Letter: The search for ideas to stimulate Labour's electoral resurgence

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The Independent Online
Sir: David Selbourne writes: 'The Labour Party, it should be noted, has a most particular name: a name that points directly to the work ethic . . .' Since he writes so unsparingly about others' 'maunderings', it is salutary to reflect on this phrase.

About a century ago, a German scholar called Weber published a study called The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. This was translated into English by Talcott Parsons and published after the First World War with an introduction by R. H. Tawney. Tawney later pursued the same theme in Religion and the Rise of Capitalism.

In the United States, to begin with, and later in other anglophone countries, vulgarisation of their ideas gave rise to the notion of 'the Protestant work ethic'.

Some time in the Sixties, I believe, an American novelist used the phrase 'the work ethic' without 'Protestant', but it did not become common currency until President Nixon used it in his Labour Day address in 1971 - a speech written, I am informed, by William Safire, now a right-wing commentator.

Studs Terkel picked up the President's reference as the epigraph for one of his books of interviews with common folk making a living in the United States. It has now become one of the strange and horrible phrases (like 'bottom line', 'sea change', 'in place' and 'address the issue') that clutter up discourse and never illuminate it.

I first noticed it in 1974, when one of my students at London Business School used it in an essay. I asked her what she meant by it. She meant the assumption that to be respectable you had to be employed.

Since then I have observed the phrase used to mean so many different things (or just to sound important) that I am obliged to conclude that it means nothing at all. What is obvious is that it has no connection with the Labour Party's choice of name at a time when the word 'ethic' as distinct from 'ethics' was unknown in English usage.

Yours faithfully,


Muthill, Perthshire

19 February