Unit 6B: Ideological Development in the UK
Professor at Government Department of the London School of Economics writes for BBC Parliament
Radical socialist parties haven't found much favour in the UK
Socialism developed in the United Kingdom as a series of claims about the economy, and as a reaction to the inequalities associated with the growth of industrialism.
It advocated a variety of social alternatives to the individual ownership of industrial capital - central control, local control, workers' control - and co-operation and fraternity as alternatives to the individual competition and conflict which it saw as characterising capitalism.
Socialism in Britain has been predominantly democratic, both seeing democracy as a natural expression of human rights, and the politics of argument and reason, rather than of insurrection, as the only appropriate way of securing reform.
But whilst socialist politics were democratic, it was seen principally as only a means to social and economic reform, rather than an important area in its own right.
The social democratic alternative to capitalism was thus also a democratic alternative to the managerial and despotic communism which developed in Russia after 1917 and in Eastern Europe after the end of the Second World War in 1945.
The Labour Party and socialism
There were always, amongst socialists, those who argued that both socialists as a body, and the Labour Party as socialism's Parliamentary expression, interpreted democracy so cautiously that they would never take the radical steps necessary for effective social and economic transformation.
To that extent the connection between the Labour Party and socialism was more fragile and tangential than that between either the Liberal Party and liberalism, or the Conservative Party and conservatism.
There were two turning points for socialism in the United Kingdom, the first in the years of the first majority Labour Government between 1945 and 1951, the second with the end of the Cold War, the collapse of European state communism, and the rise, and decline, of the New Right.
The first led to a questioning of the aims, as opposed to the methods, of socialism. The second led to the effective demise of socialism, and its replacement by something much closer to the 'New' liberalism of the first quarter of the twentieth century.
Socialism in the United Kingdom, with conservatism, largely disappeared as a coherent doctrine after 1989.
As the party most closely identified with socialism, the Labour Party made several attempts to discover or construct either a revised version of socialism, or a new left wing ideology.
Stake holding, communitarianism, and the third way were all tried.
Stakeholding drew on a tradition going back to Edmund Burke, arguing that in order to be active and useful citizens, people needed a stake, and principally an economic stake, in society.
Communitarianism is often attributed to North American sociology but owes as much to British ethical socialism, and to British conservatism, arguing that people were only fully themselves as members of a community, to which they owed loyalty and an active contribution.
The aptly named third way attempted to claim the benefits of all the main previous ideologies, with none of their failings or disadvantages.
But no creed has so far had the intellectual robustness or popular credibility to perform the role previously performed by socialism.
© Rodney Barker 2004
Department of Government
London School of Economics & Political Science