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4 October 2010updated 27 Sep 2015 2:12am

Must try harder

Julian Glover deserves low marks for his understanding of "social democracy".

By Jonathan Derbyshire

I understand the Guardian‘s need to ingratiate itself with the coalition government, but there are surely better ways for them to do that than continuing to indulge their in-house Tory Julian Glover. Glover evidently fancies himself a bit of a political philosopher, so it seems only fair to hold him to account when his grasp of theory (and history, come to that) is shown to be lacking.

In a column in the paper today, Glover warns the government that it “needs to impress upon people common principles beyond the self-interested need of all those involved to sustain it. Deficit reduction and an ever smaller state cannot be the only guide. This strange revolution needs some theory.” Not just any theory, mind you, but an alternative to “social democracy”, which Glover thinks is a very nasty doctrine indeed:

George Osborne described the coalition recently as an “intellectual powerhouse”. To be that, it must be precise about its rejection of the sort of Britain the Labour party tried and failed to create, and precise too about the alternative it offers. Social democracy is not just an unsuccessful creed; it is a positively harmful one. Britain has experimented with it and suffered.

It’s not clear which social-democratic “experiment” Glover is referring to here – he probably means the 13 years of Labour government between 1997 and 2010, though one might baulk at describing thus an administration that presided over significant rises in inequality (at least as this is measured by the UK’s Gini Coefficient, which I’m sure Glover knows all about). But what about that other great social-democratic experiment, the Atlee government of 1945-51? Does he mean that Atlee’s achievements – the establishment of the National Health Service, for instance – were “positively harmful”?

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We have to wait a couple of paragraphs before Glover explains exactly what’s wrong, in his view, with social democracy and why the coalition should not confuse being “progressive”, which he thinks is a good thing, with being social democratic, which he doesn’t. Being “progressive”, you see, means thinking, to coin a phrase, that things can only get better:

The coalition is progressive, in that it is optimistic. It does not think the future will be worse than the past. But its version of progress cannot be the same as Labour’s. If it sets as its goal a collective definition of equality which argues that everybody is the same and should therefore end up the same, it will always fail.

I was going to describe this drivel as sophomoric, but that doesn’t quite capture its egregiousness. “Schoolboyish”, perhaps, though I fear that’d be unfair to schoolboys. Glover is wrestling with a straw man here – social democracy is certainly an egalitarian creed, but I can’t think of any social democrat who has defended a “collective definition of equality which argues that everybody is the same and should therefore end up the same”. If I’m missing something, perhaps Glover would care to provide chapter and verse?