Books: He believed in equality then, and I believe in it now

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Anthony Crosland

by Kevin Jefferys

Richard Cohen Books pounds 25

Fifteen years after his death, Tony Crosland is again becoming a figure of consequence within the Labour Party. Kevin Jefferys's biography is the second book about him to be published this year. The Chancellor of the Exchequer makes constant, though unconvincing, attempts to portray his policies as Croslandite. And those Blairites who are prepared to believe that the Labour Party began before the summer of 1994 struggle to prove that the author of The Future of Socialism would have been a Blairite too.

It is wholly understandable that politicians with no coherent ideological signposts to guide them should cast around for a philosophic compass. And The Future of Socialism, published in 1956, was the last statement of principles to have any significant impact on the Labour Party. Jefferys quotes the complaint and criticism that Tony Crosland expressed to me almost every time we met during the last couple of years of his life. There was a desperate need for a new book on socialism. But he was too old and I was too frivolous to write it. He was at least half wrong. Had Crosland lived, he would have been unable to resist charting a radical path into the 21st century.

The temptation to speculate about what he would have written ought to be avoided. Changing dead heroes' minds - or even asserting that they would not have changed - is impertinence, not analysis. Wisely, Kevin Jefferys writes that all we can know about Tony Crosland's beliefs are what we learn from his published work. Socialism Now - the last book before he joined the 1974 government - was explicit in its assertion that the central purpose of the Labour Party was the creation of a more equal society. Chapter eight of The Future of Socialism ends with the explanation "Why Equality of Opportunity is Not Enough". Blairite back benchers who never met him may choose to insist that Tony Crosland would have changed his mind. It is not an argument in which I wish to take part. He believed in equality then and I believe in it now.

Crosland: A New Biography disposes of The Future of Socialism in eight pages. They include, without endorsement, the common criticism that, without the steady economic growth which Tony Crosland predicted, his hopes of a more equal society could not be realised. He certainly wrote that "growth is vital and that its benefits far outweigh its costs", and he would have gladly traded a couple of points on the retail price index for an increase of 1 per cent in gross domestic product. But he always argued that, while greater equality was more easily obtained in an expanding economy, it was more necessary at times of stagnation when only redistribution can improve the living standards of the poor. There were no circumstances in which he believed that the great ideal should be abandoned.

Kevin Jefferys exhibits little concern for the complexities of Tony Crosland's philosophic position. His concern is the man rather than his ideas - an understandable inclination since his subject's character, being both colourful and complex, is the stuff of which readable biographies are made. But despite the louche fascination of his early years in Parliament - when his friends warned him that he was drinking away his future - Tony Crosland remains important because of the originality of his thoughts, the strength of his convictions and the determination with which he attempted to put his principles into practice.

I did not know Tony Crosland until he had become a minister and his life had been transformed by his marriage to Susan Barnes. He still looked raffish and occasionally offended his colleagues both by his consciously outrageous opinions and contempt for normal social conventions. He once told me that the only way to endure Christmas with elderly relatives was to arrive drunk and stay that way until the moment of departure and I had to persuade him to remain for dinner when he remembered that the other guest (who had asked me to arrange a meeting) was one of Lyndon Johnson's national security advisers and, in Crosland's view, "absolutely hopeless".

Sometimes I found the idiosyncrasies endearing and amusing. Occasionally they irritated me. But I never thought them important. Jim Callaghan wrote that Tony Crosland's "apparent lofty arrogance ... was a camouflage behind which lay a deeply serious intellect". His pretence that he did not care was the facade with which he disguised the fear that he cared too much. Behind the languid detachment he was deadly serious, immensely industrious and absolutely committed to his view of the good society. Jim Callaghan understood him. I am not sure that Kevin Jefferys does.

Politicians of conviction always take a lively interest in their own success. They fear that, if they fail, their principles and policies will fail with them. Tony Crosland - who certainly wanted to be Prime Minister and hoped to be Chancellor of the Exchequer - was, however, pathologically incapable of concentrating on scrambling up the greasy pole. His beliefs always got in the way. No doubt he was "aware that defeat for Hugh Gaitskell (in the bitter Labour Party battle over unilateral nuclear disarmament) might ruin his own prospects". But that is not why he fought so hard for a Gaitskell victory. He regarded unilateralism as intellectually absurd and Hugh Gaitskell was his friend. Kevin Jefferys finds it hard to believe that some politicians are motivated by such considerations.

Tony Crosland had style. About that there is no doubt. But Kevin Jefferys - who clearly believes that he has written a wholly complimentary biography - often allows the style to obscure the substance. Jefferys quotes me as saying that Crosland made out a "scintillating" intellectual case against the economic deflation and public expenditure cuts which were, in 1976, thought necessary to obtain a loan from the International Monetary Fund. And so he did. But the importance of his argument was its consistency with the principles laid down in The Future of Society 20 years earlier. His unquenchable belief that socialism worked - as well as the certainty that it brought social justice - distinguished him from most politicians of his time. Since his death Labour has lost confidence in its own idea.

Crosland's intellectual self-confidence might have altered the course of Labour Party history. Jefferys tells us that during the great unilateral disarmament debate of the early 1960s "he resented being driven into a position which labelled him a right winger". Fifteen years later, when he was Foreign Secretary, he resented it still. A week before his fatal stroke, I was with him at Dorneywood, his "official residence". It was a joyously iconoclastic weekend, much of it spent laughing at the flummery of office. But on the Sunday afternoon - as part of a conversation which was brilliantly recorded in Susan Crosland's biography of her husband - he was still insisting that his vision of a new society was more radical than the "left wing" alternative. Had he lived, the Labour Party might have become radical too.