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Sunday Supplement - Walden Reminisces

This is a transcript of a programme broadcast on Radio 4 on 10 October 2004. It must not be reproduced without permission

Part Two - The 1970s

We call the 1960's the "Swinging Sixties". But we don't have one of these convenient labels for the 1970's. That's a pity, because the 1970's deserves one. It was a crucial decade in British history - a time when all the chickens came home to roost. Britain had been struggling along on the basis of the post-war settlement of the 1940's. But in the 1970's all the post-war illusions collapsed. The Old Labour Party which had created the post-war settlement and protected its beliefs also began to collapse. The process was gradual because the Labour Party didn't split until the SDP was formed in 1981, but throughout the 70's its grip weakened. Bits dropped off it. Exhausted and confused, it was routed in the General Election of 1979.

That defeat changed our politics fundamentally. Labour was out of power for nearly twenty years, and through New Labour had two massive victories in 1997 and 2001 New Labour is strikingly different from the Old Labour Party. Some of the personnel may be the same, but the intellectual assumptions are quite dissimilar.

I was a close observer of this because I was a Labour MP from 1964 to 1977. I shouldn't have been. The fact that I was was entirely my own fault. Nobody else was to blame. I made the mistake, perhaps an understandable one at the time, but a mistake nonetheless. The party I joined wasn't New Labour, it was the Old Labour Party. But I was never a Socialist. You can see how that might be a problem. All the legendary figures of Old Labour, including the moderates - usually called right-wingers - like Clem Attlee, Ernest Bevin, Herbert Morrison and Hugh Dalton, said they were Socialists. What exactly they meant by Socialism was a matter for argument. But none of them said they weren't Socialists.

If pressed really hard, I think most of Old Labour's moderates would have said that the time wasn't right for full-blooded Socialism. Much more social welfare and economic improvement had got to go on first and all that would take years and years and years. But then at some distant date the time would arrive for total public ownership. Capitalism would go and Britain would be a Socialist country. That last bit might have stuck in a few throats and not all of the moderates would have brought themselves to say it. But they would have been sure to stress how long anything faintly like Socialism was going to take. The vital point is none of them would have bluntly said "Don't be silly! Of course capitalism is going to endure. It's the only economic system that works."

And then in 1955 Hugh Gaitskell became the leader of the Old Labour party. And he had young followers like Roy Jenkins and Tony Crosland, who was writing a book called 'The Future of Socialism' and who came to see his old friends in Oxford regularly. I soon discovered that the dashing Mr Crosland didn't believe Socialism need have anything to do with public ownership. When I told him that I didn't accept Clause Four of the Labour Party constitution (which committed it to full public ownership) Crosland said he didn't accept it either. "Socialism," said Crosland "is about equality." In his opinion it wouldn't be long before this old-fashioned thinking died out, especially after his book was published. Much encouraged, I plucked up the courage to raise the matter with Hugh Gaitskell himself, incongruously enough at a picnic in Oxford where he'd come to see his daughter. Gaitskell was even more reassuring.

So I was persuaded, and enthusiastically persuaded myself, that an upstanding progressive fellow like me, a believer in social equality, racial equality and practically every other sort of equality ought to be on the Labour benches in the House of Commons. Everybody seemed to want to help me. My vanity was flattered and my head was turned.

As time passed I've come to see ever more clearly that what I did was wrong. I deliberately closed my eyes to the blindingly obvious fact that many active supporters of the Labour Party did believe in Socialism. You may wonder if I'm not making too much of Socialism - after all, how Socialist is New Labour? But the situation of New Labour is quite different. When in opposition Tony Blair made a tremendous fuss about getting rid of Clause Four. From his point of view he was right to make a fuss. His message rang out clear as a bell. You didn't have to be a Socialist to be prominent in the Labour Party - even the leader himself didn't believe in old-fashioned Socialism. The leadership in my day didn't have the courage to say the magic words. Privately, I brought up the issue repeatedly. We must get rid of Clause Four, I urged, we were in an utterly false position while it stayed. But I was always told that it didn't matter because voters knew we didn't mean it.

To be fair to the leadership of the Old Labour party it had to deal with activists who hadn't had the stuffing knocked out of them by defeat after defeat. When Tony Blair became leader, the Labour Party needed to win on almost any terms. But that wasn't the case in my time. I joined the Old Labour Party knowing full well that it specifically promised to create a Socialist society. I ought not to have gone along with the claim that most people knew we didn't mean it. Lots of people in the Party did mean it. Until it was changed they had every right to say that the letter of the law was on their side. It was my position to be dubious not theirs.

