The only alternative to social democracy is social democracyby David Lipsey / April 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
Published in April 1996 issue of Prospect Magazine
Once upon a time the mark of a great political philosopher was consistency. He would discover his great idea (liberty for Mill, the social contract for Rousseau, the class war for Marx). There followed a lifetime of elucidation and refinement.
That was before post-modernism. Today consistency no longer counts. Indeed, if you look at the fashionable British political thinkers, what is most striking is how often they have changed their minds.
It is a moot point why this is so. Is it the fact of change itself? A philosophy of politics and society may fit reality when its progenitor is 20 or 30, only to be overtaken by change in politics and society by the time he is 40 or 50. Less charitably, the decline of consistency reflects the nature of the modern mind: restless, never satisfied, easily bored. The painstaking work of defending the broad initial edifice while adapting it in detail is not for such temperaments. Apostasy is their temptation, and it is encouraged by the fact that apostasy seems by far the best way to attract attention.
In the 1980s, the apostasy was one way-towards Thatcherism. Intellectuals such as the coterie around Marxism Today started off analysing the lady and ended by admiring her. Similarly, Labour-inclined lefties turned against their party. No organ of the capitalist press was complete without an intemperate piece by David Selbourne, a former Ruskin College lecturer, biting the hand which once fed him.
In the 1990s, the intellectual climate is starting to flow the other way. Those to whom the free market had seemed repository of all the virtues are beset by doubts. They worry at the apparent decline in national harmony and the civic virtues. They seek a society that is something more than economically successful. Some, such as David Willetts, sage, Tory MP and now minister, seek to cope through synthesis, proclaiming the compatibility of the free market with civic values. Others, such as John…