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The dignity of dissent: E.P. Thompson and Britain's One Nation Labour

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What is the role of dissent in a political vision predicated on 'unity', and how does this fit with Labour's record on protest, secret justice and civil liberties?

Stuart White
18 July 2013

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Flickr/Glyn Lowe Photoworks. Some rights reserved.

Mike Kenny draws out a similarity between E. P. Thompson’s ‘radical patriotism’ and One Nation Labour. Kenny rightly does not equate the two or present One Nation Labour as an unproblematic development of Thompson’s views. Despite the similarity, Kenny concludes that Thompson would have been ‘on his guard’ with One Nation Labour.

Here I want to develop just one argument for why Thompson would indeed have been on his guard.

Kenny refers in his article to Thompson’s ‘strong commitment to England’s dissenting and democratic heritage.’ I want to explore this particular commitment and identify the challenge it presents to One Nation Labour.

The vulnerability of dissent

A useful place to start is Thompson’s article from 1961, ‘The Segregation of Dissent’. Thompson submitted this as a talk to the BBC. The BBC had recently broadcast a short series of lectures critical of the New Left, but had at this point broadcast nothing by the New Left. The proposed talk was intended to redress the balance. The BBC rejected it. Thompson published it anyway in a journal called New University and then reprinted it in his brilliant 1980 collection of polemical essays, Writing by Candlelight.

Thompson’s focus in this article is the status of ‘dissent’. Dissent, he argues, such as that offered by the New Left, has been marginalised by the growth of a centralised system of media and communications to which dissenters have limited access (having his article turned down by the BBC doubtless seemed to confirm this).

The resulting ‘segregation of dissent’ is bad for democracy. It means that political debate is deprived of new and challenging ideas. Political discussion narrows to relatively minor disagreements within an oppressive cross-party consensus. The sense of choice, of real alternatives, so essential to democratic life, is lost:

“Politics may soon settle down into a game of power at the top, with the media conditioning public attitudes to which the politicians adjust their ‘images’ in the hope of floating the marginal voter their way. From image to echo and back to image, it is a system of political tautology into which principle need not enter. It might, indeed, be called ‘tautocracy’.”

This theme, of the vulnerability of dissent, is central to Writing by Candlelight. It underpins Thompson’s careful analysis, developed across a number of articles, of the growth of arbitrary state power in the UK in the 1970s. Here he highlights revelations about the practice of jury vetting and the construction of police data bases that can be used to help vet juries. He considers what he sees as the growing influence of the police within the political system, represented by the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO).

As the UK entered the 1980s, Thompson saw at once the need for a new wave of democratic activism, reaching across nations, to contest the nuclear plans of the military superpowers. At the same time, he was intensely worried at the threat that these plans posed to civil liberties and the possibilities of meaningful dissent.

Thompson’s democratic libertarianism

Central to Thompson’s thought, then, is what we may term his democratic libertarianism.[1] This includes the following two ideas.

First: a strong advocacy of the value of dissent to democracy. Dissenting minorities must be given effective protection from, and platforms from which to speak to, indifferent and even initially intolerant majorities.

Second: a strong opposition to arbitrary state power, which might be used to help contain dissent, and a strong commitment to vigilance against measures which increase arbitrary state power.

As Kenny indicates, Thompson saw this democratic libertarianism as deeply rooted in the history of English radicalism. His polemical argument is frequently related to the results of his historical research. When he writes about the jury, for example, he writes from the standpoint of someone who knows the long history of the institution and its significance in stubbornly limiting the assertion of elite will. His classic The Making of the English Working Class (1963) includes detailed discussions of efforts by the British state to monitor and suppress dissent in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

Thus, for Thompson, democratic libertarianism is at the heart of the English radical tradition. His radical patriotism, then, is also centrally defined by this set of commitments. A radical patriotism is not defined by generic notions of ‘flag and faith’, but by allegiance to this tradition of democratic libertarianism – a tradition which at times, as Kenny implies, has stood opposed to dominant accounts of ‘flag and faith’.

Not that Thompson saw libertarianism as unique to radicalism. He argues that there is a wider Whig inheritance in English culture which has shaped currents on both the left and the right.

Indeed, at times Thompson was keen to press democratic libertarianism against the left. In 'The Nehru Tradition', also in Writing by Candlelight, he castigates leftists in India and in the UK who have failed to speak out against the suppression of civil liberties under the ‘Emergency’ government of Indira Gandhi. In Whigs and Hunters (1975), his historical study of the infamous Black Act, Thompson concludes with a firm defence of the rule of law as a universal human good. He rejects Marxist conceptions that would do away with the rule of law in the name of revolutionary dictatorship.

