Family, Faith and Flag: Progressives Are Constantly Urged to Look Forward. but Nostalgia Has Long Been Part of the Radical Political Tradition, along with Values That Now Strike Us as Conservative

By Sandbrook, Dominic | New Statesman (1996), April 4, 2011 | Go to article overview

Family, Faith and Flag: Progressives Are Constantly Urged to Look Forward. but Nostalgia Has Long Been Part of the Radical Political Tradition, along with Values That Now Strike Us as Conservative


Sandbrook, Dominic, New Statesman (1996)


Not so long ago, few people outside the academic world had heard of Maurice Glasman. Since the turn of the year, however, when he was unexpectedly ennobled by Ed Miliband, the London Metropolitan University lecturer has been much discussed and even hailed as the "intellectual godfather" of a new kind of left-wing thinking.

To win again in England, argue Glasman and others like him, Labour needs to look back to before 1945, to a time before the left fell in love with big government, and to a forgotten "conservative socialism that places family, faith and work at the heart of a new politics of reciprocity, mutuality and solidarity". Just as Phillip Blond's short-lived "Red Tory" boom captured the imagination of commentators a couple of years ago, so what Glasman calls "Blue Labour" has become the subject of admiring features, including a special edition of BBC Radio 4's Analysis that was broadcast on 21 March.

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Like many other intellectual exercises in self-renewal, Glasman's vision, which strives to capture a sense of Englishness amid the hurly-burly of globalisation, has something deeply backward-looking about it (see profile, page 34). The narrow political self-interest is hardly surprising. Between 1997 and 2010, as David Miliband noted in a strikingly Glasmanesque piece for this magazine last summer, Labour lost four million English voters and 137 English MPs. By the time Gordon Brown faced the electorate, the party had lost the ability to talk to the people it once took for granted--not just aspirational Middle England, but also thousands of white working-class people in cities who looked instead to the Conservatives or the British National Party, or stayed at home. Once again, Labour is in danger of turning into a party of the industrial north and the Celtic fringe.

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Beyond that, however, Glasman's emphasis on looking back seems eminently familiar. Talking to the BBC, Roy Hattersley dismissed Blue Labour as an exercise in mere nostalgia, mocking "the idea of Arcadian England, the idea that there was some mythical time when we all loved each other". And yet, contrary to what we might think, nostalgia has long been a central part of the left-wing political tradition. Despite the forward-looking, modernising connotations of the name, "progressives" have enjoyed looking back. As early as 1883, Henry Hyndman, the founder of the Social Democratic Federation and populariser of Marxism, insisted that he saw himself as working in a distinctly English radical tradition dating back to the Peasants' Revolt, the Wars of the Roses and the 16th-century Commotion Time uprisings. "Tyler, Cade, Ball, Kett ..." he wrote, "read to me like sound English names: not a foreigner in the whole batch. They all held opinions which our capitalist-landlord House of Commons would denounce as direct plagiarism from 'foreign revolutionists'. We islanders have been revolutionists, however, and will be again, ignorant as our capitalists are of the history of the people."

Hyndman made an unlikely heir to the English radical tradition. The son of a rich businessman, he attended Trinity College, Cambridge and played cricket for Sussex, making him probably the only Marxist to have been a first-class right-handed batsman. He funded the Social Democrats almost single-handedly, their fortunes waxing and waning with his investments. A staunch anti-capitalist, he was also a committed patriot, his support for the First World War horrifying many of his colleagues. He stood for parliament five times, losing on every occasion, not least because he alienated voters by bombarding them with Virgil--in the original Latin. Even so, his example has echoed down the decades.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the Marxist historians EP Thompson and Christopher Hill celebrated "the long and tenacious revolutionary tradition of the British commoner", stretching from the Lollards to the Levellers and on to the Chartists and the suffragettes. …

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