The British centre-left, Blue Labour and tradition: a response to Stuart White

In response to Stuart White's critique of Blue Labour, Robert Tinker proposes that the centre-left adopt a dynamic understanding of tradition
Robert Tinker
9 June 2011
OurKingdom's debate on Blue Labour

This article is part of our debate on Blue Labour

Is there a centre-left understanding of tradition to challenge the widespread assumption that this concept is synonymous with conservatism? As the Labour Party and the centre-left more generally seek social, political and economic re-orientation in a world transformed by the financial crisis, this question is a pertinent one.  It is all the more so, however, as new currents of Labour thinking begin to emerge, particularly those around 'eclectic...father of Blue Labour' Maurice Glasman. As the colour association indicates, Glasman and associated thinkers such as Jonathon Rutherford locate the bases of centre-left renewal in small-c conservative thought, partly constitutive of Labour's intellectual heritage. As Rutherford's recent Soundings essay declares,"The future is conservative".

Central to this mode of thinking is the claim that, in contrast to the New Labour years, there is political value in tradition. But is the attempt to balance the left's radicalism and modernism with an understanding of the world informed by the past not oxymoronic, or worse, contradictory and dangerous? Related to this is the more general worry highlighted by Stuart White in his Republican critique of Blue Labour, that in the absence of new radical alternatives the conservative critique of Labour's politics of ownership and the state may end up ceding more to Edmund Burke than Tom Paine.

These anxieties are well noted and potentially problematic, but while it may not eliminate them completely, a deeper understanding of the genealogy and uses of tradition as a political concept may go some distance toward allaying them. In particular, the centre-left should move away from a simplistic and static understanding of tradition, which has its origins in Burke, toward a more rewarding conception as 'lived' social practice, the most significant contemporary advocate of which is Alaisdair MacIntyre. MacIntyre's dynamic understanding entails contestation as to the contemporary application of the goods embodied by a tradition, and provides a framework in which to combine a belief in a better future society with the inherited wisdom and knowledge of the past.

On Glasman's diagnosis, the Labour Party's contemporary mission has been governed by a scientific rationality following the publication of Crosland's revisionist classic The Future of Socialism (1956). Thus sown by the Croslandites, this rationalism bloomed between 1997 and 2010, eliding Labour's moral concern with the harmful effects of capitalism. The result has been to forget the ethics of the Common Good articulated by thinkers such as Tawney, and narrow its focus to a realm of "general transferable concepts – such as justice and fairness – that would apply in any country, society and terrain" (Glasman, 2010: 37-8).

Following the electoral defeat of 2010, all but the most dogmatic architects of New Labour agree that the Party requires a systematic re-examination of the values and assumptions that underpinned its recent governing model. In particular, the relationship that obtained between the state, market and civil society. For Blue Labour, the Labour tradition is best characterised not by the universalistic abstractions of equality or rights, but as one concerned with the local anxieties of social groups, and the rituals and symbols that furnish the life-world of those groups with meaning and honour. As White notes, the departure from 'moral abstraction' is central to the Blue Labour perspective, and in some respects the implications of this motivation are elusive. The most fruitful way to conceptualise the relationship between people's 'concrete grievances' and anxieties on the one hand, and the conceptual abstractions of equality and fairness on the other will be one of content to form, rather than binary opposition. The departure from moral abstraction seeks to rectify the singular focus on these categories at the expense of the lived experience that invests them with meaning.

Notwithstanding the empirical question of whether this is an accurate depiction of the British radical tradition, we might ask with White whether it is possible to pursue a dialectic of 'Blue' and 'New' in a satisfactory way? The synthesis of which, as he notes, may not result in more sophisticated egalitarian thinking, but collapse into a right-wing thesis without a balancing left antithesis. This issue, of how and to what ends it is possible to appropriate tradition(s), manifests itself on a more general level also, and is captured by Glasman when he points to the received wisdom that "Tradition is synonymous with conservatism, an inability to adjust to new circumstances and an acceptance of prejudice" (Glasman, 2010: 39).

In conservative thought, tradition has an inherent value to the extent that it embodies the core features of the conservative 'disposition': pleasure in the familiar and a hostility toward change premised on a priori reason and the hypothetical. The conservative critique of liberal and socialist 'rationalism' –  that propositions and axioms of a general nature can simply be mapped on to any discrete set of circumstances – derives from an empiricism illustrated in Burke's 'Letter to a member of the national assembly', which notes that "I must see with my own eyes…touch with my own hands...before I could venture to suggest any political project whatsoever". 

For the conservative, when one acts within a tradition "what is done is done for a reason and where the reason lies not in what will be but what has been" (Scruton, 1980: 40). This deep respect confers legitimacy onto received social and political arrangements on the basis of their having been tested. This means preserving the hierarchies and concentrations of power and authority internal to such traditions as carriers of tacit wisdom in their familiarity. As such their reform should only occur in the face of necessity, as opposed to innovation guided by "generalities like 'the public good' or 'social justice' " (Oakeshott, 1991: 190).

New Labour's scientistic framework could never accommodate a category such as tradition. But equally how can a centre-left, defined by its radicalism and driving belief in change for the good consistently accommodate this notion which sanctions inequality, entrenches prejudice and legitimises authority on the basis of inheritance? It would seem tradition is unacceptably patrician for a centre-left whose goals remain a more egalitarian society, free from relations of domination.

To do this involves involves discarding the widely received static view of tradition in favour of a dynamic understanding. It is an understanding central to the work of Alasdair MacIntyre, formulated principally in After Virtue (1981) and Whose Justice? Which Rationality? (1988). When understood as dynamic, the social practices inherited through tradition manifest themselves in the present by orientating a group towards certain sets of future possibilities. Against the prescriptive nature of the static perspective, this is a participative view whereby engaging with inherited bodies of thought and social practice resembles an act of composition – "To be an adherent of a tradition is always to enact some further stage in the development of one’s tradition" (MacIntyre, 1988: 11).

We are inescapably encumbered with the weight of tradition, but this does not require dogmatic subservience to it. Rather, "a living tradition historically extended, socially embodied part about the goods which constitute a tradition" (1981: 222). (Glasman is alert to this. See his 'Labour as a radical tradition' in which it is argued that in a lived tradition "we identify with its defeats and victories, successes and failures"). This argument will determine how and why the tradition should develop, which features should be preserved in continuity, revived from the margins, or indeed abandoned altogether. Tradition should never be immune from critique, as this is what sustains its dynamism, and prevents calcification into the museum pieces of the conservative world-view. 

That the state remains a virtuous feature of the good society, while recognising the negative effects of New Labour's centralising managerialism are consistent on this basis. Returning to the traditions of Labour thought and its ethical concern with community, the public good, and the forms of civil life external to the state and market will have to accompany hard thinking about what a societally acceptable kind of capitalism is, and how the state can and should operate. Only by engaging with political traditions in a dynamic way can this be achieved. And there is a rich intellectual heritage for the centre-left to draw on – after the financial crisis Tawney's claim that corporations should be "judged by the success with which they contribute to a social purpose"could not be more germane (Tawney, 1920: 24).

Recognising the value of tradition, whether forgotten as in the case of Labour or extant, does not mean acquiescing to a rigid set of prescriptions, but sustaining the dynamism of inherited social practices and concerns through dialogue and debate about their persisting goods – only when the contents of a tradition are immune to debate does this inheritance become ossified, static and unhealthy.

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