A country for old men

Labour needs to discover a politics of tradition and English virtue, says Jon Cruddas.

When G K Chesterton wrote that tradition is "the democracy of the dead", he suggested the importance of honouring the past, of respecting the struggles and sacrifices of those who went before. Yet many "progressives" on the left scorn tradition as conservative and nostalgic.

Conservative radicalism lies deep in Labour history. Take the politics of the Clarionettes, who in the 1890s and early 1900s became the greatest extra-parliamentary socialist movement in English history. Their leader, Robert Blatchford, expressed loss and dispossession in terms of fellowship and solidarity, in contrast to the scientific approach of those on the left who were dedicated to the notion of progress. While the latter were sentimental about the future, Blatchford - influenced by William Morris - drew on Romanticism as an essential part of English culture and history.

Over the past century, the left has repeatedly divided between progressive and traditional; forward and back; future and past; new and old; ultimately, between good and bad. In this tussle, victory has gone to successive varieties of progressive. Indeed, all political parties today can be described as "progressive", in that they want to depart from tradition. Sure, there have been prominent "romantic" figures - such as Keir Hardie, celebrated as a founder of the Labour Party, and George Lansbury, who was Labour leader from 1932-35 - but they have tended to be isolated and vulnerable; exceptions, not the rule.

The lost socialist tradition speaks to the dignity of people and their labour, to the search for self-realisation through a virtuous life. It is deeply Aristotelian. E P Thompson, whose book The Making of the English Working Class was published in 1963, faced general hostility from a left that favoured abstract theory, structuralism and, subsequently, cosmopolitanism over his focus on human experience and his belief in the virtues of the common people. In response to criticism of his "virtue politics", he once said: "It is mere English. It has no articulate spokesmen - they are all kneeling in the presence of other, more sophisticated, voices."

Thompson wrote about the parochial, the cross-currents that buffet men and women. He identified subsistence and necessity on the one hand, and the search for self-fulfilment on the other - what it is to live and to flourish, to be a freeborn Englishman. He was accused of being unthinking in his Englishness, and was consistently deemed "romantic" and "nostalgic".

But Thompson articulated the conservative nature of English socialism - how it is a love of home, of place and of the local. It is a resistance against the uncontrollable forces of capitalism and dispossession; a struggle for liberty and demo­cracy, to feel part of a community, for a sense of belonging that brings with it esteem and meaning.

A couple of months before his death, in 1988, Thompson's fellow left-wing thinker Raymond Williams responded to the charge of a sentimental attachment to his own country, family and history: "When I see that childhood coming at the end of millennia of much brutal and thoroughgoing exploitation, I can see it as a fortunate time: an ingrained and indestructible yet also changing embodiment of the possibilities of common life."

No Marx

Karl Marx said that "the traditions of the dead generations weigh like a nightmare on the minds of the living". He argued that capitalism turned all that was sacred into the profane and the approved. Like Marx mostly did, modern progressives side with progress, often at the expense of human relationships, the ordinary and the parochial.

At its best, New Labour encompassed both the progressive and the traditional, captured in Tony Blair's early recognition of the need for a "modern patriotism". Over time, however, it became all about the "progressive new". By the end, it embraced a dystopian, destructive neo­liberalism, cut loose from the traditions and history of Labour. "Leave the past to those who live in it," Blair said in 2004. But what about the victims of this change?

People in this country do not look at the future in the sentimental way in which New Labour came to view it. They are fearful for their jobs, their families and their communities, as they experience the most destructive period of capitalism since the 1930s. They yearn to fight against their insecurity. But how do you resist when all the political parties are progressive? This is why we need an English socialism that resists relentless commodification, values the land, believes in family life, takes pride in the country and its traditions: a conservative socialism.

The government is not conservative; it is liberal and extreme. Through its indulgence of the banks and corporate and media power, and attempts to sell off parts of our English common life to the highest bidder - forests, waterways, ports, the Post Office, sport and culture - it is systematically destroying the hard-won victories of generations and, in so doing, unravelling the essential fabric of this country.

Labour should redemocratise its own dead to conserve what it fought for. It needs to recover the value of the ordinary, the importance of the specifically English struggles of working people - a politics of English virtue, and not simply of abstract notions of "progress".

Jon Cruddas is Labour MP for Dagenham and Rainham

Jon Cruddas is the Labour MP for Dagenham and Rainham. 

This article first appeared in the 04 April 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Who are the English?