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This is not a blog which expresses instant opinions on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers as jumping-off points for some reflections about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

Sunday, February 2, 2014

The post-war British social democrats

I’m cast back to the 1960s by the news of the death last week of the great folk-singer Pete Seeger - at the age of 94.
And to the lives of some of the great British social democrats it has been my privilege to know – however distantly. So this will be one of several posts…..
 I was introduced to Seeger’s radical songs by an amazing Scottish left-wing couple – Norman and Janey Buchan  – just after my election in 1968 as a local councillor in a West of Scotland shipbuilding town. I became Norman’s election agent in the 1970 General Election (he had been first elected in 1964, being a well-regarded teacher until then) – and then became Janey’s colleague in Strathclyde Region in the mid 1970s.
My rationalistic approach did not find Janey’s exuberant radicalism at all easy – but her goodness spoke strongly to me. In 1979 she became MEP for Glasgow – somewhat maverick but respected by many. Norman was an utterly dedicated socialist whose honesty and purity powered into you. He did occupy two junior Ministerial positions but never enjoyed that side of life - his commitments to popular struggles (and culture) were much stronger..... 

Coincidentally I am re-reading one of the best of British political autobiographies of the 20th century – Denis Healey’s Time of my Life (1989). Healey was someone who did not suffer fools gladly - he famously (in acerbic tones) described the 1979 Labour Party Manifesto foisted on us by the extreme left as "the longest suicide note in history"!
Perhaps aptly, the best of the (admittedly few) reviews of his memoirs which I have come across is Clive James' (of highly-deserved Cultural Amnesia fame). It is a bit of a retrospective since he wrote it in 2008 and I make no apology for its length - both the subject matter and the reviewer deserve this courtesy!
Healey was born near London in 1917 and raised mainly in Yorkshire, as the Scholarship Boy of a hard working family. After grammar school, he gained a double first at Oxford, spent a brief period as a starry-eyed young Communist, and went on to serve in the British Army during the Second World War. At Anzio, a graduate course for those who survived it, he was Military Landing Officer for the British assault brigade. His experiences in the frustrating Italian campaign, a grim education in the art of the possible, translated readily to postwar British politics. After six years as the Labour Party's International Secretary, he was elected as Member of Parliament for Leeds in 1952, and served for 35 years on Labour's Front Bench both in power and out.
 In Government he was both Defence Secretary and Chancellor of the Exchequer, and in Opposition he was Shadow Foreign Secretary. Whatever the post, he showed such conspicuous ability that many still wonder why he was never Prime Minister, but the best answer is probably the most obvious: though he had the common touch, his superiorities were too striking. Among them was a wide range of learning, worn without pretension but not easily emulated.
………The book is a delight to read, and would be significant even if it were dull, because Healey was such a substantial representative of that generation of British left-wing idealists in the late 1930s who favoured Communism as an answer to Fascism, until they found out the hard way that the two brands of totalitarianism were effectively identical. To put it bluntly, they learned that grand plans kill. ….Delightful from start to finish, his autobiography is an education in itself, disheartening only in its implicit suggestion that it takes the near-breakdown of civilisation to produce a generation of politicians who can appreciate the value of what was almost lost.
But perhaps we should try to demonstrate its quality with an initial quotation. Try this: "I was worried by a streak of intolerance in Gaitskell's nature: he tended to believe that no one could disagree with him unless they were either knaves or fools. Rejecting Dean Rusk's advice, he would insist on arguing to a conclusion rather than to a decision. Thus he would keep a meeting of the Shadow Cabinet going, long after he had obtained its consent to his proposals, because he wanted to be certain that everyone understood precisely why he was right."That comes from page 154 of my paperback edition, and there is something to equal it on almost every other page of the book. One doesn't say that cultivation ensures political acumen. If it did, Neville Chamberlain would have been the most effective Prime Minister in British history. But an empty mind is rarely reassuring.
I've written here fairly frequently about politicians - and generally negatively. But the social democrats and civil servants who came to power in Britain in the post-war period had an experience and education which was unique............... 
A cultivated man across the whole range of the arts, Healey was a gift from war to peace. If there had been no war, the dazzling Double First in Greats might have gone on to be an academic, a scholar, a critic, a writer, a star broadcaster, or any combination of those five things. But the war sent him into politics: real politics, Labour politics, not the Communism he had briefly embraced when too young to know the difference. (Sir Isaiah Berlin once said that most of those bright young people who enrolled in the Communist Party in pre-war Britain didn't really want a revolution: they were just liberals who wanted to feel serious.)
In parliament, Healey's mere presence on the Labour front bench was enough to make the Conservatives look like philistines. Not all of them were, but few of those who weren't had a mind as well-furnished as his. Their culture was part of their inheritance. He had to acquire his, and went on acquiring it throughout his career, out of a passion that was never stilled even by the crushing, necessary boredom of political committee rooms.
 .......Nevertheless he is careful to put in plenty of self-deprecation. Opponents are allowed their opinions. If it turns out, as it almost invariably does, that Healey's opinion was better, he tries not to crow. He forgets to record that in 1945 he advised his fellow Labourites not to be panicked by evidence "that our comrades on the Continent are being extremist". ........ Pushing tolerance to the limit, Healey even has good words for Harold Wilson. At the time, Healey's contempt for Wilson's opportunism matched Wilson's fear of Healey's competence: the multilingual Healey was uniquely qualified to be Foreign Secretary, so Wilson kept him busy with every post except that.
The good words make Healey's portrait of Wilson even more devastating.
 In a Presidential system, Healey would have for certain taken the top spot, because he was dynamite on TV. In the British system, however, the party must be pleased before the people, and never since Gaitskell has an intellectual managed to please the Labour Party, unless, like Wilson, he is ready to wear disguise, or, like Michael Foot, to talk shapeless waffle on his feet in order to offset his scholarly precision on the page.
Besides, Healey was an unequivocating advocate of nuclear deterrence, and would have had a chance at the leadership only if he had equivocated. (Foot, who was helped to the leadership by his advocacy of the opposite, equivocated in the other direction in order to win the general election, and the strain helped to ensure that he clamorously lost it.) Healey never flaunted his culture, but he could not conceal it. It was there in the way he talked, and even in the way he listened. He might demolish somebody else's argument in a few sentences, but he took it in first. Healey has an ear for rhythm, and anyone who has that will hear rhythm wherever it occurs. He was delighted by every sharp mind he met. His reputation for brutality might have arisen among those who knew that they did not delight him. There was a sharp critical ability at the heart of his wide powers of appreciation, and his excellent memoirs are a reminder that we should value the kind of figure more interested in cultivating his mind than polishing his image, even though he is likely to be sidelined by a man who is better at the latter than the former.
Clive James’ own highly exuberant style of writing can be excessive – and indeed does often mar what is otherwise the incredible achievement of Cultural Amnesia which gives vignettes of various figures (mainly literary) of the 20th Century whom James considers worthy of remembrance. Quite a few are now completely forgotten – and James is to be congratulated for bringing them back to life. A sample of his (generally) cutting comments can be read here
I always feel that James writes like a graphic artist – the sort who do the caricatures which capture the essence of a person  
The painting is "The Builders" by Stanley Spencer

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