Tony Crosland, the Future of Socialism and New Labour: Kevin Jefferys Examines a Publication of Seminal Influence on the Postwar Labour Party

Article excerpt

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Anthony Crosland's The Future of Socialism (1956). The power of Crosland's book--a mixture of economics, political theory and policy proposals--was such that it continues to resonate. In February 1997, almost 20 years to the day after his death, leading figures on the left--including former Prime Minister Jim Callaghan and shadow Chancellor Gordon Brown--gathered in London to celebrate Crosland's life and work, and to consider the relevance of his ideas to New Labour's 'project'. Gordon Brown addressed the assembled company and outlined a programme of reforms, soon to be embarked upon as Blair swept to power at the 1997 election, which he hoped did 'justice to Tony Crosland's intellectual and political memory'. So what is the enduring appeal of Crosland, and how does his legacy relate to the problems faced by New Labour?

The Book

Crosland became a Labour MP for South Gloucestershire in 1950 and soon established a reputation as a serious intellectual in politics. The Future of Socialism, published in 1956 when he was still in his thirties, proved to be his magnum opus--and the chief reason why he is still admired today. In spite of the postwar improvements that came with Attlee's welfare state, social distress continued to be widespread in 1950s Britain and class divisions were entrenched. The core of the book contained Crosland's ideas for future policy. As well as continuing to improve welfare services such as the National Health Service, he hoped to see a social revolution achieved through egalitarian reforms, notably to the education system.

Labour left-wingers, especially followers of Nye Bevan, were outraged by Crosland's assertion that 1940s-style nationalisation was 'wholly irrelevant' to the development of a more equal society. But in general the book received glowing reviews. It was lauded as an exciting attempt to update socialism as Britain entered a new age of affluence. Crosland became the acknowledged high priest of Labour revisionism, charting a way forward for all those who favoured Keynesian economics and egalitarian reform.

The Future of Socialism had both an immediate and a longer-term impact. The author's clear distinction between means and ends meant he provided flexibility for policies to change while keeping the goal of greater equality in mind. Crosland's work also stood the test of time because it remained one of few books that put Labour aspirations into a coherent framework. Other sections of the party--before and since--have failed to provide anything comparable.

The Career

The Future of Socialism provided a springboard for what seemed certain to be a glittering political career. But it never quite happened. The unexpected death in 1963 of Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell--a close ally of Crosland--was a huge blow to the revisionist cause. Under Gaitskell's successor and arch-enemy, Harold Wilson, Crosland was confined to a series of middle-ranking ministerial posts after 1964. He never fully overcame the suspicions of Wilson, and was bitterly disappointed to be passed over in favour of Roy Jenkins for the post of Chancellor in 1967.

Amidst the recriminations that followed Labour's loss of power in 1970, the revisionist wing of the party began to disintegrate. Crosland alienated himself from many of his natural supporters when he refused to follow Jenkins and the minority of Labour MPs who backed Edward Heath's move to secure British entry to the European Community. By the time Wilson scraped back into office in 1974 Crosland had become almost a one-man champion of egalitarian socialism. In the face of economic turbulence, he was increasingly criticised for assuming too readily that economic growth would permit uninterrupted social advance.

Although he was promoted by Wilson's successor Jim Callaghan to become Foreign Secretary in 1976, Crosland very soon found himself at loggerheads with the Chancellor, Denis Healey, during the International Monetary Fund crisis. …