The Fundamental Problems with the British Left | Jake Painter
“It is a tendency identified by the late Australian political philosopher Kenneth Minogue as ‘St George in retirement’ syndrome. After slaying the dragon the brave warrior finds himself stalking the land looking for still more glorious fights. He needs his dragons” – Douglas Murray, The Strange Death of Europe
It is easy to see the current state of political affairs in its own perfect isolation. We see the current state of the left as some sort of anomaly of the times that we live in. This is a trap that most fall into and is something that we must dispel, as the political climate that we find ourselves in is something – in this country especially – we have been in before. As such, as well as explaining the problems plaguing the modern left today, we must use a strong sense of history to be our guide for this story. As that is the only way we can truly understand the dynamics at play. I must say as well that I fully realise there are differing sects and groups within the left and I do not intend to make out they are all one homogenous group. I merely want to discuss the broad political and philosophical themes that influence the left’s thinking, whilst taking an historical approach to it.
If you look to right of centre figures such as Douglas Murray and have read his work The Strange Death of Europe you get the impression that the modern left’s desire to be radical for the sake of being radical is purely a by-product of them running out of ideas. St George’s syndrome, as he points out, is something endemic within the modern left, as all the great battles for equality have been fought and now the left are increasingly looking for more and more niche and obscure causes to fight over in order to stay relevant. This certainly has its truths to it but drastically overlooks the history of left wing thought, as well its true driving forces.
Roy Jenkins is arguably the most influential British politician of the 20th century, who is also simultaneously the most unrecognised and least talked about for a politician of his calibre. Born in 1920, he was the son of the prominent South Wales Miners Federation Union official Arthur Jenkins, who was also the MP for Pontypool and was a close aide to Labour prime minister Clement Attlee. As such, Roy Jenkins was raised within the trade union aristocracy. Whilst his father had come from humble beginnings and worked in the mines before he worked his way up the trade union hierarchy, Roy never worked down the pits and lived a solidly middle-class upbringing and went on to study at Balliol College Oxford. He was considered even early on in his career as a member of the liberal establishment; not just because of his upbringing but also because of his views and though he was considered (especially from the latter part of the 1950s onwards) part of the Labour right, his ideas would influence much of the left’s thinking right up to this day.
The main thrust of Roy Jenkins’ thinking can be seen in his 1953 work The Pursuit of Progress. This work along with his 1959 book The Labour Case, (which for the most part regurgitated most of his points in the Pursuit of Progress) discussed how the Labour party could remain relevant after their string of election defeats to the Tories throughout the 1950s. To Jenkins, the days in which Labour could be a class orientated trade union pressure group, who could rely on a poor majority to vote for them at election time and carry them into government were gone. As former Tory PM Harold MacMillan famously said “we’ve done it”, referring to the new age of affluence amongst the British people, as Britain had rebuilt after WW2 and the post war economic boom started apace as the 50s and then 60s rolled on. Many working class Labour supporters were becoming affluent themselves, as Aneurin Bevan famously decried the working-class being was bribed by this newfound wealth.
Jenkins set out an alternative for the British left of centre. Instead of focusing on class struggle and economically determinist arguments, the left should strive to be radical. By radical, this meant the left of centre should take up the issues of their time and find new progressive and social causes in order to stay relevant. Indeed Labour had achieved what it wanted in 1945-1951 (with wave of nationalisations of industry, a policy successive Tory governments continued up until Thatcher); so a new dragon needed to be slayed, hence the need to tackle social issues and the mantra of “good living and liberal ideas” came into being. To Roy the destination didn’t matter all that much (he particularly took that view with joining Europe), what mattered was the journey and being seen to be on the right side of history and reforming the country for the better.
Indeed, for the modern liberal-left the destination doesn’t matter all that much either. If there was a set destination from which they could be content with and society reached its desired outcome, then they would cease to be relevant. What is important is that there is seen to be a perceived march forward towards progress in society, a forever constant within the left wing political sphere. This is the most crucial thing to understand here because as said before, the modern liberal-left hasn’t just suddenly run out of ideas and that’s why they’re taking up more and more obscure and niche political and social causes; this never-ending progressive journey is the idea and has been a key part of their political philosophy since at least the 1950s.
