In the 20 years since Tony Crosland's death his beliefs have been in retreat, even in the Labour party. Dick Leonard, a former Crosland adviser, says his revisionism is still Blair's best betby Dick Leonard / March 20, 1997 / Leave a comment
In many ways he was an Olympian figure. Blessed with an intelligence several notches higher than that of any other politician, with film star good looks, an incisive writing and speaking style and apparently brimming with self-confidence, it was pre-ordained that Crosland would rise to great heights. Added to that, his glamorous wartime record in the parachute regiment, his first class honours and presidency of the Union at Oxford, his publication at the age of 38 of the widely acclaimed The Future of Socialism, and a glittering future seemed assured. Instead, despite some real achievements, he had a difficult and often frustrating career, and it was only in the final months of his life that it seemed that the early promise would be fulfilled.
For there was also a downside. His gifts provoked as much resentment as admiration. His complex character embraced a large dose of diffidence and moral fastidiousness, which frequently led to accusations of indecisiveness. His wit threatened as much as it amused, and his warmheartedness and loyalty to his friends (to which I, for one, can testify) did not communicate itself to the public, to whom he too often conveyed an hauteur which was alien to his real nature.
He was also the victim of ill luck. Hugh Gaitskell’s sudden death in 1963 cost him the chance of becoming Chancellor of the Exchequer when a Labour government was formed the following year. He again narrowly missed the chancellorship after the devaluation of 1967, when James Callaghan resigned and recommended him as his successor. Instead, Harold Wilson chose Roy Jenkins, which had the unfortunate effect of souring future relations between two men who had been close friends since Oxford, and whose views and outlook were more similar than either of them would subsequently admit.
Throughout Wilson’s long tenure as Labour leader and prime minister Crosland’s talents were under-used. He held five ministerial posts, but he was kept out of the top jobs. It was only when Callaghan became prime minister in March 1976 that he was promoted to foreign secretary, a post he had never sought and initially regarded as no better than a consolation prize. Callaghan hinted that he would soon swap jobs with the Chancellor, Denis Healey, and I was surprised when Crosland confided to me just eight days before his death, that he no longer expected this exchange to take place, and indeed that he rather hoped it would not, as he found himself responding with growing enthusiasm to the challenges of the Foreign Office.
Whatever his own expectations, it was true that most people believed he would shortly move to the Treasury, and for the first time he was being seriously regarded as a likely successor to Callaghan as Labour leader and prime minister. It was not to be-he was struck down by a severe stroke on 13th February 1977, and died six days later at 58, almost the same age as his friend and mentor, Hugh Gaitskell.
Twenty years later, with Labour again on the brink of power, it is time to reassess Crosland’s career and consider the relevance of his thinking. This task is greatly simplified by the two books under review. Reisman has been nothing if not thorough. He seems to have traced every word that Crosland ever published-his four books, a quiverful of Fabian pamphlets and a large number of articles in newspapers, magazines and academic journals. He has also made imaginative use of the Crosland archive at the LSE library, which contains his undergraduate essays and the remarkable correspondence which Crosland maintained throughout the war years with his boyhood friend Philip Williams.
He is consequently able to provide a comprehensive report of Crosland’s views. He also takes full account of Crosland’s critics, and-generally very fairly-discusses the extent to which he was able, as a minister, to give practi- cal effect to the policies which he had advocated.
Reisman’s work should be read as a whole; and it is a pity that it has been split into two. The first volume, which includes a 50-page biographical sketch, concentrates largely on economic issues, including the once burning question of the ownership and control of industry. The second volume starts with an account of Crosland’s critique of Marx and then goes on to cover the crucial questions for Crosland of equality (both of opportunity and of outcome) and his views on a range of social and environmental issues. It concludes with a detailed discussion of the issue of economic growth, which Crosland regarded as a necessary but not sufficient condition of socialism in a free society.
Reisman names three economists-Alfred Marshall, AC Pigou and Hugh Dalton-as seminal intellectual influences on Crosland, as well as five more political writers who had speculated on the future of democratic socialism in the inter-war period of depression and poverty. These were GDH Cole, RH Tawney, Evan Durbin, Douglas Jay and again-in a different guise-Hugh Dalton.
