David Marquand discusses the post-election political terrain

Political thinker, historian and OurKingdom regular David Marquand discusses republicanism, the future of the left and the Labour party and the forthcoming referendum on AV.
David Marquand
23 September 2010

The latest edition of the quarterly journal Renewal features an interview with political thinker, historian and OurKingdom regular David Marquand. Speaking to Ben Jackson, Marquand discusses republicanism, the future of the left and the Labour party and the forthcoming referendum on AV. Here we feature extracts from the original interview - you can read the full version in the latest edition of Renewal out this week.  


In your most recent book, Britain Since 1918, you endorse republicanism as your favoured theory of politics. What do you mean by republicanism and what does it offer that, say, liberalism or socialism doesn’t offer?


That’s a tough question. I think there are certain philosophical and rhetorical themes in the republican tradition which are very powerful.

One of them is suspicion of arbitrary power. Quentin Skinner makes this point very strongly; and his writings have had a great deal of influence on me, particularly his Liberty before Liberalism. Skinner says, in effect, that what Isaiah Berlin calls ‘negative freedom’ is crucial, but that freedom from arbitrary power, from domination, is equally important. That is an immensely fertile notion and of course it doesn’t just apply to political power. It applies just as much to economic power. A classic example is the unaccountable power of the banks and hedge funds that procured the crash of 2008-9. So that’s one vitally important and highly relevant strand in republicanism.

The second aspect of the republican tradition which is still hugely relevant to British society here and now is its emphasis on republican self-respect as contrasted with monarchical servility. British political culture is still saturated with servility: look at the Honours Lists, with their Commanderships, Dameships and Orders of a non-existent empire. The themes that crop up in Milton’s later prose writings, when he was trying desperately to stop the return of the monarchy, still resonate strongly with me. One of his targets was what he called ‘bowing and cringing’. Well, you can find plenty of bowing and cringing in present-day Britain.

A third aspect of republicanism is its emphasis on self-government. G. D. H. Cole’s Guild Socialism, the dream of workers’ control in industry, and the Cooperative Movement have all been democratic republican in that sense. Central to the republican ideal is the proposition that the people should take control of their own destinies by and through democratic activity. John Stuart Mill is a complex and in some ways ambiguous figure, but his insight that democratic self-government has to be learned, through strenuous activity in what he called ‘the business of life’, has had a huge impact on me.

Now these historical figures can’t tell us what to do now. You can’t go to the shelf and say here’s Milton, here’s Tom Paine, here’s John Stuart Mill, here’s G. D. H. Cole, here’s The Miners’ Next Step, and they mean we should do this, this and this today. Of course not. Republicanism is not so much a doctrine as a cast of mind. But the insights of the past can still teach us a lot.

You just mentioned the syndicalist classic, The Miners’ Next Step. You wouldn’t say, for example, that the trade union militancy of the 1970s that turned you off the Labour Party was an example of ordinary people seeking republican control over their lives?

Yes and no. Nothing works out in life in a simple, straightforward way. The story of the trade unions in the 1970s is both very revealing and very sad. There was an element of democratic republicanism in the trade unionism of that period, but there was also an element of manipulation, ballot fixing, intimidation and even mob rule, and there was a very considerable element of self-deception as well.

What really destroyed the unions’ claim to represent the working class in the 1970s was their unwillingness to accept that wage inflation was not just damaging economically, but that it was also cruelly unjust: that it hurt the weak and vulnerable for whom they claimed to speak as well as an impersonal abstraction called ‘the economy’. An incomes policy could have been a vehicle for a more democratic republican political economy, but the British union movement was so fragmented and rivalrous that again and again they couldn’t step up to the plate and deliver one. Was that inevitable? I don’t know, but that’s the way it worked out.

In the 1970s, when I was a Labour backbencher, the trade unions were behaving in an absolutely dotty way. In my constituency, the first miners’ strike – the strike of 1972 – was, in a way, democratic republican. It was a product of a spontaneous revolt at the grass-roots against perceived injustice. I’m not so sure about the 1974 strike. And then in the 1980s we witnessed the extraordinary spectacle of Arthur Scargill refusing to hold a strike ballot because he was afraid he would lose it. The Notts miners who carried on working because their ballot went against a strike were much better democratic republicans than Arthur Scargill.

The AV referendum

How do you think the left should approach any Coalition-sponsored referendum on AV?

The political dynamics of the referendum will be very interesting. Cameron is bound to campaign for the status quo. You cannot have a referendum on a big constitutional change in which the Prime Minster of the country says nothing. Wilson just about managed to do that in the Europe referendum in 1975, but that was a very different animal. The debate really did cross party lines; and Wilson could and did leave it to Heath and Jenkins to lead the ‘Yes’ campaign. And anyway at the very end he came off the fence. I don’t think Cameron could get away with that. So we’ll have the Prime Minster and the Deputy Prime Minister on different sides in this campaign and a lot will depend on who wins. I don’t know how much they’ve thought about this but you can see obvious fissures emerging.