This runs into its own issues however. Back in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s when Roy Jenkins was most active, the issues that he took as Home Secretary and as a politician in general were issues that were relevant to Britain’s political climate. True, by no means were all of his or the wider liberalising reforms of that era popular with the public during that time (Jenkins himself noted the conservative nature of the British electorate and Labour made sure not to make Jenkins liberalisation agenda as front and centre manifesto pledges, instead opting to get these through via private members bills). Support for the death penalty didn’t drop below 50% until 2015, a full 50 years after it was abolished for murder, whereas an NOP poll showed 63% of the British public supported the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1965. Regardless of whether these issues were specifically popular at the time; whether it was the death penalty, homosexuality, theatre censorship, obscene publications, abortion or divorce; they were at least relevant and tangible to the British political scene. There was often sympathy amongst the public for some kind of broad reform and this was also in backdrop of the cultural revolution where the old order was collapsing, with conservative Britain lacking the backbone or confidence to defend said order.
Fast forward to the modern day and it’s a totally different picture. The left in their constant pursuit of progress has stumbled upon causes that have markedly little sympathy amongst the public at large and which have little relevance to this nation’s political or historical framework. The best example being Black Lives Matter (BLM). Very few people today would disagree with the phrasing itself but the movement as a whole is seen as nothing more than a foreign importation of American racial politics, into an island nation where such racial divides are not relevant. Sure, in the broadest possible sense there is an overlap in racial injustices being present in both countries but that’s as far as it goes. What about Stonewall’s recent comments that we should use the term “parent who has given birth” instead of mother? We are seeing Onionisation of politics as we speak.
As Michel Houellebecq points out in his book Atomised; metaphysical mutations (a phenomenon where radical transformations happen in regards to a society’s value system and the way it fundamentally understands reality) once they happen they tend to lead to its logical conclusion. The metaphysical mutation of the mid-20th century was that of the aforementioned cultural revolution, where the old order was turned on its head and a wave of liberalisation took hold. Roy Jenkins and his acolytes didn’t create this revolution but he was its most notable standard bearer. But what he did do as said before was facilitate the mantra of the constant march of progress, which the left has largely adhered to since. This however leaves the problem of where does it end? Modern progressivism doesn’t have a stated goal or end point as most other ideologies do.
Marxism has the classless and stateless society; fascism has the corporatist, militarist, and nationalist state; the conservative unsurprisingly wishes to conserve as much of the nations culture, traditions and institutions; the liberal-left doesn’t have this however so there’s no logical conclusion in terms of an ideological endpoint. Where the logical conclusion does come into play is in the inevitable demise of progressivism as a political force. Put simply, the belief in progress for progress’s sake is not a sustainable ideology. Progressivism rather than being the product of the deficiencies of an unequal socio-economic system has instead become the basis of a new system, but you cannot build a new system off an ideology that was originally intended to bring down another and knows only how to destroy. It will continually find more and more things to oppose and find more and more hills that are not worth dying over until it ultimately implodes under its ever increasing contradictions. To paraphrase Winston Churchill here; I do not believe this is the beginning of the end of progressivism, but I do believe it is the end of the beginning.
Anthony Crosland held many ministerial posts in his time in Labour politics; which included being the president of the Board of Trade, Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, Environment, Local Government, Education etc. The political philosophy that arose from The March of Progress wasn’t the only thing to come out of the 1950s that made its mark on modern left wing thought. It also coincided with Anthony Crosland’s 1956 work The Future of Socialism. Anthony Crosland was another Labour politician and a close associate of Roy Jenkins, who they knew from their days at Baliol College Oxford. Much of what The Future of Socialism outlines isn’t particularly originally and takes much from Jenkins own work but it does introduce us to two very important concepts, the first being the concept of socialistic hedonism. It was also written in the same backdrop as The March of Progress, that being during the Tory dominated 1950s and Labour desperately trying to find ways to regain power. Anthony Crosland’s socialistic hedonism said that the left should focus more on libertarian ideals of personal liberation, rather than any notion of solidarity. Class or otherwise.
Why do you think that many leftists today will talk the good talk on solidarity and still even bandy around the term “comrade” every now and again, but are often firm libertarians when it comes to social policies, particularly when it comes to drug taking. It’s not that the wedding of social libertarianism and socialism makes any ideological sense, the modern left’s relationship with social libertarianism is largely as a result of Anthony Crosland’s and others’ work. Where it gets tricky though is remembering the context in which Anthony Crosland formulated his ideas. It was in the aforementioned age of affluence, a time when Britain (though not as fast as their European neighbours) was experiencing wealth creation and a standard of living that it had never experienced before. As such when you live in such a rich society you can afford to live a relatively individualistic and self-centred lifestyle, as that wealth can offset most negative side effects from such a philosophy.
What of now? The world we live in now is a much more unsure world than that of the boomer generation of the 1950s-1970s. The cost of living is exponentially higher, real wages are largely stagnant, job security is hit and miss and there are no longer the certainties of yesteryear. On top of this we live in a society that is saturated with consumer goods and we are constantly immersed in the resulting consumerist culture that leaves us in a fragmented and increasingly atomised society. If you were the boomer generation who were the richest generation in history or even generation X who lived in the afterglow of such affluence and threw away such an inheritance during the neo-liberal wave of the 1980s, this doesn’t matter at all. But people, especially the young of today, do not have any of these certainties. If the left are to gain power again, they need to rediscover their roots in solidarity.
