Last November a close friend of the family passed away after suffering heart failure while on holiday in Spain. He had run his own independent publishing company for many years, following a career at Lawrence & Wishart, which had close links to the Communist Party. Friends could not quite agree if he was a “Eurocommunist” (specifically a follower of the Gramscian Italian Communist Party) or a “Churchillian Marxist” (with an appreciation of the force of great men, words and deeds in history). He was an admirer of old (though not religious) institutions, the proud son of a major general who served with distinction in the Second World War, a searing critic of the self-justificatory myths of the IRA, an opponent of the Iraq War but, as an aficionado of the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War, one who despaired of our failure to do more to help Syria. He viewed Jeremy Corbyn, at best, as a bemusingly lightweight Trot, emerging from a rather lifeless intellectual pool.
Intellectual curiosity, tolerance, plurality, a dash of mischief: all these are qualities strangely absent among the leftist tribe of today. There was a time when, for instance, the publication of Gareth Stedman Jones’s new biography of Marx would have been the intellectual event of the year, provoking deep reflection and debate. Such discussions now seem rather arcane. There has rarely been less scholarly heft on the left of British politics. What energy it has seems mostly expended on identity politics or cultural radicalism, and there is little interest in the basic ballast of social democracy – the family, the home, the community. It is big on superstructure and weak on base. Historians of the left used to produce the best dissections of nations and nationalism, too, but there is little sense today of what binds a country together.
Another thing that the English-speaking left lacks in the post-Cold War era is any sort of international compass. Today’s free-floating foreign policy fashions are a symptom of this. Although it was treated with great suspicion by the mainstream Labour Party – and with good reason – the existence of the Communist Party and the Soviet Union used to give the British left a sense of where it stood on an international spectrum. Half-hearted expressions of solidarity with Syriza, or sharing a platform with Hamas and Hezbollah, are tantamount to a blind man grasping for a slippery stick with which to prop himself up.
That the Labour Party has a confused relationship to its own past does not help as it tries to plot a coherent vision of the future. As I researched my biography of Clement Attlee, one unavoidable theme was just how unloved he was by swaths of misanthropes across the left, even though he led Labour to its greatest successes. On the back benches, within his cabinet, in the pages of Tribune, or indeed the New Statesman, he was subjected to a din of constant criticism. Even after he had gone, the “New Left” of the 1960s snorted at the achievements of “parliamentary socialism”. And even within the New Left, those who believed in the theoretical superiority of Continental communism trumped those such as E P Thompson, who thought that the British people had viable and undervalued leftist traditions of their own.
Rather naively, part of me hoped that Attlee might be the starting point for a rediscovery on the part of the Labour Party. One could be forgiven for thinking that the Attlee credo – an unobtrusive progressive patriotism, a version of social democracy based on a sense of rights and obligations – might have a certain resonance today. Some of it chimes with the Blue Labour movement of Maurice Glasman and Jon Cruddas. Now, however, polling suggests that those who value such unfashionable notions might regard themselves as better served by Theresa May’s new government. It has reached out directly to struggling working-class families who are deserting Labour.
Much of this stems from a loss of a sense of historical mission. Ironically, too, it is also a consequence of a remarkable success in the 20th century. By the end of Attlee’s postwar government, Labour had already achieved many of the original goals it set itself when it was founded at the start of the 20th century. The definitive measure of success was National Insurance and welfare legislation, ending the stigma of means-testing and the Poor Law, and creating the National Health Service. But there were other emphatic victories, too: keeping promises to those who had sacrificed so much in the two world wars by maintaining full employment after 1945; turning an empire into a Commonwealth; and making good on the “collective security” that had unravelled in the 1930s with such devastating effects, by playing the star role in the formation of the United Nations and Nato.
None of these achievements was inevitable in a half-century defined by two world wars. Labour’s emergence as a serious party of state depended on avoiding several deadly traps, to which many other European parties of the left succumbed – from listless pacifism to “fellow-travelling”, factionalism, faddism and anything that smelled undemocratic or unpatriotic. The 20th-century Labour Party was principled, pluralistic and humane, rather than utopian or absolute. Its script was laid out in Attlee’s 1920 book The Social Worker, which condemned the “revolutionary idealist” who would “criticise and condemn all methods of social advance that do not directly square with his formulae and will repeat his shibboleths without any attempt to work out their practical application”. To some today, this may seem like bland pragmatism; but the Labour message was predicated on a deeply ethical core.
For many on the left, Attlee’s “moral homilies” were an infuriating distraction from true socialism. So when he made appeals to citizenship and self-sacrifice, as at the Labour party conferences at Margate in May 1947 or Scarborough in October 1951, his critics accused him of stalling, of evading commitments to ever further advance towards a socialist economy. In fact, a closer reading of Attlee’s words shows that they contain profound warnings about the future of the Labour Party. These look more prescient with the passing of time. Socialism, Attlee argued, demanded “a higher standard of civic virtue than capitalism”. It was “the greatest task which lies ahead of us all in the Labour and Socialist movement to see to it that the citizen’s sense of obligation to the community keeps pace with the changes effected in the structure of society. We need to stress duties as well as rights.”
The structures of society certainly did change. As Eric Hobsbawm observed, in his celebrated Marx Memorial Lecture “The Forward March of Labour Halted?” in 1978, the traditional working classes were losing their central role in society and left-wing parties would have to broaden their appeal. And yet, somewhere along the way, the citizenship ideal that defined the early Labour Party was lost. The new social contract that the Labour government gave the British people after the Second World War ossified and began to crumble. It became more common to sneer at the patriotism that inspired it. In the 1960s, Harold Wilson managed a left-wing reinvention by championing modernity and the “white heat” of technology. Tony Blair’s New Labour found an answer to Hobsbawm’s dilemma with a rejuvenated Edwardian New Liberalism. This certainly had a place in Labour traditions, but never really tied it to the party’s core working-class vote. A striking theme of Bernard Donoughue’s Westminster Diary: a Reluctant Minister Under Tony Blair is that New Labour had an exaggerated disdain for the “old”. As New Labour ran out of steam, so it had only the haziest recollection of its past on which to fall back.
Of all the Labour leaders to have followed Attlee since 1955, perhaps the last to understand him was James Callaghan, prime minister from 1976-79. Writing in 1983, when the Labour Party had lurched to the left under Michael Foot, Callaghan suggested:
If Attlee were alive today his virtues would not be fashionable in some quarters . . . He would place as much emphasis on ethical principles as on detailed programmes: on the bounden duty we owe one another as much as our rights; that radical change needs to be made persuasive if it is to be acceptable and become permanent; and that party members have an obligation to work as a team and have no right to insist on the last drop of their particular sectarianism to the exclusion of all else.
These are wise words, long forgotten. And what once would have been a call to action is in danger of looking like an inscription on a gravestone.
John Bew is a New Statesman contributing writer. His latest book is “Citizen Clem: the Life of Attlee” (Riverrun)
This article is part of a New Times collection of the future of the left. Read the other pieces here.
This article appears in the 15 Feb 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times