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Crosland's lessons on equality

Monday 26 September 2016


As the Labour Party debates its future direction, Dr Patrick Diamond seeks lessons in Anthony Crosland's Future of Socialism on how social democrats should tackle the question of equality.

Anthony Crosland’s Future of Socialism was arguably the most eloquent and intellectually coherent statement of post-war social democratic doctrine produced by a British theorist. 

Crosland’s views were obviously controversial within the post-war Labour party; his ‘revisionist’ outlook meant jettisoning the party’s historic commitment to nationalisation and public ownership of the means of production. 

It wasn’t just that nationalisation policies were popular in the 1950s among the party’s rank and file and the leading ‘Bevanite’ faction; the primacy of public ownership, as underlined in Clause 4 of the party constitution, was the doctrinal thread that kept the ideologically fractious party together. 

If nationalisation was abandoned, Labour had no unifying ideology, and its identity as an anti-capitalist party fighting for the sectional interests of the British working-class would be imperilled. 

Crosland alongside other party revisionists, notably Hugh Gaitskell and Douglas Jay, believed that public ownership was not only electorally damaging and off-putting to the non-aligned ‘swing voters’ who had swept Labour to victory in 1945. 

They argued that Labour had to make an appeal rooted in ethical values rather than the commitment to a particular form of economic ownership. As a consequence, the belief in equality occupied a central place in Crosland’s political thought.

Democratic equality

The historians of ideas in post-war British politics have sought to understand more precisely what Crosland and the revisionists meant by ‘equality’. 

Raymond Plant and David Riesman in particular have engaged in detailed exploration of Crosland’s views. 

The key concept Crosland expounded was of ‘democratic equality’: he sought to reconcile the classic distinction between equality of ‘outcome’ and equality of ‘opportunity’. 

He acknowledged that an account of equality centred on the goal of a meritocratic society of equal opportunities was insufficient; citizens would only reach the ‘starting gate’ if they were unencumbered by material inequalities. 

In other words, the distribution of economic outcomes, and the gap between rich and poor, mattered. 

For that reason, Crosland was unashamedly in favour of redistributive taxation, and weighting public expenditure towards the most disadvantaged in society.

There are evident similarities between Crosland’s position and an earlier generation of socialist theorists, notably R.H. Tawney. 

What was distinctive about Tawney’s ideas, nevertheless, was their affinity with Christian socialism; Crosland, an avowed atheist (albeit brought up in the Exclusive Brethren) and taught at Oxford by the originator of logical positivism, A.J. Ayer, did not locate his theory in spiritual values. 

In fact, Crosland struggled to ground his analysis in any explicit moral and political philosophy. 

Later in life he saw affinities between his notion of ‘democratic equality’ and John Rawls’ Theory of Justice; but by the mid-1970s the new right assault on the post-war egalitarian settlement was fully underway, and the defence of equality offered by Rawls struggled to gain ascendency.

New inequalities

There were other notable difficulties with Crosland’s egalitarian strategy. 

He gave too little recognition to new dimensions of inequality in contemporary Britain: although Crosland (alongside Roy Jenkins) was a champion of libertarian reforms in the 1960s and 1970s in order to strengthen individual rights, his conception of equality ignored the decisive role of inequalities of gender, race, and disability, alongside class and economic status. 

Crosland was too dismissive of feminist politics in an era when conflicts over equal pay and women’s subordinate economic status were bursting into the open; while he failed to foresee the importance of debates about race and migration despite the emerging social tensions of the post-war decades.

Crosland, in common with other revisionists, was also complacent about the impact of industrial relations conflicts and disputes over pay bargaining arrangements on the social ethos of equality in Britain. 

Labour as a party was increasingly committed to the doctrine of economic equality by the early 1960s, but the trade unions that remained a decisive political force in the labour movement were principally committed to a defence of the sectional interests of their members. 

This was justified in its own terms, but arguably led to the neglect of the plight of low paid workers, women and labour market ‘outsiders’ increasingly at risk of poverty.

Social attitudes

Neither did Crosland anticipate the hardening of social attitudes towards welfare state recipients in Britain in the 1970s and 1980s. 

His refusal to provide a moral underpinning for his view of equality was symptomatic of a broader failure on the social democratic left to win the ‘hearts and minds’ of citizens. 

Too often, socialists were content to resort to what Peter Clarke called ‘mechanical reform’, bringing about political and social change from the top-down by manipulating the levers of the centralised ‘command and control’ state.

Crosland was never a committed ‘moral reformer’, prepared to engage in dialogue that sought to transform the values and preferences of voters. 

This tendency towards ‘preference-accommodation’ was replicated subsequently in the political strategy of Blair and Brown’s New Labour.  

As a result, Crosland’s generation of revisionists were too reliant on the state to deliver equality; for British social democrats, public expenditure was the means to greater social justice. 

That meant that Crosland was generally dismissive of political participation and the importance of civil society; he neglected the contribution of community life to emancipating citizens, and forging solidarities that brought people together across divides of class, race and religious belief. 

Crosland’s egalitarianism was rooted in the economics of fiscal redistribution; he underplayed the importance of equality of recognition and esteem.   

All that said, Crosland was prepared to argue the case explicitly for egalitarian values and policies that would advance equality of outcome and opportunity. 

He exhibited extraordinary intellectual self-confidence; Crosland was prepared to counter the emerging ideas of the new right, defending collectivism against the claims of market individualism and acquisitive materialism; he once dismissed Hayek’s theories as mere ‘froth’. 

For that reason alone, contemporary social democrats and social liberals ought to engage seriously with Crosland’s intellectual and political legacy.

Patrick Diamond is Deputy Director of the Mile End Institute. The Crosland Legacy: The Future of British Social Democracy is published by Policy Press.

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