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Who broke the Left?

Credit: JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP/Getty Images

May 30, 2019   6 mins

Two things first, by way of preparation and explanation. The first is personal and visceral, the second more philosophical.

First, all my political energy has been a reaction to Margaret Thatcher. I hated and continue to hate Thatcherism with a passion that remains undimmed, even after all these years. There have been moments when I wondered if I should have gotten over it by now. But I can’t. It is too deeply and furiously embedded in my psyche.

In the name of the free market, she trashed the long established infrastructure of care and civility that held us together as a country. Not since the Dissolution of the Monasteries has a whole pattern of social care been so thoroughly and successfully wiped away. In particular, she eviscerated northern working class towns, held together by mining and heavy industry, that were the heart of this country.

Second, my philosophical point: Mrs Thatcher wasn’t really a Conservative at all. She was a turbo-charged classical liberal who believed that the freedom of the individual, and most especially the economic freedom of the individual, trumped all other moral considerations. Setting people free from the state, setting people free to pursue their individual economic interests, this was her guiding idea. And so she took a sledgehammer to all those patterns of community living that held the individual back. To express her mistake philosophically, she confused ‘freedom from’ (any external constrains) with ‘freedom to’ (something that requires a whole social architecture of discipline and solidarity to enable people to flourish and live out their fullest lives).

Get “on your bike” was the message of one of her fiercest lieutenants to those whose communities had been trashed. Freedom of movement and freedom of capital, deregulated markets and the privatisation of public services – with all these, the world was transformed. Under the influence of people such as Keith Joseph and the free market philosophies of Friedrich Hayek, social problems were all imagined to have market solutions.

But far from setting ordinary people free, this turned into a revolution for financial opportunists feasting on the corpse of traditional manufacturing and the way of life it sustained. By destroying the power of the Trade Unions, Thatcher paved the way for the reign of the money men from the City. Very little was conserved. That is why Mrs Thatcher should be considered a cuckoo in the nest of traditional conservatism.

It is from these two perspectives that I consider the long slow death of the Labour Party. What changed Labour was Tony Blair. Blair conceded the Thatcher victory and set out re-inventing the Labour Party as a faintly progressive version of liberal ideals, not challenging the liberalisation of financial markets one bit, but simply adding a top-dressing of social liberalism to disguise the overall concession of defeat.

Then, in 1995, Blair got rid of Clause 4 from the Labour Party’s constitution. It read: “To secure for the workers … the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange.” At the price of ditching socialism, Blair established an electorally powerful, but intrinsically unstable, alliance between traditional Labour supporters and a newly empowered liberal middle class. The big tent.

There are those who will argue the Labour Party had no choice. Its traditional power bases had been so weakened by the Thatcher revolution that it had to find new ways of drawing upon a wider constituency of support. Others, like me, think he sold the pass. And so the Labour party became an uneasy coalition of professional metropolitan liberals, media professionals, techies, academics, journalists; and socialists who looked back to a political philosophy embedded in the factory and more traditional patterns of communal life.

The IT revolution of the 1990’s further entrenched the power of liberalism. ‘Freedom from’ went digital. For those who grew up with this new technology, socialism transformed itself out of all recognition into a philosophy of individual empowerment: a refusal of any expression of heteronomous power, a commitment to the freedom of the individual to self-define. Yes, this is a generalisation. But it contains a basic truth. These new liberal individualists may have railed against the neo-liberal economics of the US right, for example, but they were more than cousins – both expressions of the same ideal: that the I has moral priority over the we.

Brexit has blown apart this coalition. In the recent European elections, former manufacturing towns like Wigan, Doncaster and Dudley voted 44.6% for the Brexit Party and 14% for Labour. By sharp contrast, university towns like Cambridge, Nottingham and Manchester split the other way, 27% for the Lib Dems and 21% for Labour. And this is why the Labour Party is falling apart.

Traditional Clause 4 Labour Party members – Benn, Skinner, Corbyn and so on – have long despised the European Union as just another expression of free market hegemony, a means of allowing big business and financial power to free itself from the limitations placed upon it by the power of the state.

For Clause 4 socialists like me, the debate over Europe is a question of who is to be master: the state, with its democratic justification and ability to redistribute wealth, or international finance, a force that is always trying to rid itself of state control and the power of the state, under democratic mandate, to impose taxation.

The ‘free’ bit in free markets and free movement is the freedom to evade taxation. Businesses like Amazon want ‘free’ because it allows them to transfer their profits to parts of the world where they are not taxed. It allows them to make stuff or employ people where labour is cheap – or even better to get cheap labour “on your bike” style to turn up where it suits them – and then to transfer the profits to low tax regimes, and thence to offshore accounts.

