Choose Freedom: The Future for Democratic Socialism by Roy Hattersley - review by Paul Foot

Paul Foot

The Great Leap Backward

Choose Freedom: The Future for Democratic Socialism


Michael Joseph 356pp £12.95 order from our bookshop

Commenting on an argument in the Labour Party some years ago as to who should write the manifesto Frank Johnson once asked: ‘who should read it?’ It was a good question, since nothing written by human hand is quite as dull as a British Party political manifesto. Many months ago, as a duty to the Literary Review, I fought my way through Dr David Owen’s latest book, an interminable manifesto for the SDP. It patched together a lot of what were called ‘practical policies’ which had nothing in common save their practicality. The thing was uninspiring and tedious beyond belief.

Roy Hattersley’s book is of an altogether different order; and not merely because, unlike his former Cabinet Colleague Owen, he enjoys the English language and writes fluently. Roy Hattersley’s first chapter is called ‘In Praise of Ideology.’ He argues that Labour cannot succeed unless it sets its policies in a framework of socialist and egalitarian ideas. It can no longer expect to get office as the ‘Mugwump Party’, promising everything to everyone, if only because that job is now done so expertly by the Alliance Parties.

So Roy Hattersley sets out the basic political aim which inspires him: freedom through equality. He is a fan of R H Tawney, and indeed by far the best bits of his advocacy of Equality are quotations from Tawney’s classic of that name. Equality, he repeats, is not sameness but its opposite. Indeed, equality of reward, economic equality, is the only framework which guarantees the development of the different characteristics of all human beings. The ‘freedom’ claimed by the wealthy – to send a child to a private school, for instance – is meaningful freedom for a minority, and therefore a denial of freedom to the majority. Moreover, the old argument that the poor need the rich, and benefit from them, masks the much more obvious truth that they are robbed by them.

These are all old Tawneyite notions, and no ne the worse for that. Roy Hattersley brings them up to date by flaying the ‘new libertarians’ of the Far Right, the bumptious cub tycoons who quote Hayek, read the Spectator, buy Guinness (the shares, not the stout) and, as Roy Hattersley puts it, ‘like to dress up greed to look like an ethical principle.’

What, Roy Hattersley asks, have eight years of the freedoms preached by these ‘libertarians’ got us? Less production, mass unemployment; private monopolies instead of state monopolies; poverty at the bottom and corruption at the top, both on a scale which was unimaginable even ten years ago. All this reads powerfully enough, even if it is often interrupted by Mr Hattersley’s strenuous efforts to establish his scholarship.

But there is a vital weakness in it. Here is an example on page 50: ‘In the ten years since 1976 the number of families below the DHSS poverty line has steadily increased…’

True enough. Shocking enough. And in the first three years of that process, Roy Hattersley was in the Cabinet. Indeed, in the 22 years since Roy Hattersley went to Parliament, the Labour Party, committed throughout to egalitarian notions of the kind he sets out in this book, has been in office for half the time. Yet in the climax of that process, from 1976 to 1979, when Roy Hattersley finally made it to the top, the gap between rich and poor, for the first time since the war, started to widen.

Why? Search this book and you will find little bits of answers. On page 105, for instance, you can read: ‘Society remains unequal and unfree largely because the privileged have held on to their privileges by exploiting their entrenched position.’ And again, (page 217) there is a reference to ‘the ability of the rich and powerful to manipulate even governments.’ And on page 227, ‘the financial institutions set up within the capitalist system cater for that system’

All this is getting worse very quickly. The concentration of ‘business’ power, as Roy Hattersley shows with some convincing figures, is enormous, even compared with ten years ago. A hundred firms effectively control more than half the economy and ‘mergermania’ is increasing by the hour. The ‘entrenched position’ of ‘the capitalist system’ is far stronger now, and far more likely to ‘manipulate’ apparently hostile Hattersley-led governments than their predecessors.

If Roy Hattersley is serious about equality, he surely needs more drastic and draconian measures than those deployed by previous Labour governments who failed to achieve it. He needs to storm the ‘entrenched’ positions with far more ferocity than he showed in the late 1970s.

Instead, when it comes to measures and methods, he takes a giant step back even from the tentative positions of his ideological forbears: Hugh Gaitskell, Evan Durbin and Anthony Crosland. All were (as Roy Hattersley is) on the Right of the Labour Party. All had a strong commitment to equality. All had assumed that a Labour government must be in control in order to carry out even the most marginal reforms. Gaitskell wrote (in a passage quoted here by Hattersley): ‘The public must be the master of industry.’ Durbin was even tougher: ‘To the centralised control of a democratic community our livelihood and our security must be submitted.’ And even Crosland assumed (before he took office) that in office he must hold the economic reins.

Roy Hattersley makes no such bid. ‘In a more realistic age’ he writes ‘we have to limit our aspirations to curbing the City’s power and to directing its enthusiasms in a socially desirable direction.’ This means, for instance, ‘a tougher monopolies and merger policy.’ Roy Hattersley should have a look at a very good book called The Labour Government and British Industry (1955), one of whose two authors was his predecessor as Shadow Chancellor, Peter Shore. That book shows how the 1945–1951 Labour government ended up in hock to private enterprise; and in particular how its commitment to a stronger monopolies and merger policy was reduced first to a whimper and then a farce. He might also read his own book and discover how the last Labour government’s demands of Tate and Lyle when it swallowed Manbre and Garton were coolly ignored, and how a mighty snook was cocked by the victorious monopolists at the Ministers (perhaps including Roy Hattersley) who complained.

There is nothing wrong with socialist ideas. Indeed, their central thrust – the bankruptcy of the old class system – is stronger now than ever. What lacks convict ion is the ability of Labour governments to carry them out. If former Labour governments, backed by full employment and strong unions, were un able to deliver freedom through equality, what real prospect is there of Roy Hattersley and his colleagues doing so? The final chapter is, necessarily I suppose, a stirring peroration about recapturing the spirit of 1945 with a new ideological commitment. ‘The lack of an ideological foundation’ Roy Hattersley writes ‘lay at the root of the election failures of 1979 and 1983.’

I doubt it. I expect those defeats had a lot to do with the failure of the past Labour governments to carry through even the little they promised; and that as those failures vanish into the past, it becomes more and more possible for those few Labour politicians who had any socialist ideas in their youth, to get them out of the cupboard, dust them down, and present them as ‘relevant’ and ‘inspiring.’ Sadly, I guess that the mood of the electorate is far closer to the gloom of 1935 than to the ‘new dawn’ of 1945 which Roy Hattersley tries to conjure up.

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