Back to the “Future Of Socialism”, Mr Corbyn?

Tony Crosland’s social democratic manifesto is still worth reading. But its author is notorious for his crusade against grammar schools

John Torode

Little Jeremy and his Struggle against the Moderates
is the latest episode in a repetitive three-act drama which opened in the mid-1950s. Many will surely remember the Second Act, set in the ’70s and ’80s. It involved — age cannot wither — the same Corbyn, J. and many of his current comrades. Their youthful attempts to seize control of the Labour Party led both to Neil Kinnock’s belated clampdown on Militant and other extremist groups, and to the breakaway birth of the SDP. But you need to be my age (I’m knocking on 80, God help me) to have played even a walk-on part in Act One. That involved several years of intellectual and organisational battles which “revisionists” (as social democrats then called themselves), led by Hugh Gaitskell, Tony Crosland and Roy Jenkins fought against assorted Marxists, Bevanites and other traditionalists. Had capitalism really changed its spots, as we revisionists asserted? Do you achieve social equality by abolishing grammar schools? Did Britain need an upgraded independent nuclear deterrent? These were the issues round which battle was joined. Some things never change.

It was Crosland, a glamorous, apparently rather aristocratic, louche and vaguely bisexual Oxford economist-turned-politician, who produced the revisionists’ handbook, The Future of Socialism. Published 60 years ago, it is a hefty 540-page academic tome. Its powerful impact, though emphatically not its conclusions, can be compared with that of Thomas Piketty’s thumping great work Capital in the Twenty-First Century. When I was an earnest fifth-form grammar school boy, waiting to go up to Oxford to read PPE, Crosland’s tome was my bible. It provided me, and countless others, with the intellectual justification for our rejection of Marxism.

Surprisingly, there has been no serious attempt since then to write a revisionist New Testament. The Future of Socialism, which I had not opened since 1956, is all today’s Labour’s moderates have to guide them. So how well does Crosland’s manifesto stand up in 2016? Sadly — for Crosland became a friend as well as a mentor — although brave and still thought-provoking, it is often naive, excessively optimistic, or just plain wrong. Almost a third of the book is devoted to debunking Marxist economics. The message is that “traditional capitalism has been reformed and modified almost out of existence”. The collapse of capitalism isn’t going to happen, and a good thing too. As for nationalisation, it is not necessary to direct the new mixed economy. At the time, that needed saying very firmly indeed.

But then Crosland took off into flights of economic fancy. As a result of these benign changes, the economy was, he argued, no longer central to the socialist mission. Keynesianism, active fiscal policies, “positive planning”, wage controls and the welfare state meant — remember this was written back in the austere 1950s — that all our economic problems, including mass unemployment, were already solved, or on the verge of solution. “We stand on the threshold of mass abundance,” he writes. “It will really not much matter a decade from now whether we plan to produce rather more of this or less of that, or exactly what prices are charged for this commodity or that.” Automation is carrying us towards the 30- or even 20-hour week, he adds. The final conclusion? “The present rate of growth may be almost sufficient for all reasonable purposes.”

How wrong he was. In fact, a decade later, the economy was in a pretty ropey state. By the 1970s, Britain was derisively referred to as “the sick man of Europe”, defined by economic stagnation, low productivity, endless strikes against the impact of assorted incomes policies, and high inflation. Fashionably alarmist talk was of ungovernability and possible coups. Only after the 1979 Winter of Discontent and the trauma of the Thatcherite counter-revolution did things begin to pick up. Until, of course, the Great Crash of 2008.

Given his hopelessly optimistic economic predictions, Crosland felt free to devote much of the rest of the book to his obsession — fixing damaging and deeply unfair class divisions. Of course, his Britain was more obviously class-based than the country is today. But his repeated assertion that Britain in 1956 was “the most class-ridden country in the world” is laughable. Be that as it may, with our economic problems effortlessly solved (on paper), Crosland felt free to make the elimination of the class privilege he so hated the centrepiece of his utopian vision of social or cultural socialism. He wanted a “a more colourful and civilised country” — a dream-world version of Sweden, in which civilised souls living on council estates read uplifting books, attended local repertory theatres, drank wine in late-opening public houses, and had lots of promiscuous — though guilt- and consequence-free — sex. He even insisted on “better designs for furniture and pottery and women’s clothes”. Today you might accuse him of patronising micromanagement. The “permissive” social reforms he advocated and which, as Home Secretary, Roy Jenkins introduced a decade later — easier divorce, legalised abortion, homosexual law reform, a relaxation of state censorship, a degree of sympathy to the use of “soft” drugs — were also central to Crosland’s brave new world. Of course, they were, mostly, long overdue. But Crosland gave no thought to dealing with the likely collateral damage: the erosion of the traditional family, the normalisation of pornography, the damage caused by tolerance of widespread drug abuse.