Yet the socialism which Crosland preached was not something dreamed up out of books. He looked around the democratic world and identified two role models. The first was the US. Like many democratic socialists of his generation he was immensely attracted by its openness and dynamism. In Crosland’s own words, in The Future of Socialism, “One of the attractions of American society is the extraordinary social freedom, the natural assumption of equality, the total absence of deference and the relative absence of snobbery and of that faint, intangible but none the less insistent sense of class that permeates social attitudes in Britain.”
Crosland’s youthful love affair with the US, which did not noticeably diminish with the years, was unusual for a socialist, and even his close friend Michael Young tried to persuade him to tone down his enthusiasm in a letter commenting on an early draft of the book. Crosland, who normally showed great respect for Young’s views, ignored his advice.
His other great role model was Sweden where he greatly admired the progress made in eliminating poverty and achieving a wide measure of social and economic equality. This, he observed, owed nothing to nationalisation proposals, but was due to intelligent use of the government’s general economic powers and, in particular, by pushing redistributive taxation further than in any other democracy.
What was it that the US and Sweden had in common which distinguished them so sharply from the Britain of 1956 (and of 1997)? Crosland believed it was the fact that in neither country was there an extensive and prestigious system of private schooling. With few exceptions, the American high school and the Swedish folkskola were attended alike by the sons of bosses and of workers, who grew up with a common culture and little feeling of social distance. He identified the “public” schools (one of which-Highgate-he had himself attended) as the key element in the persistence of social stratification in Britain.
Reisman criticises Crosland’s role as education secretary in 1965-67 when, he claims, he was considerably less radical than his writings would have led one to expect. By not using compulsion, he alleges, the movement towards comprehensive schools was slower than it need have been. Yet Crosland succeeded in encouraging local education authorities so successfully that 83 per cent of secondary school pupils were in comprehensives by the end of the Labour government.
On public schools his criticism may be more valid. Crosland lacked the resources to integrate them into the state system, and his liberal principles excluded making it an offence to pay for private schooling. Yet he made no attempt to pursue the course advocated by his friend John Vaizey, who correctly identified that the main appeal to wealthy parents of the public schools was that they enabled them to buy access to the ancient (state-funded) universities. The private sector of education, Vaizey wrote, amounted to 5 per cent of the whole: if its pupils were restricted to 5 per cent of the places at Oxford and Cambridge, its appeal to parents would rapidly diminish. Crosland was aware of Vaizey’s proposal, but made no attempt to implement it. Instead, he set up a toothless public schools commission which produced proposals similar to the Tories’ assisted places scheme.
Twenty years after Crosland’s death many of his prescriptions have become unfashionable even on the democratic left. The tax and spend policies with which he was most associated (though he did say, in a famous phrase, in 1975, “the party’s over”) have been disowned by Labour. Sweden and the US have, in different ways, lost much of their shine, and enthusiasm for comprehensive schools has waned. He himself never thought that The Future of Socialism was written in stone, and acknowledged some second thoughts, the main one being that he had grossly underestimated the difficulty of achieving sufficient growth to pay for the painless progression to the good society that he sought. But he did not anticipate the intractable problem of structural unemployment, nor the appeal of Tory tax-cutting populism.
Forty years after its publication his master work of revisionism itself needs revising and will hardly do as an election manifesto for New Labour. Yet it remains the most persuasive and eloquent presentation of the values of democratic socialism so far attempted.
Would Crosland be an enthusiastic supporter of New Labour? I believe that he would. Yet one aspect of New Labour’s programme he might have found difficult to swallow-the pledge to freeze current levels of income tax. He believed in the mid-1970s that income tax rates were close to the level where their disincentive effects would outweigh the revenue-raising and redistributive benefits. Yet the standard rate when he died was 35 per cent, and the maximum rate on earned income was 83 per cent. It is questionable whether he would have regarded levels of 23 and 40 per cent in the same light. Anthony Crosland: The mixed economy crosland’s future: opportunity and outcome
London: Macmillan 1996, ?45 each