid, is that I know nothing of the sort. A great many things matter more than quality public services and high public spending, respect for due process and civil liberty among them. They are not just the hallmarks of a civilised society; they are prerequisites of a democratic one. To scorn them as this government does is to scorn democracy itself. And social democracy without democracy is a contradiction in terms.

For most of the past hundred years social democrats could take it for granted that Britain was a liberal democracy in which there were no serious threats to individual freedom or the rule of law. In Popper's language, it was already an "open society", in which the ghosts of Plato, Hegel and Marx - the progenitors of modern totalitarianism - had been laid to rest, and where the public culture was one of the most tolerant in the world. The threats to freedom came from abroad. And with the battle for liberty won, as social democrats assumed, the task now was to fight the battle for equality. As the enemies of equality were multifarious, powerful, deeply entrenched and ever-watchful in defence of their privileges, it would be a dereliction of duty to worry overmuch about infringements of liberty while that battle was in progress. They were the political equivalent of collateral damage in modern warfare - regrettable, no doubt, but not very serious. Little by little, the "social" element in social democracy drowned out the "democratic" element. Freedom, tolerance, human rights, civil liberty and the rule of law slowly fell off the social-democratic radar screen.

It is time to redress the balance. Whatever may have been true in the halcyon days of the postwar Labour government and its immediate Conservative successors, the past four years have shown that it is no longer safe to assume that this is an open society. Since 11 September 2001 the soft populism which was central to Blairite governance from the beginning has become harder and more brutish. Meanwhile, legitimacy is draining from the system ever faster and the old adage that the price of freedom is eternal vigilance has gained new resonance. The task is to reassert the democratic strand in the social-democratic tradition. This won't be easy. It will involve a long, hard look at a crisis of assumptions and values whose roots go deep.

From the beginning, social democracy was both determinist and statist. History, social democrats believed, was moving along a determinate path whose course they alone had charted. Because they knew where history was going, because they possessed an unequalled grasp of the dynamics of social change, social democrats had a special claim to power and a special kind of legitimacy. This was most obviously true of Marxists but pale-pink Fabian revisionists were not very different. As far back as 1890 Sidney Webb wrote that the "practical man" had been "forced, by the necessities of the time, into an ever-deepening collectivist channel". Thirty years later Webb famously claimed that socialism was coming with "the inevitability of gradualness". Ramsay MacDonald, the leading theoretician of the Independent Labour Party before 1914, thought society was akin to a biological organism. It evolved, inexorably and ineluctably, as biological organisms do; lower forms (capitalism) were giving way to higher ones (socialism). Even in the tougher and more realistic Labour Party of the 1930s, determinism still held the field. Evan Durbin, the most impressive British social-democratic thinker of the time, thought the growth of trades unionism and the arrival of political democracy had choked the springs of the market economy, making socialist planning and public ownership not only necessary, but inevitable. As late as 1945 Labour promised to nationalise industries "ripe and overripe" for public ownership - implying that industries not yet ripe for it would inevitably ripen in due course.

The midwife of the social order waiting to be born was the state, and not any old state, but the British state, with all its pre-democratic rituals, assumptions and codes of behaviour. The task for social democrats was to win power over the existing state and to use it to build a new society from the top down. Attempts to widen or deepen democracy by proportional representation, or to protect citizens from the abuse of state power with a US-style Bill of Rights, were seen as frivolous diversions from the social-democratic mission. Clement Attlee and Ramsay MacDonald both opposed proportional representation, even when Labour was too weak to win power outright in a first-past-the-post election, on the grounds that it was better to be out of power altogether than to share it with other parties. And Stafford Cripps opposed the European Human Rights Convention on the grounds that it would make it more difficult to plan the economy.

At first sight, social democracy has come a long way since then. No one now talks about building a new society. Outside the wilder shores of evolutionary psychology, no one talks about social change in the language of Darwinian biology. The Human Rights Act is on the statute book. The British state is part of a quasi-federal European Union, where power-sharing is the norm. But if you look hard you will see the cloven hooves of statism and determinism peeping out from under new Labour's designer jeans. True, the state's role under new Labour differs hugely from its role under Attlee, Harold Wilson and Jim Callaghan. Economic planning is no more; nationalisation has given way to privatisation. Yet the state is every bit as powerful as it used to be, perhaps more so. It has become an agent of moral regeneration and behavioural uniformity, bearing down on stroppy teenagers, politically incorrect huntsmen, would-be demonstrators in Parliament Square, "glorifiers" of terrorism, the "forces of conservatism" and the undeserving poor. The Attlee state, even the Wilson state, was comparatively modest. All it wanted was a mixed economy, buttressed by Beveridge-style social welfare. Blair's state has intruded itself into the marrow of society's bones.

The determinist hoof is less obtrusive than the statist one, but it is equally menacing. It, too, has changed since the early days. Then, History with a capital "h" was thought to be moving towards collectivism. Now, it is assumed to be moving away from it. But though the direction of History's path has changed, its assumed nature has not. For new Labour as for old Labour, it is proceeding inexorably and ineluctably towards a known and unchanging goal. Individualism, consumerism, capitalism and globalisation are the wave of the future and it is pointless to resist them. The only remaining task for social democracy is to help society to adapt to them. The 21st century, wrote Philip Gould not long ago, will be "an age of permanent revolution" (note the echo of Marxist determinism), in which "unceasing modernisation" will hold the key to political success.

It's nonsense, of course. The only certainty about the future is that it will be different from the present in ways we can't predict; as G K Chesterton put it, one of mankind's favourite games has always been "Cheat the Prophet". Ineluctable trends have a strange habit of bending when people decide they don't want to follow them. Again and again permanent revolutions have turned out to be damp squibs. A little over a hundred years ago Joseph Chamberlain proclaimed that the future lay with great empires. Within a couple of decades, the German and Russian empires had imploded and Britain's was beginning to dissolve. In the 1930s many thought the Nazis were the wave of the future. Others awarded the palm of historicist inevitability to the communists. One of the few unmixed blessings in the capitalist renaissance of our day is that no one now tries to "pick winners" in the economic domain. We should have learned that it is just as foolish to try to pick winners in the domains of ideas and politics.

Statist determinism stultifies the imagination, narrows the room for debate, impoverishes political language and closes off alternative futures. Necessity trumps morality; in Blair's chilling phrase, "what counts is what works". The focus group becomes a substitute for civic engagement, media manipulation for a national conversation. Yet this whole approach is now in crisis. The philosophy of "what counts is what works" has itself stopped working. Social democracy of a sort is still in power, but its moral authority is ebbing by the day. The dreary small change of public service "reform", the endless sermons on the need to honour manifesto commitments for which an overwhelming majority of the electorate did not vote, in fact Gould's whole notion of "permanent revolution", have ceased to resonate. The prospect of more of the same - an endless vista of pettifogging change for change's sake, imposed by bossy micromanagement at the centre - sends shivers down the spine of the radical intelligentsia and, increasingly, down the spine of all British people. Social democracy needs a utopia: a 21st-century vision of the good life and the good society, of the sort that Tawney, Cole and Titmuss put forward in their day. The first step is to junk the statist determinism to which most social democrats have clung for more than a century.

This is the first in a series of major essays on the state of British politics. Contributors in coming weeks will include John Harris, Geoff Mulgan and Roy Hattersley

This article first appeared in the 16 January 2006 issue of the New Statesman, We were wrong about Sharon