These forces are unthreatened by social liberalism and are happy to encourage it. California hi-tech capitalism is as woke as you like because social liberalism doesn’t challenge the basic financial plumbing of the free market.

The best argument for the EU is that only something as big as the EU is powerful enough to take on such interests. The argument against is that the EU facilitates them, that the EU is a Davos run business club that, by weakening the democratic mandate held by nation-states, allows international finance an increasingly unrestricted playing field. Look at how the EU dealt with Greece and its debt crisis. No thank you.

The problem for Labour is that it now looks in two directions and it cannot make up its mind. Liberals face in one direction and Clause 4 socialists in another. The transfer of votes from Labour to the Liberal Democrats during the European Elections – including that of Alastair Campbell – demonstrates the natural affinity of new Labour with liberalism. The story of 20th and 21st Century politics is usually written up as the death of the liberal party after WW1. In 1935, George Dangerfield wrote the highly influential The Strange Death of Liberal England. But he read the rites far too early. Liberalism has decisively shaped both the Conservative and Labour parties. It became the enabling philosophy of late capitalism. And it gradually hollowed-out and replaced the original philosophies of the two great parties of the 20th Century: the conservatism of Conservatives and the socialism of Labour.

The tragedy of the present moment is that no mainstream political party has developed a robust and popular enough political philosophy to resist the forces of a globalised and unfettered market.

If fascism is the only answer, then I will side with the liberals every day. For there can be no concession to the hateful politics of the hard Right. But there has to be another way, a philosophy that resists fascism but also resists the power of liberalised globalised capital. One that respects the more conservative instincts of community preservation. One that understands that the family is the most successful delivery mechanism of care for the vulnerable. And one that appreciates that there will be no space for something as wonderful as the National Health Service if there is no positive and underlying philosophy of the nation state to bolster it. Likewise nationalised industries and utilities.

In the name of the wrong sort of freedom, the liberal Left in England gave up on the nation as a philosophy for bigots and racists. In Scotland, always more comfortable with its own national pride, Labour was wiped away by an avowedly nationalist party: the Scottish Nationalist Party. And similarly, in Wales.

But in England the nation state was abandoned by the liberal internationalist Left. They twitched and tittered though ‘God save the Queen’, not understanding that this was the true anthem of the big tent, the nation being that imaginative space where otherwise diverse people might find common cause and mutual solidarity.

Brexit didn’t break us apart. Thatcher broke us long before that. Brexit is simply a mirror to our brokenness. And if we are to find unity again, we need a moral revival of the Left. It must bring back Clause 4. And it must learn to stand up straight when it sings the national anthem.

Giles Fraser is a journalist, broadcaster and Vicar of St Anne’s, Kew.


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Alan Groff
Alan Groff
2 years ago

The Left abandoned the working man.
When Alexander Solzhenitsyn detailed how fundamental socialist doctrines were translated into legislation and then transformed into ongoing genocide, apologists in the West for socialism changed horses to Marcuse from Marx.
Instead of agitating on the part of the working class, they switched and started talking about group identity. It was a sleight of hand, and the surface nomenclature was changed to make it attractive. Still, the underlying philosophy was the same: give up one’s identity to assume a universal identity that judges the diversity of identities only you transcend. These secular high priests are pure figures with universal morality. They speak for victims; their enemies, enemies of victims, have no right to defend themselves. They thus become the same sort of pure figures of brutal power Solzhenitsyn described.
If the working man was off-limits, new victims were provided by Herbert Marcuse, who claimed that liberating tolerance could be achieved by a subversive majority formed from gender and racial minorities whose organized repression opened the way for undemocratic mean: “They would include the withdrawal of toleration of speech and assembly from groups and movements that promote aggressive policies, armament, chauvinism, promotions of the white race and religion, or that oppose the extension of public services, social security, medical care, etc.,” he famously wrote in 1965. The academic elite, fueled by Foucault, declared all we need is willpower to make it so.
Maybe, on the one hand, Thatcherism reflects decadent modernism, just as Hegel, Marcuse, Marx, Foucault, etc., reflect decadent modernism on the other hand. But they are all on smooth ice; victims of their tautologies they are unable to see the realities in plain sight, e.g., the sufferings of the working man and the communities they support.
Giles Fraser sees the suffering, and it seems like we need to start describing our communities. We cannot go backward against the stream of time to an age when Marxism elevated the working man, nor is it desirable. An inability to bid farewell seems as feeble as an inability to embrace current reality. Doing the hard work of understanding the needs of our communities looks like the place to start. Return to the Parish and listen. Yogi Berra says you can observe a lot just by watching.