Crosland felt educational reform was the first step towards achieving his utopian goal. He is commonly remembered now for the appalling boast, which, according to his wife Susan, he made to her when he was Harold Wilson’s Education Secretary between January 1965 and August 1967: “If it’s the last thing I do I’m going to close every fucking grammar school in England. And Wales and Northern Ireland.” And replace them with comprehensives. The idea was to promote both social cohesion and and social mobility by providing a better education for all youngsters. Instead, he denied opportunity to able and ambitious working-class children, and made class divisions more rigid by rendering upward mobility more difficult.

His vandalism left a poisoned inheritance for Labour. All wings of the divided party came together to embrace his comprehensive ideal with religious fervour. They still do, at least in public. But most of Labour’s leading figures recognise privately that the revolution has failed. They act to protect their own children — understandable perhaps, but deeply hypocritical. Today, Corbyn’s Labour Party is preparing to fight the government’s plan for a modest number of new grammar schools, mainly in deprived areas. But some of the key figures in Corbyn’s radical team — Corbyn himself, Diane Abbott, Corbyn’s Wykhamist director of strategy Seumas Milne, and Shami Chakrabarti — have sent their children to selective (or, worse, selective and fee-paying) schools. (Corbyn graciously blames his ex-wife for his decision.) So comprehensive education isn’t good enough for the children of Labour’s new ruling class, but it is good enough for the proles. Crosland was sincere, however misguided. Labour’s current leaders are hypocrites, and I suspect the voters will recognise the fact.

But why was Crosland so fixated on both grammar schools and, at least in The Future of Socialism, public schools? A lot can be explained by his own class anxieties and ambitions. Like his friend and, we now know, undergraduate lover, Roy Jenkins, he wanted to be seen as upper-class. But, like Jenkins, he wasn’t. Admittedly Crosland went to a public school, but not to one of the “great” public schools, such as Eton, Harrow, Winchester or Rugby. He went to Highgate, a perfectly respectable establishment  in north London. Moreover, Crosland’s family — though upper-middle-class — were members of the Plymouth Brethren, a dour and deeply unfashionable Christian sect. He must have felt out of place at Highgate and initially at Oxford. I suspect he resented both grammar school upstarts and genuine “toffs” who felt effortlessly at home in their great public schools and at Oxbridge.

Reading the chapter on education it is clear how hesitant he was about dealing harshly with grammar schools in the decade before he became Education Secretary. “I have never been able to understand why socialists have been so obsessed with the question of the grammar schools and so indifferent to the much more glaring injustice of the independent schools,” he begins. He recognised (or perhaps exaggerated) the high academic standards of most independents, as well as their “distinctive characters”, adding, “That these [public] schools are superior . . . is beyond dispute.” It would be an act of vandalism not to preserve them. His solution? Force them, gradually to introduce a higher proportion of “free”, state-funded, places, awarded on merit alone. Eventually, fee-paying — buying class privilege — would be completely phased out. (That incidentally, would have turned them back to their initial, medieval charitable role.) So in the 1950s Crosland was cautious about closing grammar schools. He disliked them because he believed that they were socially divisive, yet not as meritocratic as they might seem; because he believed they had been captured by the middle class; and because examination at the age of 11 was a miserable way of measuring ability. But he recognised the high academic standards most grammars achieved. “There can be no question of suddenly closing down the grammar schools and converting the secondary moderns into comprehensives,” he wrote. “It would moreover be absurd from a socialist point of view to close down the grammar schools while leaving the [unreformed] public schools still holding their present commanding position.”

In the end he concluded that the least bad option was diversity. Existing grammar schools should carry on as before, though entry criteria should be much more flexible. Public school entry should be democratised by phasing out fee-paying. And local authorities should be pressed to open the widest possible variety of new secondary schools, selective and non-selective. It is a surprisingly flexible and modern solution, remarkably similar to the ideas developed by Tony Blair, David Cameron and now Theresa May. Academies, free schools and faith schools provide a welcome addition to Alastair Campbell’s “bog standard” comps. To some extent they are free to experiment, compete, specialise and set their own entrance criteria. Meanwhile, public schools are offering more bursaries to enable poorer children to attend. Some are helping  set up and run academies. Others share their facilities and staff with local authority schools. Now Mrs May is, albeit cautiously, lifting the outrageous ban on the creation of new state grammars. If only Tony Crosland had stuck with The Future of Socialism instead of riding off on his cursed crusade to destroy “every fucking grammar school”, we would not be unpicking his work today.  

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