The democratic republican moment

Tom Griffin
19 September 2008

Tom Griffin (London, OK): One of Britain's leading political thinkers offered a fresh new analysis of the history of British democracy yesterday, one which may explain the country's current fin de siècle political mood, and offer a way beyond it.

In a speech to the IPPR, David Marquand delivered a precis of the argument of his new book, Britain after 1918: The Strange Career of British Democracy, which interprets the history of the past 90 years as the product of four main strands of political tradition, each of them distinctive, but all of them deeply interwoven with each other.

The four traditions

Marquand has coined the label Whig imperialism for the strand which he argues was dominant for most of the 19th century, most of the interwar period and for most of the 50s and early 60s.

It's a tradition of practical progress, timely accommodation, responsive evolution, and subtle statecraft. It's about balance, balance between freedom and order, between change and stability, rulers and ruled. It's a tradition of people who see themselves as practical men and, more recently, women of the world.

He acknowledges a debt to Linda Colley's work on the Eighteenth Century roots of the British state for his account of this strand. Its canonical figure is Edmund Burke, and successors include both Gladstone and Disraeli, Stanley Baldwin, R.A. Butler and Harold Macmillan.

This tradition seemed to fade from the scene with the failure of the Health Government, but Marquand believes that it may be set for a return with David Cameron, a prediction which he noted has bemused some bloggers.

The basic optimism of Whig imperialism stands in stark contrast to the second major tradition, Tory nationalism, whose adherents "are terrified by the spectre of authority dissappearing." Marquand identifies Lord Salisbury and Enoch Powell as key exemplars of this worldview.

He suggests that the centralisation of Government, under both Margaret Thatcher and John Major on the one hand, and Tony Blair and Gordon Brown on the other, represents a  remarkable continuity between Tory nationalism and third major tradition, democratic collectivism. Adherents of the the latter "believe in ineluctable progress, that history moves in a noble direction."

"In the early days they were absolutely dogmatic statists," he argues, "The task for democratic collectivists is to get control of the machinery of the state and then to use it to rebuild society."

This strand goes back to early Fabians such as George Bernard Shaw and Sidney Webb. It reached its peak in the Attlee Government before declining with the failures of the Wilson and Callaghan eras. Although himself brought up in this tradition, it is now the one with which Marquand has least sympathy. Instead, he most favours the final strand, democratic republicanism

The tradition goes back to the Levellers and John Milton in the 17th century, and includes later figures such as John Stuart Mill and R.H. Tawney. It is exemplified by Mill's belief that "people have got to govern themselves, and they've got to learn how to govern themselves," and by Tawney's view that "democracy is not just a matter of counting heads, democracy is a matter of having a democratic culture."

The cusp of change

Unlike the other three traditions, democratic republicanism has never enjoyed a period of dominance. That is something that Marquand suggests may be about to change:

The Whig Imperialists, the Tory Nationalists, the Democratic Collectivists, have all been tested almost to destruction. Democratic republicanism I think has had enormous influence on the changes that have taken place in civil society in the last thirty years. I think feminism in many ways has been democratic republican. The Green movement in many ways has been democratic republican. The nationalist movements in Scotland and Wales too. The Blair Government acted in what I would call a Democratic Republican spirit when they did their most important and lasting achievement, which was to create elected Assemblies in Wales and Scotland.

But it's still kind of boxed in, and I think the real question now for Britain is whether we may just conceivably be at the beginning of a democratic republican moment.

One problem for democratic republicans may be the very variety of forms that the tradition takes. In response to a question from David Faulkner, Marquand noted that many NGOs and civil associations could also be seen as an expression of democratic republicanism. This fragmentation may itself work against the achievement of state power.

The historian and member of the House of Lords Kenneth Morgan emphasised the importance of this 'raw fact of power' in an eloquent speech which was somewhat more sympathetic to Democratic Collectivism than Marquand's own.

Take two distinct areas, the creation of the National Health Service by Nye Bevan, the restoration of the market economy by Mrs Thatcher, both of them depending I think crucially on the apparatus of power, which meant harnessing the ruling party, harnessing all the agencies off decision-making, and I don't think there was any other way, however you evaluate them, of having those particular achievements come about.

The implication of this for democratic republicanism is that the current Government's constitutional reform agenda remains an important opportunity. 

"We need a new settlement which transcends the various pressure groups that David lists at the end [of his book], many of which are single issue pressure groups and don't provide a general analysis of what our society and structure are about," Morgan argued. "The green paper last summer was an attempt to give more power to the democratic tradition, you could call it in some senses, the democratic republican tradition. It is an attempt to rebalance the executive and the legislature. It is a strong attack on what is left of the royal prerogative." 

"I still think that the hero of David's crusade could actually be Gordon Brown."

Can the disparate forces of democratic republicanism realise this opportunity? If not, the stage may be set for Whig Imperialism to regain the hegemony it has enjoyed so often in the past.

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