A hundred years ago today in a small town in East Sussex, a boy was born to his Exclusive Brethren parents. So why would two centre-left politicians from the other side of the world want to mark this day a century on?
Anthony Crosland died 40 years ago after a stint as British foreign secretary. But he should be remembered not primarily as a parliamentarian, notwithstanding his worthy contribution. Rather, he went on to become one of the 20th century’s most important thinkers of left of centre politics and his legacy is far-reaching.
Crosland’s book The Future of Socialism, published in 1956, is very much worth reading today. He was firmly of the Left, but he was focused on real outcomes. It is no stretch to characterise Crosland as an intellectual forebear to Bob Hawke and Paul Keating, Bill Clinton and Tony Blair.
First and foremost, Crosland was a liberal and a democrat, believing that socialism had no meaning “except with a framework of liberty for the individual and representative democracy”.
His commitment here was longstanding, having led a walkout (along with Roy Jenkins) from the Oxford University Labour Club in 1940 on the basis that it was communist dominated.
Labour, he said, needed to be “clearly anti-communist, clearly anti-Marxist and clearly anti-totalitarian”. It may be a conventional and inevitable view now, but it was far from that then.
Crosland believed in vigorous government intervention to improve equity in society. As education secretary he tried to revolutionise the English education system to make it a force for social mobility rather than a re-enforcer of class privilege.
But what disappointed Crosland about some in the Labour Party was their inability to distinguish between ends and means and their propensity to ignore the importance of context when it came to developing public policy.
Crosland acknowledged and applauded the success of the Clement Attlee’s government for extending the boundaries of public ownership and control but stressed that where, when and in what way the government should intervene in the market was a matter for careful analysis. In other words, he rejected the notion that socialism was first and foremost a matter of public ownership. He was in favour of public ownership when it could be demonstrated to deliver benefits, for example by way of competitive public enterprises, but he saw it as one means alongside others, not an end in itself.
Crosland also refused to leave small-L liberalism as the sole depository of concern for the individual. “Socialism,” he said, “is about the pursuit of equality and the protection of freedom, in the knowledge that until we are truly equal we will not be truly free.”
He thought a negative, narrow view of human rights of the individual missed the importance of investment in each individual regardless of background, so they could grow to their full potential.
In Crosland’s account of the best means to achieve egalitarian ends there were many elements, but at their core was a belief in increased public expenditure to improve the quantity and quality of the nation’s social capital, a redistribution of wealth and income, a reform of the elitist education system and an alteration in the structure of power within industry, whether it be private or public.
In The Future of Socialism, Crosland says parties of the Left should be focused relentlessly on policies that improved the lives of workers and those in need of protection, rather than fixated on ownership structures. He also advocates that the Labour Party should be interested in issues that could improve quality of life, such as environmentalism and conservation, consumer protection, women’s rights and personal rights generally. He made a compelling case that Labour should be interested in improving public amenity in poor areas, saying the quality of a life in a neighbourhood was as important as income support in helping the poor.
Crosland’s centenary is important for all who believe in progressive politics with a sensible frame, and who believe in the ends of lifting the quality of life of the many. Crosland was a parliamentarian, wit, raconteur and a larrikin with a complicated personal life. But most of all he was an important, deep thinker.
He encouraged the centre-left to uphold liberal and democratic principles, to pursue equality for all as a matter of obligation, to distinguish between these ends and the public policy means to achieve them, and carefully to study economic, social and technological change when it comes to selecting and putting these means together as a program. On these points he is as relevant as ever.
Geoff Gallop is a former premier of Western Australia.
This opinion piece was first published in The Australian on Wednesday, 29 August 2018.