This muddle about Socialism was the central reason the Old Labour party cracked up. We were really two parties pretending to be one. For instance, I liked both the late Roy Jenkins and Tony Benn, but they had no business being in the same political party, because the gap between their convictions was far too wide. All large parties are coalitions, of course, but there are limits to how much diversity is healthy. And the two parties that made up the Old Labour party, being suspicious of each other, found it difficult to agree about anything. Not only did they disagree about Socialism, there were sharp differences about the Common Market and about Britain's alliance with the United States of America.

Nor was anti-Americanism the half of it. Until I actually saw it, I'd always thought Labour MPs who told me that some of their colleagues sympathised with the Soviet Union were exaggerating. I was wrong. I'd grossly underestimated Socialist idealism. That's all it was, there was nothing sinister about it. A minority of Old Labour MPs had a sentimental attachment to the Soviet Union. Why? Because they still had a vague lingering hope that it was going to make Socialism work. I'd accepted capitalism as the only economic system that worked, whatever its faults, long before I'd been elected. To meet a group of Members of Parliament who thought Communism had any chance of succeeding was fascinating.

You'll have guessed that my relationship with these left-wingers was complicated. Of course I didn't agree with them, but I like talking to them because they weren't careerists interested only in who was going to get government jobs. They dealt in big themes and were students of history. They were deeply rooted in the legends of socialism. The Spanish Civil War still excited their imagination, they hadn't lost their revolutionary Romanticism.

Though I liked them, as we argued I couldn't rid myself of a thought. And the thought was "What on earth am I doing in the same political party as these Utopians?" For that was the key to them. Some of them said they were Marxists, but I thought that what they truly believed in was Utopia - a Socialist Utopia. They couldn't accept that the capitalist ethic, which puts all the stress on personal gain in return for individual effort, was the right way to create wealth. They longed for the singing workers and peasants of Soviet propaganda, who didn't compete, but co-operated to serve society. They admitted that this system had somehow managed to underperform to date. But they hadn't given up hope. Surely this co-operative, collective, equal system, which was so obviously morally right, must in the end produce the goods?

Amazingly for a time, the Old Labour Party seemed to thrive on its dissentions. The late Harold Lever used to make some of us chuckle by saying, "we are such a hopeless business and in such a mess that nobody dares make us bankrupt." I couldn't understand why our internal chaos wasn't more critically noticed, until it dawned on me that we were part of a general process. The post-war settlement was rotting away before our eyes and Britain had become, economically speaking, the sick man of Europe. Nobody had any great expectations that things were going to improve. The Labour Party didn't look any worse than everything else. The whole political system was out of sorts and out of touch with public opinion.

I went on to Labour's Front Bench in 1970, first at Defence and then on the Treasury team. But during Labour's spell in opposition I made up my mind never to serve in government, and when Wilson offered me a Ministry of State in 1974 I turned it down. A decision like that means you're on your way out of politics. No one thing caused it, though I recall vividly a conversation with a senior colleague. "Britain's decline is inevitable," he said, "our job is to organise decline in a civilised way". Perhaps that isn't an ignoble task, but it's not my cup of tea. There was a smell of decay about national politics in the 1970's and I longed for somebody to give politics a fresh direction.

Beyond doubt it was Old Labour's economic policy that upset me most and especially its foolish and counter-productive pact with the trade unions. This unhappy deal was given the pompous name of "the social contract" and when I expressed distaste for it I was quietly told that it was a harmless bit of nonsense that enabled trades union leaders to pretend to their militants that they had a hand in running the country. I might have believed this, because all sorts of covert diplomacy had gone on, except that I liked the trades union leaders and knew some of them well. One of them, Terry Duffy of the Engineers told me something rather chilling over lunch. "Don't be fooled," he said, "the trades union leadership isn't controlling the militants. It's the other way round." And so it was.

The Labour Government in return for making the trades unions practically an estate of the realm thought that the trades union leaders could restrain their members. Most of these crafty old boys did their best. Practically every month some detailed promise was made, that didn't even look as if it had a chance. When all else failed, the TUC used to make a solemn and binding promise, which everybody from the Prime Minister down pretended to set great store by. But a lot of power had slipped out of the trades union leadership's hands. There was a roaring inflation going on and ordinary trades unionists wanted hefty pay rises in order to keep up. So the Government's deal with the trades unions was bound to come unstuck eventually - the only question was when. I never foresaw how catastrophic the breakdown would be. The famous "Winter of Discontent" in 1978-79 put Labour out of power for a generation.

By then I was no longer in the House of Commons. London Weekend Television offered me the job of presenting their weekly current affairs programme "Weekend World" and in 1977 I joined them and resigned from parliament. I was lucky to be offered a way out of what had become a painful dilemma.

Looking back on those years I'm struck by a paradox. The Old Labour Party was wracked by divisions on really important questions. It couldn't even establish a consensus on the sort of society it wanted to create. But it wasn't any of its fundamental disagreements that destroyed it. It was ruined by the one thing on which nearly everybody in the Labour Party agreed - its close relationship with the trades unions.



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