Power to the People: John Stuart Mill's Classic Treatise on Liberty, Published 150 Years Ago, Has Much to Teach an Intellectually Exhausted Left
Marquand, David, New Statesman (1996)
In the early months of 2009, the Labour Party was walking wounded. After the most comprehensive electoral humiliation in its entire history it is now walking dead. There are some parallels between Labour's condition now and the Conservatives' in the dying days of the Major government, but the differences are much more striking. John Major's Conservative Party was bitterly divided ideologically and emotionally. Labour today is ideologically inert and emotionally drained. The old divisions between Blairites and Brownites-which were, in any case, personal rather than ideological--have not quite disappeared, but they no longer matter. The New Labour "project", over which eager thirtysome-things enthused during Tony Blair's springtime as party leader, fizzled out years ago.
Enemies new and old have cast Gordon Brown as the scapegoat, but that merely shows that this is a culture of denial, in which the instinctive response to misfortune is to find someone else to blame. The Prime Minister does bear some of the responsibility for Labour's parlous state. He is too serious and too heavy on his feet for the glib inanities of popular politics in our time. But the notion that he is the sole author of the party's downfall is ludicrously--even contemptibly -wide of the mark.
The true culprit is the Labour Party itself. It is the vision of democratic politics which, above all, has shaped its statecraft since the early 1920s. This was a vision of centralised power, exercised by an enlightened and benevolent state on behalf of a grateful and largely passive citizenry. On the eve of the Second World War, the young Labour economist Evan Durbin summed up its essence in a striking passage. "The interests of the whole are sovereign over the interests of the part," he wrote. "To the centralised control of a democratic Community our livelihood and our security must be submitted." For one brilliant moment, it looked as if Blair might break with that inheritance, but it soon became clear that the changes he had forced down his party's throat had left its essence unaltered. Under New Labour, the Old Labour vision of politics and society was harnessed to new purposes, but it was recognisably the same vision. The enlightened state had become the camp follower of the global market instead of the would-be master of the national one. It no longer sought to equalise reward; it strove mightily, and with horrifying success, to make Britain a happy hunting ground for the world's super-rich. But it was the same state, legitimised by the same rhetoric. The whole was still sovereign over the parts; the individual was still duty-bound to submit to centralised communal control.
All this gives a special piquancy to the 150th anniversary of the publication of John Stuart Mill's immortal tract On Liberty, which falls this year. For the vision which has guided Labour for so long has patently collapsed. The enlightened and benevolent state has turned out to be remarkably unenlightened, while its approach to civil liberty becomes ever more malevolent. Not surprisingly, the citizenry are no longer grateful. As the furore over parliamentary expenses shows, the public mood veers from the contemptuous to the mutinous. Even before the credit crunch turned into the deepest economic crisis for 80 years, statist social and institutional engineering had run into the buffers. Now it is hopelessly discredited, as is the conception of democratic politics that went with it.
In words--though not, so far, in deeds--even the engineers are jumping ship. Labour ministers are searching feverishly for ways to reconnect the public to the political system. An elected second chamber, a more proportional electoral system and that old chestnut, a Bill of Rights and Responsibilities, are all on the table. Brown, the erstwhile Treasury micromanager, has announced his personal support for a written constitution and declared that democratic reform cannot be top-down. …