Looming over the Liberal Democrats are the twin spectres of liberal unionism and national liberalism. The more successful the coalition is at hanging together, the less reason there is to vote Liberal Democrat at the next election. If the referendum fails, it might be very hard to keep the Liberal Democrats in the coalition.

I’m sure there will be an active debate during the referendum campaign. All sorts of people will get involved; there may well be rival umbrella organisations as there were in the 1970s. It seems pretty clear that sections of the Labour Party will be campaigning for a ‘no’ vote alongside most of the Conservative Party. It is impossible to predict how things will turn out. But one thing seems clear. A defeat for AV would set back the cause of electoral reform for a very long time. For the democratic republican left that would be a tragedy.

Moving on from New Labour

What advice would you give to the new leader?

Well, I suppose a short and unfair answer would be to leap off Blackpool Tower while they’re having their Conference. There is something quite extraordinary about this leadership election. The only serious candidates are people who started off as bag-carriers for Blair or Brown and then were bumped up to run their policy units and then were bumped up again to be cabinet ministers. Talk about the Labour Party as a vehicle for the workers! I’ve known David Miliband for a long time and I like him a lot. I don’t know Ed as well, but I like him even better from the small amount I’ve had to do with him.

But I think the Labour Party’s problem at the moment is that they are in denial. My son went to the Compass conference on 10 June. Most of the people there, he said, were Labour. And then he said something that I thought was very interesting: in the end, your perception of the election depended to a very large extent on where you were. The Labour people at the Compass conference had mostly been in Labour strongholds. The Labour strongholds held up for the Labour Party and they therefore interpreted the election result as being quite successful, all things considered, for the Labour Party. Labour voters had turned out as they are supposed to do: in spite of everything, Labour had not lost contact with its base. But the Liberal Democrats saw things very differently. They have no base; there is no solid block of Liberal Democrat voters anywhere. And they saw the election from places where the Labour Party on the whole did badly and they themselves did badly too. So these two different groups came out of the election with different experiences and different pictures of its meaning.

The Labour Party will not be ready for government again unless and until it admits that the Blair/Brown regime after 2001 was a disaster. Yes, it did some good things, but the Gini co-efficient that measures income inequality continued to rise. Britain is now more inegalitarian than when New Labour came to power in 1997. It is also one of the least egalitarian countries in Europe. It’s true that the Gini coefficient didn’t rise nearly as much as it did in the second half of the Thatcher government, but that isn’t saying much. And the bubble that burst so disastrously in 2008-9 was to quite a considerable extent the work of Gordon Brown. Who said this at the time? Well, Vince Cable said it. But nobody in the Labour Party put forward a coherent critique of the New Labour economic model. Someone with a first in history from Edinburgh University ought to have known enough about the history of capitalism to know that boom and bust is in its DNA; and that it was ludicrous to imagine that all these whizz-kid mathematical modellers from Harvard had miraculously found a way to enjoy perpetual, never-ending economic growth.

So in answer to your question, the new leader needs to take the Party off to some sort of desert island somewhere, to brainstorm and repent – I mean that in a most serious way. They’ve got to decide what went wrong, instead of taking refuge in the excuse that people voted against the Labour Party because they associated it with the recession. The fact is that Labour didn’t do very well in 2005, when the Conservatives were still unelectable because Michael Howard, their leader, was still a straight down the line Thatcherite. The moment Cameron came in and started to go back to a Whiggish kind of Toryism the Tories became electable. Labour’s refusal to acknowledge this is gross self-deception. It benefited from the fact that in three consecutive general elections the Conservative Party was unelectable. Then that ceased to be true; and now the Conservatives have won. It’s not some extraordinary freak of nature. It would have been a freak of nature for Labour to win, given its record.

So they have to decide what went wrong. And that needs to be done in a very honest, soul-searching, serious way. Then they have to explain what they now want to do having learned the bitter lessons of 2001 to 2010. It will be a very painful process. The easy thing to do is just to batter away attacking the Coalition’s cuts and hoping for the best on the grounds that by the time the next election comes the electorate will be so fed up with the coalition that they will turn to Labour as the only possible alternative. That isn’t enough, in my opinion.

Nick Clegg was asked in The Observer recently about this idea of a realignment on the left. He said in reply: ‘It might have been a useful guide in the mid-1990s after eighteen years of Conservative government. I never thought it a useful tool to understand quite how fluid British politics has become, nor do I think it makes political sense after you have a long period of Labour government.’ And he added: ‘I’ve never subscribed to that long march theory of history. I think this analysis of British politics that is all about great cohorts of people who always remain the same and are like tribal blocks, that it’s all about some great chess game – I just think that’s fallen by the wayside.’

Do you think the argument of The Progressive Dilemma is old hat now, or is there still something in it?

