The aim of the rose

Gordon Brown on his new anthology of socialist writings
  • @OfficeGSBrown
IT WAS in 1963, when still a schoolboy, that I can first remember thinking of myself as Labour. But, as a Presbyterian Minister's son, my political awakening did not come from reading books or even listening to sermons. Instead, as I accompanied my father on his visits, I saw at first hand the pain of unemployment and the misery of poverty and squalor as the mining and textile industries collapsed in my home town. It was these experiences that first kindled my sense of social injustice.

But as I grew up, I discovered Tawney, then Tressell and Cole and other socialist texts which inspired me. And I found Blake in poetry, Potter in theatre, Lawrence in literature and the socialist leader James Maxton in Scottish history. All of these fuelled my growing passion and activism and reinforced my own practical political experiences.

Many of these influences form my contribution to Values, Visions and Voices, a new anthology of socialist thought which Tony Wright MP and Caroline Daniel have recently edited with me. It is a collection which appears at a particularly opportune time. Today, British socialism is rediscovering its roots. The Clause Four debate has coincided with a new interest in both our old values - of community, equality and freedom - and a new awareness of the relationship between principles and policies.

For the great truth that shines through our socialist anthology, spanning 50 authors and more than 100 years, is that while policies emerge and change with political circumstances, the principles of socialism endure. Today there is a better chance than ever before for British socialism to free itself from a century of misrepresentation.

In Vision, Values and Voices we make two departures from the approach of standard socialist anthologies of the past. First we have widened our scope from books and speeches to include film scripts, poetry, novels, and even songs. Our extracts include dialogue from "Boys From the Blackstuff", Dennis Potter's last interview, a poem by the father of Barbara Castle, and some of the work of the Welsh poet Idris Davies.

A few of our chosen pieces are not included, for reasons less to do with socialism than with capitalism. A publisher or two imposed predatory royalties for quotation even when told that the proceeds of the book were going to charity!

A second innovation broadened the collection by inviting MPs, and others, to suggest extracts from books or writing that had influenced them. In 1906, when a similar survey was done of new Labour MPs, the Labour Party's debt to Methodism rather than Marxism was first revealed. Today's MPs ranged more widely in their sources of inspirations. Many emphasised the contemporary, some even suggesting their own speeches. Others made choices as varied as Hunter S Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Berthold Brecht's poetry, and the Bible.

There are some unsurprising omissions. There are no extracts from the famous 1983 manifesto - "the longest suicide note in history" - or from speeches at the 1992 Sheffield Rally. The 1918 Scottish Labour manifesto with its commitment to prohibiting alcohol is probably best forgotten.

To most of our contributors, socialism is an ethical doctrine which distinguishes between enduring values - equality, democracy, freedom and community - and means - such as nationalisation - which have to be reappraised every generation. As we state, "Socialism has always been at root more an ethic of society than an economic doctrine."

That ethical basis of British socialism is the belief that individuals are co-operative and not just self-centred: that we thrive as part of a community in which we can play our full part and that we have talents and potential that cannot be fully realised in a free-market economy. But it is our commitment to equality that has been socialism's most enduring theme. In the Twenties, this meant, most of all, a determination to attack the evils of unemployment, the slums and squalor. By the Forties it was captured in the idea of new rights - to education, social security and employment, and, most of all, to health care irrespective of income or wealth. In the Fifties, the emphasis shifted again.

Now, after a decade or more in which rising poverty and injustice have failed to bring economic success, we need a new policy agenda to meet the challenges of a new century. Governments can no longer try to deal with the consequences of poverty and inequality through the benefits and tax system alone. The scale of the problem is too great. Instead we now understand that a truly equal society means tackling the causes of inequality, by ensuring economic, educational and employment opportunities for all.

Tackling deprivation, social breakdown and economic failure and demonstrating that fairness and economic progress do go hand in hand are the biggest challenges the socialist movement face as we move to a new century. That is why making the case for equality is at the centre of Labour's new socialist agenda.

! `Values, Visions and Voices: an Anthology of Socialism' is published by Mainstream at pounds 14.99.