The life and soul of the Party

A Strange Eventful History: democratic socialism in Britain by Edmund Dell (HarperCollins, £24.99, 622pp)
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The Labour Party's foundation on 28 February 1900 was a low-key event. And, apart from one address by Tony Blair at the Old Vic, interest in its centenary was almost equally subdued. Any further celebrations must now contend with the iciest of cold showers. Edmund Dell's massive survey of the idea of socialism is brutal and severe. He argues that democratic socialism, defined as public ownership, planning, or in any other version, was always a fantasy, one incompatible with "the open economy". The intellectuals who promoted it exposed their limitations. The politicians who sought to implement it came to grief. Only now is post-Thatcher Britain emerging, like the prisoners in Fidelio, from the darkness of socialist illusions into the radiance of free-market global capitalism.

Edmund Dell sadly died last autumn. His career took him into Cabinet under Callaghan, posts in the City and Europe, and the chairmanship of Channel Four. He was perhaps always an academic manqué, a teacher of history at Queen's College, Oxford (to be followed there by the present reviewer). In his retirement, he was a pioneer of contemporary history, writing powerful works on the Chancellors of the Exchequer from 1945, the Schuman Plan and the IMF crisis.

His political experience was less happy. He joined the Communists, but drifted rightwards in the Fifties. In Parliament from 1964, he became ill at ease in a left-wing party, and he left a Labour Cabinet to become a merchant banker.

After a flirtation with the SDP, he voted Labour, so he told me, in 1992 and (less surprisingly) 1997. But his basic approach was that of a centrist technocrat, sceptical of party agendas. A pro-European, he opposed joining the Euro. Political disillusion colours his message throughout.

This strongly argued and learned book focuses on the contradictory meanings attached to British socialism. Public ownership, workers' power, planning, equality, the "alternative economic strategy," "supply-side socialism", are all consigned to the dustbin of history. Rival diagnoses by Tawney and Laski, Durbin and Jay, Crosland and Gaitskell, are laid waste. Tony Crosland is given an especially fearful battering for his analysis of capitalism and the "conundrums" of his gospel of equality.

Practitioners of socialism are also demolished wholesale. They illustrated the contradictions of managing capitalism while claiming to abolish it. Dell especially debunks Attlee as premier for mismanaging the basics, like choosing ministers or timing elections, and being useless at economics. Gaitskell and Wilson fare little better; the Callaghan era believed that "the more Britain borrowed, the more socialist it could be"; while Foot and Kinnock are windbags almost beneath contempt.

The only politician to receive a bouquet is, surprisingly, Nye Bevan, for imagination and excitement, despite a regrettable tendency to "Welsh oratory". Beyond Labour's ranks, anyone advocating state planning of the economy is mercilessly hammered - Keynes for ignoring inflation and the global aspects of capitalism; Conservatives like Macmillan or Heath for giving the shibboleths of planning a "life-support system" ; Jenkins and the SDP, centrist theorists such as Marquand, Hutton and Giddens for trying to resurrect the old illusions.

All sought to keep alive an insular, protectionist theory, "a way of shutting out the world" that neglected inflation and price stability. Not a God that failed, but a Lazarus who wouldn't lie down.

The memory of this combative intellectual would not be best honoured by de mortuis pieties. Edmund Dell's book is one-sided and dogmatic to a degree that frustrates its purpose. Revealingly, his model was George Dangerfield's account of pre-1914 Liberalism, a parody of history for all its superficial brio.

Democratic socialists are variously attacked for paying heed to the electors (Dell is sensitive at being called "a political innocent" by Callaghan), or coming to electoral grief for the sake of principle. He emphasises Attlee's defeat in 1951, but omits that Labour then polled its highest ever vote, notably higher than the victorious Tories. He bypasses the grotesque imbalances of Thirties capitalism that affronted economists like Durbin and Jay, and the manifest successes of planning during the war. He derides the pursuit of planning in post-1945 Britain but ignores the achievements of the Monnet Plan in France.

He argues alternatively that Attlee's claim to have produced full employment was false, or else that full employment was wrongly defined and a mistaken objective anyway. The NHS was just a burden on a heavily indebted economy.

This catalogue of failure glides over periods of Labour success - post-devaluation achievements under Cripps and later Jenkins, 20 months of sustained growth under Callaghan. It is like a cricket historian emphasising that Don Bradman usually got out in the end, omitting that he often scored a double century first.

By starting the book, effectively, in 1918 not 1900, Dell misses the range of libertarian movements from which Labour emerged. Instead, he focuses remorselessly on socialism as public ownership. This emphasis is distorted. Nationalisation was a dominant idea only in the years from 1937 to 1947 (and later in the "suicide note" manifesto of 1983). For both Gaitskell and Bevan, in fact, the preferred model was the mixed economy.

It is never explained why intelligent politicians became socialists, or why millions of voters could endorse Labour's "cul de sac". The good historian gives way to the hanging judge. Will Hutton is condemned for "taking economics too seriously" and seeing it as a science; yet that weakness frequently emerges here. Dell seems unaware of the class polarisation that disfigured 20th-century Britain, and its impact on equality, economic power, and the sense of community.

If socialism is now in remission, capitalism is no longer capitalism either, but a socialised, corporate version far different from the time when Labour arose, especially in Dell's favoured Europe. This powerful book should be widely debated. But its unrelentingly pessimistic tone is self-defeating, and not perhaps the best legacy for so humane and gifted a comrade. KM