When I talk about solidarity I don’t just mean in the economic or class sense. It is often sighted that old fashioned socialists or social democrats were quite socially conservative. This is fairly true to a degree, some of the biggest opponents to Roy Jenkins’ abortion liberalisation were Labour MPs who represented Catholic constituents in the North West of England. But there’s more to it; when push comes to shove, the collectivist conservative and socialist can often come to the same conclusions, albeit for different reasons. Because solidarity can mean nation, it can mean your local community, and in the traditional sense it meant class; but the old left had elements of all these different brands of solidarity which made it an appealing force back in the day. It matured the Labour party from being a narrow sectarian Union pressure group, into a party of government and if the left wished to move beyond its current quagmire of sectarian student union orientated progressivism, then it would do well to hark back to this broad interpretation of what solidarity means.
There was a second issue with Crosland’s work which still has its ramifications today. The Future of Socialism also stated that Labour and the left should not be primarily concerned with hardnosed practical policy but should instead be focused on promoting greater equality. This on the face of it is very similar to Roy Jenkins’ thinking but instead of the constant march of progress, Crosland’s drive for greater equality is more of a broad principle. If we look at the modern left today we still see this principle adhered to. For example, I personally believe that much (certainly not all) of Corbyn’s economic policy made sense. I personally believe that nationalising the railways is a sensible idea; particularly since ticket prices have skyrocketed under privatisation, the fragmentation of the rail network (with different train carriages being owned by different companies) means coordination is and effective running of the network is impossible, all the while taxpayer rail subsidies to the operators (pre COVID-19) came to around £4.3 billion whilst train operators give out millions of pounds to their shareholders. In short, nationalisation of not just the railways but of other public utilities and natural monopolies is the best policy because it’s by far the most pragmatic way forward.
The problem that faced not only Corbyn, but parties like the Green Party and even the Lib Dems is that when they expound their policies, it is seldom wrapped in the language of pragmatic policy but rather on broad and vague notions of a more equal or equitable society. These are not bad principles to believe in themselves, but when you try and sell these policies to the electorate it often comes across as lofty progressivism, rather than tangible policies that will benefit the working man and women in their day to day existence. There is a genuine desire for such policies, even amongst Conservative and ex UKIP/Brexit party voters there is a majority or plurality in favour, but politics is often more how you sell the idea rather than the idea itself, as well who sells it. The left needs to abandon the language of left-liberal grandiosity and get back to the basics.
As mentioned before, Jenkins but also Crosland were both part of “liberal elite” back in their political heyday, or what was called the “Hampstead set” back then. As such they (particularly Jenkins) had a very patrician view of politics, a very “we know best” sort of attitude. The more things change the more they stay the same as they say, but the point is that patrician leftism aims to drive society forward into a new “social Jerusalem”, whether or not society sees it as a new Jerusalem or a temporal hell. At least with the patrician conservative (small not big C) their aim is to preserve society as much as possible and even though said society will certainly have its faults, it does have its firm foundations. The patrician leftist on the other seeks to rock these foundations to its very core, whether it’s through the Jenksinite needs for the march of progress or the Crosland desire for greater equality. These developments again should be observed in the historical context from which they came. In the lead up to Labour’s election victory in 1964 under Harold Wilson, there was this desire amongst British society for a change. The Tories had been in power for 13 years at this point and were thoroughly discredited as sleazy and tired (particularly as a result of the Profumo affair) and a new government was needed. This was also off the back of the aforementioned post war prosperity Britain experienced and along with Wilson’s promise to push Britain forward under the fires of a “scientific revolution”, Labour were more or less shoe-ins at that point.
The problem is that Labour’s triumph was largely a reaction against “grey” Britain. Another reason why Jenkins was able to get away with much of his agenda was again because the old was discredited. This is the modern day, not the embers of Victorian Britain in which 1950s and 1960s Britain can be characterised, the vast majority of people these days have only known the liberal order (or as Jenkins once coined ‘The permissive society’). As such the desire for progress weakens greatly when society has been supposedly progressing for generations now but a great deal of people still feel disenfranchised with the system at large. So when left-wing elitists say you must do this or accept whatever policy that comes from a detached think tank because “it’s good for you”, it often falls on unsympathetic and deaf ears.
These elitists wish to be their own Caesars and cross the Rubicon, but the British public at large are no longer willing to cross with them.