No, I don’t think it’s old hat. The truth is that Nick Clegg and I come from quite different points on the ideological spectrum. He comes from a Conservative background, not a Labour background as I do.

I had a curious little email tiff with him not long before the last general election. The first time I saw him in the flesh was at a meeting in central Oxford where he was ‘meeting the people’. I was quite impressed – not enormously, but quite. I sent him an email saying that if you want people like me to vote for your party – people who come from a Labour background – you are not going to do it by attacking the Labour Party in the completely negative way that you do, and particularly not by attacking the authoritarianism that you say has always been central to the Labour tradition. My father was a minister in the Attlee government and he was no authoritarian. Nor was Attlee. You are distorting the history of the Labour Party and you are making it very difficult for people who still identify with it in certain respects to support you. What you ought to do is to adopt a tone of ‘more in sorrow than in anger’, and say that it is a tragedy that the Blair/Brown regime has betrayed the libertarian elements in the Labour Party’s own traditions. That’s the way to get Labour people to support you. Well, he wrote back – I didn’t expect him to reply – and said that he was so angry with the way the Labour Party had behaved that he couldn’t restrain himself from saying so (or words to that effect).

But I now realise that is nothing like the whole story. What has happened is that the economic liberals of the old Liberal Party – its right-wingers, if you like – have been reborn, and have managed to hijack the Liberal Democrat Party. There was always a Liberal right, but people like me blinded ourselves to it because we couldn’t bear to acknowledge its existence. We forgot, for example, that there had been an electoral pact between the Liberal Party and the Conservatives in two constituencies in the early 1950s. But for that there would have been only three Liberal MPs instead of five.

I’m not saying the Liberal Democrats are all ‘yellow Tories’ – the line taken by John Prescott and people like him. I think that’s stupid as well as mean-minded. However, I also think that we social democrats ignored the Orange Book strand of the Liberal Party. At the moment I suspect that, if there were an election tomorrow, I would vote Green. Old friends, to whom I’ve shyly confessed my heresy, have berated me for stupidity and irresponsibility. But why not? They’re the only party that speaks to me at the moment, although they don’t entirely speak for me by any means.

The way I see the present situation is this. People who believe in political pluralism and electoral reform must accept the corollary of coalition politics. That means accepting all the procedures that this present coalition went through before it came into being. Coalition partners should negotiate, and agree on a position that results from fairly tough negotiations and that then becomes the programme for government. And the process should be as transparent as possible, so that the general public know what both parties of the coalition have signed up to. This is much more democratic than what happens with single party governments, returned on manifestos that nobody has ever read and which they don’t, in fact, stick to. So I applaud the procedures that produced the current coalition.

I also applaud its decision to halt the growth of the so-called database state, exemplified above all by its decision to junk ID cards. In truth, the coalition is behaving in a far more open and transparent way than did New Labour in the later years of Blair’s regime. Good on them! The tragedy is that, on the fundamental, really crucial issue – namely the economy and the deficit – they are simply wrong, disastrously, catastrophically wrong. And they are not just wrong. They have betrayed the promises they made in their election campaign. What’s happened to the proposal not to renew Trident as a contribution to cutting public expenditure? That’s gone by the board. That was the most distinctive Liberal Democrat policy. They wouldn’t have got it from the Tories, of course. They might not have got it from Labour either, but they would have been more likely to get it from Labour.

And yes, the alternative vote is fine. It’s undoubtedly better than what we have now. By the same token, a referendum on the alternative vote is fine too. But it’s not enough, not nearly enough. They might have secured AV-plus from the Labour Party. My conclusion is that the Liberal Democrats’ leaders never wanted a coalition with the Labour Party. That is the only rational interpretation of their conduct. They wanted to get into bed with the Conservatives and they did not want to get into bed with Labour. Their belated negotiations with Labour were a smokescreen for their real intentions.

There is a lot wrong with the Labour Party, of course. It is tribalist, more tribalist than the Cameron Conservatives. It clings to a patronising and out-dated self-image, according to which the Labour Party, and only the Labour Party, is the true party of the left and the true party of the people. There are other, pesky little parties that Labour can tolerate; and these may be allowed to clamber aboard the Labour ship if Labour needs them. But their duty is to support Labour, the true, serious party of the left. This mind-set is extremely offensive as well as intellectually contemptible.

I agree with Clegg when he says that we shouldn’t think in terms of solid electoral blocs. That’s absolutely true, but if you read The Progressive Dilemma you’ll see that’s exactly what I say there. I was talking about a realignment that would include all kinds of groups, not just political parties, or electoral blocs. Actually, that was one of the great discoveries of the SDP; David Owen always used to say that too. He was a tiresome fellow in lots of ways but I now think he was the most far-sighted of the Gang of Four. Be that as it may, I totally agree that we must stop thinking in terms of blocs of voters. But it doesn’t follow that there are no political traditions, embodied, at least to some degree, in political parties. And Clegg has ignored that obvious truth.

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