MacIntyre Radio Talk

I’ve just posted the text of Alasdair MacIntyre’s 1968 radio broadcast, “The Strange Death of Social Democratic England” below the fold. It’s not especially well-known, but it’s interesting for all kinds of reasons, and, like everything he’s ever written, it’s a good read.

The most striking piece of news about Britain recently has aroused practically no comment. There are now over half a million unemployed, more than there have been in any June since the war, and since March the average increase in the number of unemployed each month has been 20,000. These facts are surely striking enough in themselves, but when we add to them another fact, that this unemployment has been deliberately created by the Government, we ought all of us surely to be a little more astonished and appalled than we are. Every previous Labour Government regarded rising unemployment as a defeat, as a sign that its policy was not working or that it had chosen the wrong policy. This is the first Labour Government which must regard rising unemployment as a victory for its policies, as a sign that they are working in the way that the Chancellor predicted that they would work. Left-wing critics of Labour Governments have often felt able to accuse them of pursuing not socialist but Keynesian economic policy – a criticism which pays a quite undeserved compliment to former Labour Chancellors and at the same time quite gratuitously insults Keynes. But Mr Jenkins is our first Labour Chancellor whose policies would even have been intelligible and acceptable to those as yet untouched by the Keynesian revolution, and it is well worth asking why Labour has made, and has felt able to make, this total change of attitude. If we are to do so, however, we must remember that a political change on this scale never occurs in isolation. Indeed, I want to go so far as to suggest that what we are seeing is a major change in the social scene, a change which might well be called ‘The Strange Death of Social Democratic England.’

It’s now over thirty years since George Dangerfield published a book called The Strange Death of Liberal England, in which he diagnoses in the years 1910-13 a fundamental change in the assumptions which defined British politics. One can summarize an important part of Dangerfield’s thesis by remembering that in the decades before 1910 politics had been played according to Liberal rules, even by the opponents of Liberalism. And then those whom Liberalism excluded or pretended did not exist suddenly rose around it on all sides: trade-unionists in militant strike action, suffragettes, Irish nationalists, Irish Unionists. What would have happened if the German Emperor had not rescued England from internal strife by kindly invading Belgium is a great unanswerable question. But the central moral is clear. When the parliamentary system cannot express the major social conflicts of an age, then those conflicts will be expressed not only outside but against that system. It’s some of the consequences of this truth that I want to explore now.

I’ve suggested that if the years from 1910 to 1913 witnessed the strange death of Liberal England, then the years which we are living through now are witnessing the strange death of social democracy. The basic premises of social democracy were twofold. The first was that class-conflict was genuine, that in the market economy of classical capitalism the interests of the working class ran clean counter to those interests which relied upon the smooth working of the economic system. This premise social democrats shared with a variety of revolutionary socialists, whether Communists, syndicalists or anarchists. But they differed from all varieties of revolutionary socialists in holding that a second premise was true, namely that the political system of parliamentary democracy can at once contain and express that conflict. The classical social democratic belief is that the interests of the working class can be expressed by a political party which would both adhere to the conventions of parliamentary democracy and also accept the fact that the interests of the working class must conflict with the goals which dominate the economic system.

This belief was strongly expressed, for example, in the policies of the Labour Government of 1945-51; the goal of full employment was taken to have overriding importance, and so firmly was the importance of this goal imprinted that in the immediately succeeding years of Conservative rule the impossibility of not pursuing the goal of full employment was taken for granted. The Conservative claim even became that they too could achieve some of the basic goals of social democracy; the political game was being played according to social democratic rules. The contrast between Conservative Government in 1951-5 and Labour Government now could scarcely be sharper, for we are in a situation in which fully employment, the level of spending in the Welfare State and the growth of wages are all being sacrificed to those traditional gods of the British economic and commercial system, the exchange value of the pound sterling and the achievement of a surplus on our external trading figures. The political cost of this economic policy is the gradual disfranchisement of the working class, resulting from the insistence that the working class have no specific and special interests in conflict with the interests of others. Consider in this respect the operation of the prices and incomes policy.

The background to any consideration of the policy must be the grotesque degree of inequality which still exists in England. About 7 per cent of the population owns well over 80 per cent of all private wealth. The richest 1 per cent of those receiving incomes receive over 12 per cent of the total incomes received. Furthermore, there has been remarkably little change in recent decades in relative incomes as between different social classes. Middle-class people still often believe in the myth of a period of radical income redistribution during the war and the 1945-51 Labour Government. But no such redistribution occurred. We remain very much where we were in the 1930s, and what John Strachey wrote in 1956 has been true for the whole of this century: ‘Capitalism, it has turned out, is a Red Queen’s sort of country from the wage-earner’s point of view. They have to run very fast for a long time to keep in the same place relative to other classes.’

What the so-called prices and incomes policy does is at least to freeze and maintain this situation of inequality and perhaps to accentuate it. For because a variety of fringe benefits, of salary scales with automatic increments and the like, middle-class incomes simply are not subject to the same degree of restraint that working-class incomes are. Now in this situation of gross inequality, the only institutions which are available to the working class to express their special and conflicting interests turn out to be part of that trade union and Labour Party network in which power is held by those operating the very policies which ignore their interests. The Labour Party and the Labour Government have accepted definitions of political reality and political possibility according to which social democracy can no longer exist. And this is something genuinely new.

