The Crosland Legacy: Lessons for the British Left

Anthony Crosland’s persuasive case for social democratic ideals and insights into the nature of the economy and politics still have great resonance today

patrick-diamond-100Since the financial crisis erupted eight years ago in the advanced industrialised economies, the Left across Europe has been desperately searching for a new economic strategy that can replace the defunct doctrines of market liberalism. In Britain, the Labour party has been reaching back into the past to revive ideas associated with the ‘Keynesian revolution’ of the 1950s and 1960s, using the power of the state to manage the capitalist economy and deliver full employment. But while undoubtedly ‘Keynes is back’ in shaping the intellectual critique of austerity, one figure less discussed more recently in British centre-left circles is the Labour politician and intellectual, Anthony Crosland. Crosland is, of course, best known for his seminal treatise on The Future of Socialism published sixty years ago in 1956.

Without question, Crosland was the dominant intellectual influence in the Labour party of the 1950s and 1960s. His views were controversial; the ‘revisionist’ ideas Crosland championed about the case for updating social democracy in a world of heightened consumerism and mass prosperity were widely attacked within the labour movement. The Tribune newspaper published a review of Crosland’s work accompanied by the unforgettable headline, ‘Socialism? How dare he use the word!’. By the 1970s the post-war settlement that fused Keynes with Beveridge’s vision of a ‘cradle to grave’ welfare state, espoused in Crosland’s book, appeared to be exhausted.

Since then, Crosland’s ideas have gradually disappeared from view. Although The Future of Socialism had an influence on New Labour politicians in the 1990s, especially the ‘opportunity egalitarianism’ of Gordon Brown, Crosland was largely absent from key party debates. Party modernisers viewed him narrowly as part of the ‘Old Labour’ legacy which had become electorally damaging in the 1970s and 1980s.

Despite the disappearance from view, however, Crosland still gets much of the blame for New Labour’s failings. One of the more influential critiques of the 1997-2010 Labour governments is that they were quintessentially ‘Croslandite’: that is, they were relaxed about how the market economy operated as long as the private sector achieved a surplus that could be used to support a programme of moderate fiscal redistribution. There was little attempt either to alter the underlying distribution of primary incomes, or to use the levers of active government to force the economy onto a more high-skill, high-wage, high-productivity trajectory. New Labour had apparently swallowed Crosland’s core prospectus wholesale.

While there is unquestionably some truth in this critique, it is over-stated and wrongly attributed to Crosland’s own thinking. Crosland’s ideas about economic policy were certainly not fool-proof: he was complacent about the underlying productive potential of the British economy in the 1960s and 1970s; Crosland (in common with many other economists at the time), over-stated what discretionary macro-economic policy was able to achieve. His view of an essentially benign capitalism in which there is a clear separation between the owners and managers of firms appears threadbare in the wake of the financial crisis. The radical Left economist, Stuart Holland, argued in The Socialist Challenge (1975: 70): ‘The rise of ‘managerial’ capitalism has not diluted the power of capitalism as a mode of production’. After the failure of the National Plan and the devaluation crisis in the late 1960s, Labour thinkers were unable to develop an alternative model of ‘developmental’, state-led economic reconstruction. Holland (1975: 76) insisted that by the mid-1970s, Crosland’s analysis ‘looks set fair for rapid discrediting’.

For all of these reasons, it would be easy to dismiss Crosland’s approach to economics and politics as the product of a bygone era. Yet there is a ‘Crosland legacy’; arguably the British Left ought to pay greater heed to Crosland’s political thought today.

The first and most obvious reason is because Crosland had a cogent analysis of the relationship between economic growth and a more equal society. Crosland was adamant that a more equitable distribution of purchasing power would underpin stronger economic growth in the long-term. Moreover, Crosland foresaw that more equal societies were more cohesive and conducive to improvements in labour productivity and innovation. His views have been echoed in the recent pronouncements of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) which argues that rising inequality has weakened the growth potential of the world economy, and made it harder to recover from the 2008-9 financial crash. Crosland makes the moral claim that social justice and economic efficiency are closely intertwined.

Secondly, almost uniquely on the social democratic Left in Britain, Crosland had a view of what constitutes the ‘good’ economy. He saw economics as the means, rather than the end, of achieving greater self-fulfilment for the individual, while enabling all citizens to realise their potential. Echoing Keynes’ famous essay on ‘The economic possibilities for our grandchildren’, Crosland envisaged a world in which the returns to growth would enable greater opportunities for creative pursuits, the arts and leisure. He famously emphasised the importance of investing in the public realm, the cafes, parks, open spaces, and accessible countryside that make life worthwhile; Crosland wanted to create a society where everyone could attend an opera or develop a love of classical music. That was why increasing the level of productivity and growth in the economy was decisively important.

None of this is to argue we can simply read-off from Crosland a strategy that might revive British social democracy in today’s circumstances. Too much has changed in the structure of the economy and society since Crosland wrote: we now live in a world of integrated capital, product and labour markets far removed from Britain in the 1950s. The class base of politics has been reconfigured as deindustrialisation has ended the dominance of male manual labour, but introduced many more women into the labour force. The state itself has been under unprecedented attack, and no longer enjoys the legitimacy and authority it had in the immediate post-war years.

All of that said, Crosland’s writings constitute a formidable and persuasive case for social democratic ideals; his insights about the nature of the economy and politics still have resonance today.

The Crosland Legacy: The Future of British Social Democracy is published by Policy Press.