The state of the nation

Writing by Candlelight includes a long essay, 'The State of the Nation', in which Thompson stares unflinchingly at what he perceives as the steady growth of arbitrary state power in the UK circa 1980. If Thompson were to write a similarly unflinching audit of the state of the nation today, what would he fasten on?

I think he would be cheered by the way new technologies have, to a point, facilitated a form of decentralised and democratic communication: ‘…the task of creating an alternative means of communication has, from the start, been a major preoccupation of the New Left.’ I suspect he would be fascinated by the forms of dissenting activism emerging in this context. Not least, I think he would have been fascinated by the possibilities for a citizen-to-citizen politics that works across nations but around and underneath governments, an ideal for which Thompson worked so hard in the 1980s in the context of the new Cold War. (See Anthony Barnett’s 2011 Raymond Williams lecture for a related discussion.)

However, many other developments would doubtless excite the same worries as those expressed in Writing by Candlelight. For example, the same reasons that led Thompson to focus on jury vetting in the 1970s would likely lead him to discuss the status of the right to protest in an era of ‘kettling’, ACPO-organised data bases on ‘domestic extremists’, and 'spycops', all of which have the likely effect of deterring peaceful protest. Related to this, he would surely be appalled by recent revelations about the extensive power of the US and UK states to monitor electronic communications, and no less appalled at the emergence in the UK of secret courts. Not only would he be concerned with these developments taken individually, I suspect he would be exploring the way they can be expected to interact and reinforce one another.

So what about One Nation Labour?

Can One Nation Labour claim to uphold the democratic libertarianism we find in Thompson’s writings?

Supporters of Labour might point to the party’s continuing support for the Human Rights Act, or to its interest in learning from community organizing, as indicating democratic libertarian commitment.

But I think it is important to insist on the specificity of the issues raised above: the right to protest, mass surveillance, secret courts. Thompson would have pressed on the specifics. He would likely have been very disappointed by Labour’s overall response on these issues.

Related to this is the issue of how, fundamentally, One Nation Labour views dissent itself. In his ‘Open Letter to Leszek Kolakowski’ (1973), Thompson rejects the thought that a socialist utopia will be a world of gentle rest and harmony. It will be full of disputation on the right way of living. Disunity, in this sense, is a sign of democratic health. But the rhetorical momentum of ‘One Nation’ seems to carry us away from this, evoking unity as the ideal. When set against the kind of division that many see the Coalition as creating and stoking, this appeal for unity can look attractive. Still, there is potentially a price to be paid for this rhetoric: Does dissent get in the way of the desired unity? Is it, therefore, fundamentally undesirable? How does One Nation Labour discriminate between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ kinds of division and disagreement? How can the necessary discriminations be conveyed within the confines of the ‘One Nation’ concept?

The point of contact between Thompson and One Nation Labour lies in a communitarian approach to political values, an attempt to draw them out from national traditions and identities. But we have seen how the values that Thompson draws out of his historical narratives are, centrally and robustly, democratic and libertarian. Promotion of dissent and vigilance against arbitrary state power are core. While One Nation Labour tries to match the communitarian method, it seems much more ambivalent about the democratic and libertarian substance of Thompson’s radicalism.

I would like to thank Anthony Barnett and Stephen Yeo for discussions and communications which helped in writing this article.

Notes

[1] Thompson’s commitment to civil liberties is helpfully discussed in Scott Hamilton’s recent study of Thompson, The Crisis of Theory: EP Thompson, the new left and postwar British politics (Manchester, Manchester University Press, 2011), especially pp.159-163, 173-179, and also pp.35-39 on the way this aspect of Thompson’s thought is connected to conceptions of an English radical tradition developed in the 1930s in the context of the Communist Party’s Popular Front politics. See also Dennis Dworkin, Cultural Marxism in Postwar Britain (Durham: NC, Duke University, 1997), pp.209-210, 213-215, 241-242. David Goodway provides a helpful discussion of Thompson as a ‘libertarian’ in his ‘Nuclear disarmament, the New Left – and the case of E.P. Thompson’, in David Goodway, Anarchist Seeds Beneath the Snow: Left-Libertarian Thought and British Writers from William Morris to Colin Ward, second edition (Oakland: CA, PM Press, 2012), pp.260-287. See also Geoffrey Foote’s discussion of the New Left and Thompson as offering a ‘republican’ political conception in Geoffrey Foote, The Republican Transformation of Modern British Politics (Basingstoke, Palgrave, 2006), especially pp.15-62.

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