I am not saying, what some Marxists used to argue, that social democracy must be ineffective in all circumstances in a capitalist society. I am instead asserting that we must recognize that in the period form 1900 to 1955 in Britain, and in differing degrees elsewhere, social democracy could provide a viable expression for interests that the working class were able to recognize as their own. Where Communists have seen social democracy as betraying the interests of the workers, I am asserting that social democracy was often their authentic representative and voice. But the acceptance of the assumptions of the new technocratic growth-oriented capitalism by the British Labour Party has necessarily severed this link. For in the perspectives of that capitalism no allowance can be made for the special interests of the working class. It follows that the electoral prospects of the Labour Party must be in even graver doubt than they already appear to be. For, if I am right, what we are experiencing in the present run of by-elections is in some part not just another swing of the pendulum, a temporary dissatisfaction, but a permanent shift of the working class, perhaps not merely away from the Labour Party but even from the electoral system.

Yet radical as this is, it still remains at the political level: it scarcely merits the title ‘The Strange Death of Social Democratic England’, with its strong suggestion of the death of an entire social order. And the answer goes far beyond any merely political argument and concerns large changes in the values of society. During the social democratic period a new set of answers was given to the questions of what rights individuals have, of how they may legitimately claim their rights, and of what responsibilities the community has for the fate of individuals.

The particular institutions of the Welfare State, from Lloyd George’s social insurance scheme to Aneurin Bevan’s National Health Service, were the embodiment of a whole new social climate. For the first time the poor, the unemployed, the ill and the old were recognized as having equality of citizenship at an economic as well as at a political level. The consensus as to these new values was always very far from complete and it was the outcome of continuous struggle by radicals and socialists inside and outside the trade unions. But it was a consensus in striking contrast to the values of Victorian society, being a repudiation both of private paternalism and of the extension and values of the market into social life. Social democrats may, and often do, overrate the achievements of social democracy, but the rest of us ought not to underrate them. One way not to do this is to realize how the values of social democracy contrast not only with the values of the society that preceded it, but also with the values which have become established now.

I remarked at the outset that what is surprising is not merely the fact that the Government has been actively promoting the growth of unemployment, but also and above all the fact of the astonishing lack of response to its policies. This is important, for it is in the degree of response to political facts of this sort that we find one important clue to the values of a society; and silence may be the most significant response of all. What else are we silent and unresponsive about? Well-grounded predictions which have in fact been made that the collapse of the National Health Service is imminent would, one might have expected, have brought questions about the nature of that service to the centre of national discussions of social questions. They have not. We no longer treat welfare questions as important questions compared with questions about productivity. ‘Production for what?’ – the old social democratic inquiry, voiced for example by R. H. Tawney – is not heard.

A social order in which the values of welfare have been removed from those which the established consensus maintains, and in which the working class have been disfranchised from the political system, is one in which an increase in conflict has become inevitable. That increase is made all the more likely by two other facts. The first is a matter of the way in which political agreement over central goals among those within the established parliamentary system may leave those who cannot articulate their dissent, even on marginal issues, with no alternative but to break with that system; and this may as true of those who are not radicals as it is of the radical.

The strange death of Liberal England was the outcome of a system that could neither accommodate nor come to terms with the trade unions, the Irish or the suffragettes, conservative as many of the leaders of these in fact were. The strange death of social democracy has been accompanied by an unwillingness even to admit the existence of demands for local and regional self-government and of the degree of support which has emerged for Welsh and Scots Nationalism. Moreover, the equivalent to the old hysteria about trade-unionism is the new hysteria about unofficial strikes. The Prime Minister and Mr Ray Gunter have been all too willing to see strikes as led by, indeed devised by, Communists or Trotskyites or whatever. In fact, of course, what they see and what they fear in unofficial strikes is the resurgence of an independent working-class leadership. The most dangerous single threat to freedom in our society is the will to prevent unofficial strikes – that is, to prevent any direct expression of their interests by working-class people which goes beyond the limits set by established institutions.

A second factor which will exacerbate conflict is this. All government depends on the tacit consent of the governed. But it’s characteristic of our present-day society, in Britain at least, that government has continuously to appeal in a self-conscious and visible way to the governed, inviting them to collaborate in the operation of those very same social structures in which they are excluded from power. And in the course of doing this, government continuously promises what it cannot it fact perform. Government legitimates itself not merely through parliamentary elections, but through a continuous assurance by every political party, in power and out of power, of rights to employment, to education, to material prosperity, and so on. This deeply embedded appeal to and promise of rights has to coexist, not just with the present facts of inequality which I’ve described, but with a future in which inequalities of income and status must be maintained, if the economy is to flourish at least in terms that would be recognized by this Labour Government, or any feasible alternative in the parliamentary system. What people are promised as their rights will therefore not be performed. And working-class people will gradually learn that they are still to be excluded, and that in streamed comprehensive schools and expanded universities it will still be the case that all the advantages lie with the children of middle-class parents. If they learn also that no conventional political remedy can help them, then they will have the choice between a kind of non-political subservience that has been alien to them even at their most apathetic and a new politics of conflict. For my part, I hope that they learn both lessons fast, and if it is said that I’ve been presenting something akin not so much to a personal view as to a partisan political broadcast, let me point out that I am talking for and of a group that now has no party, the British working class.

— From a broadcast on BBC Radio Third Programme,
reprinted in the Listener, 4 July 1968
and then again in David Widgery, ed.,
The Left in Britain, 1956-1968
, pp.235-240.

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