Barbarians are at the gates

David Marquand analyses an attack on the English public domain of citizenship, service, and equity that is washing against the Welsh border

Reading Peter Kellner’s OurKingdom take on how the class composition of the electorate has changed just after reading the Neal Lawson and John Harris New Statesman call for a New Socialism is an odd experience. The two pieces are, of course, very different. Kellner’s is essentially an elegant, but bog-standard essay in number-crunching political sociology, with virtually no ideological or philosophical content. His central point – that Labour can’t recover by concentrating its efforts on re-capturing a now mythical ‘our people’ – seems to me self-evident. But it’s hardly new: psephologists have been charting the disappearance of Labour’s traditional ‘people’ since the Seventies. Lawson and Harris, by contrast, offer a rich and subtle account of the deeper cultural changes that, in their view, undermined the New Labour project, and go on to call for a paradigm shift to what they call ‘New Socialism’. Their argument is new, and deserves to be taken seriously.

But these differences conceal a more fundamental similarity. Both pieces focus overwhelmingly on the Labour Party, and both equate the fate of the Labour Party with the fate of something called ‘the left’. I feel increasingly that that whole approach – indeed the very language in which it is expressed – is fundamentally flawed.

The traditional Right versus Left dichotomy was always a gross oversimplification; Samuel Brittan said as much more than forty years ago in his brilliant Left and Right: the Bogus Dilemma. Now it is not just over-simplified, but dangerously misleading. In its great days, the three great themes of the Left were those of the classic revolutionary triad –  ‘liberty’, ‘equality’ and ‘fraternity’. But under the Blair-Brown regime, the Conservatives were more resolute in defence of liberty than Labour was. ‘Equality’ has been redefined (in Labour circles as much as in Conservative and Liberal Democrat ones) as ‘equal opportunity’ – which, of course, means equal opportunity to be unequal. As for fraternity  – in English ‘community’ or ‘Commonwealth’ or ‘fellowship’ – no real-world political force dares to champion it against the atomising pressures of the global market-place on the one hand, and the hedonistic individualism of ageing Baby boomers on the other. Churches, synagogues and mosques are now the last bastions of the fraternal ideal, not politicians of what used to be called the ‘left’.

The Labour Party is equally problematic. Its very name is redolent of the lost world whose passing Kellner anatomises. It may recover by the next election; Ed Miliband may be the next Prime Minister. I passionately hope that both of these things will come to pass. I was delighted by Ed’s election as Labour leader; and now that the Liberal Democrats’ have comprehensively betrayed the social liberal tradition that was the glory of the Liberal Party in old days, Labour is the only political party that comes near to embodying the values I have believed in since my twenties. But, in present circumstances, worrying about the future of the Labour Party is a classic case of what psychiatrists call displacement activity.

At stake now are the future of our public culture and, on a deeper level, of our civilisation. In the last few weeks we have seen four significant steps towards an insidious barbarism: the Health White Paper promising yet more marketisation in health care; the proposal to hold elections for police commissioners; the decision to withdraw state funding for undergraduate teaching in the humanities and social sciences, and to create a market in higher education; and Michael Gove’s plans to flood the education system with academies and ‘free schools’, and in doing so to emasculate local government’s role in education.

None of these is earth-shattering on its own. Cumulatively they represent a profoundly destructive attack on the public domain of citizenship, service, equity and professionalism, which is fundamental to any civilised society. The whole point of electing police commissioners is to subordinate professional judgement to populist pressures – inevitably fanned by vicious media storms. The health reforms are designed to turn doctors into market traders, to open up the health-care system to profit seeking private providers and to turn patients into customers. Universities will become even more like private firms, complete with grotesquely overpaid chief executives, than they are already. Increasingly, they will stand or fall by their ability to compete for custom in a market-place dominated by a crass instrumentalism. Most academics will try try to hold firm to the values of disinterested enquiry, democratic public reasoning, humane learning and intellectual excellence, but the pressures of the market-place will be against them. And if Michael Gove achieves what he has set out to do, local government – already far feebler in this country than in the US or most of the rest of the EU – will become an institutional ghost. The barbarians are no longer at the gates. They are well inside them.

But the gates were stormed long ago. The Coalition is following where New Labour led – just as New Labour followed where Thatcher led. And, like New Labour and Thatcher, it is doing so, not because its members are wicked people, but because it is hard to do anything else in a culture from which the language of the public good and civic duty has been banished. The Labour movement can and should play a part in rescuing that language, but it can’t do so by itself. Labour people must reach out to other traditions – including some on what used to be called the ‘right’ – and learn from the wisdom of thinkers like Edmund Burke and Isaiah Berlin as well as from socialists like William Morris and social democrats like Tawney.

This article originally appeared on the OurKingdom blog here

David Marquand is former principal of Mansfield College, Oxford. Among his many books are The Unprincipled Society (1988) and Ramsay MacDonald (2nd edition, 1997).

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