When Anthony Crosland was in the cabinet, he trained his children to interrupt dinner parties with the words “the prime minister is on the telephone” when Match of the Day was about to the start. He would retreat to another room, where, under the guise of talking politics, he would watch the football highlights.
That feels almost unimaginable now, not least because a modern cabinet minister would need to cajole his children into calling his mobile from another room if they were looking to pull off the same trick.
But it also feels remote because the idea of a social democrat getting that near to the corridors of power in Britain feels like the stuff of history books – or science fiction. It was Tony Judt who coined the term “defensive social democracy” to describe how social democrats went from increasing the frontiers of the state to merely seeking to protect the gains of their predecessors. Now social democracy is on the defensive on two fronts, against the right and the left, whether that is within the established social democratic party or without in the shape of a populist challenger.
Just as defensive social democracy has proved an electorally unconvincing posture, it has, thus far, failed to convince internally. For Britain’s social democrats, their best-case scenario has been internal victory via a backroom deal and external triumph thanks to a Brexit-induced recession.
The social democrat’s theme tune has become a funeral dirge. To the right: a picture of public services in at best a state of disrepair and at worst on the brink of destruction. To the left: a warning of right-wing government without opposition and without end.
Unsurprisingly, that grisly picture has found few buyers. For social democracy to recover against its enemies within and without, it needs to recover its own sense of hope.
Hope and energy are in plentiful supply in Crosland’s work. But they also contain something more important than hope: ambition.
Crosland set out a series of rallying cries for Labour’s next term in office: “abolish Lord Chamberlain [who then had the power to veto any new play from being performed in Britain], abolish divorce laws, bring flagellation back into sex, have open air cafes open all night”. A government which had achieved all that alone would have done more than enough to ensure its place in history – and although Crosland was not a natural ally of Labour’s next prime minister, Harold Wilson, under his government, it was very much ‘mission accomplished’ as far as that list was concerned: censorship of the theatres halted in 1968. Divorce reform 1969. Wilson’s government found time, too, to usher in Britain’s last great era of municipal housebuilding and to found the Open University.
Yes, “open air cafes open all night” had to wait for another Labour prime minister, Tony Blair, who in his best moments borrowed liberally from the Crosland playbook. But it wasn’t a bad record, all told.
Although a promise to restore flagellation to the bedroom is unlikely to trigger a social democratic revival – though it might, in more fraught times for the Tory party, have triggered a wave of defections from the Conservatives to Labour – the vaulting ambition of Crosland, and the sense that redistribution must start with financial transfers but it should not end there, hold the key to a renaissance.
The national calamity of Britain’s Brexit vote has, among other things, thrown the future of both Scotland and Northern Ireland into doubt, handed the left perhaps its greatest defeat in a century, and put the British economy on the brink. But it has also put life into the social democratic project once more.
Austerity – always a political stick to hit Labour and reduce the size of the state, rather than an economic strategy – is no more, with the government’s fiscal targets abandoned and the realisation that, to weather the storm, even a Conservative government will have to borrow money and build.
Although there is a world of difference between the stimulus offered by Theresa May – airport expansion and cuts to business rate versus housebuilding and green energy – revived Croslandite ambition offers a way out of a mere bidding war.
Just as man cannot live by bread alone, Crosland recognised that social democracy had to offer not just new houses but houses that people wanted to live in, calling for “statues in the centre of new housing estates, better designed new street lamps and telephone kiosks and so on ad infinitum”. That sense of boundless ambition, and beauty in public life, are the key to a social democratic revival.
The telephone kiosks are probably a non-starter though.