Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Thanks for the memories

There is an interesting article in the New York Review of Books by Gordon S Wood discussing a study of the flimsy grasp of American history exhibited by the Tea Party movement. What drew me to the article was his general theme that there is always "a tension between critical history and popular memory, between what historians write and what society chooses to remember". He calls for us to value the emotional resonances of memory in addition to the academic study of history. It was that notion that got me thinking of the politicisation of memory and, in particular, its role in the recent history of the Labour Party.

Some years ago a friend who worked in a charity shop gave me an old copy of a long out of print history of the Labour Party by Francis Williams, Fifty Years March, first published in 1950. It had obviously been the proud possession of a party member as it had a picture of Harold Wilson, snipped out from a newspaper, sellotaped to the fly leaf. A few years later, in a second-hand bookshop in North Yorkshire, I came across another of his books, this time on trade union history, Magnificent Journey. The names say it all. This is not academic history. The books are proud celebrations of the inevitability of the glorious rise of working class political movements to their rightful prominence. They are an embodiment of the sentiment satirised within the Labour Party by the mocking acronym THIGMOO - this great movement of ours. They are the triumph of memory over history, but as Wood points out, this is not necessarily a bad thing.

Such popular sentiment, at least within the party, became contested by the rise of New Labour. The very idea of novelty implies a rejection of the past in favour of a new modernity. Torn between two competing descriptions of Labour's historical image, they eventually abandoned the idea of Labour as a successful party that needed modernising in favour of the acceptance of the Jenkins thesis, that the division of the left caused by the formation of the Labour Party was a disaster, opening the way for the dominance of the Conservatives. Much was made of the description of the twentieth century as the conservative century.

Thus the Labour Party's very existence was cast in the role of an historic mistake, a rather curious position to be taken by its leadership. The Attlee government could be mythologised to an extent, it was long enough ago not to trouble too many memories, but the rest was seen as a long sequence of failure. Hence, New Labour had arrived to change all that, to be distinct, modern, youthful, successful and, above all, aspirational. The past belonged to 'dinosaurs' who wouldn't change, who could not see how out of touch they were. After the long exclusion from power as a consequence of the split in 1981 (a time when Jenkins was clearly less attached to his thesis) this could seem to make sense. However, it did not answer the question about how this basket case came to be the only credible alternative government to the Tories and was actually ahead in the polls when the New Labour ascendancy began.

New Labour's selling point was that they offered the prospect of electoral victory. They proudly trumpeted the fact that no Labour government had ever won two successive full terms, implying that even when they won power they were swiftly rejected by an electorate that did not like what they saw. Now, due solely to the modernisers, this was going to change; they alone held the secret of success.* And it is here that the academic historian in me begins to bristle.

The weasel word in that claim is "full". This is a slippery concept in a system without fixed term Parliaments. As governments can call elections at any time within a maximum five-year period it is rare for them to serve a full term. But even taking the claim at face value it scarcely holds water. In 1966 Labour actually won a large majority after having been in power since 1964. Ah. Proponents of the thesis of electoral failure would point out that the first period wouldn't count as a full term, though I think that increasing your majority from 4 to 98 by calling an early election might suggest that they were not that unpopular. Then they also gloss over the fact that the 1945 Labour government was actually re-elected in 1950, though with a small majority. Attlee had no need to call an early general election in 1951 and could have served a full term. And even then the reason Labour lost decisively was solely down to the electoral system. Labour polled the biggest share of the vote they have ever had and lost to a Conservative Party that gained more seats with fewer votes and who subsequently went on to harvest the credit for the long post-war boom.

If the electoral results don't fit the thesis of failure, what about the idea of a conservative century. Well, it is true that the Conservative Party governed alone for more than half the 20th Century, but a conservative century? Compare life in 1900 with life in 1999 and what you see is a century of radical reform and of social liberation. Tories both accepted and built on the reforms of the 1906 Liberals and, crucially, the foundations laid by the 1945 Labour Government. There was no challenge to the consensus until the Thatcher years and, taking the century as a whole, the 80's look to be an aberration rather than the norm, despite being so firmly fixed in our political imagination. It would be historically more accurate to describe the century as predominantly social democratic rather than conservative.

Labour played a key role in establishing a social democratic political economy both in the war-time coalition and in sole power between 1945-51. However, the 1964-70 and 1974-79 Labour administrations, especially with Roy Jenkins (he gets around a bit) as Home Secretary, were to augment this by overseeing the liberal reforms that started to unravel authoritarian state moralising - the legalisation of homosexuality, legal abortion, ending the death penalty, relaxing divorce laws etc., as well as expanding educational opportunities through new universities, including the Open University, and stimulating a growth in adult education.

Labour could therefore be seen as the party that represented a combination of a social democratic political economy, the expansion of the social state and a commitment to civil liberties, to egalitarianism, tolerance and diversity - marking a partial withdrawal of the state from regulating and punishing what it saw as aberrant human behaviour. I suppose that this legacy might prove to be a bit bothersome to a grouping that wanted the Labour Party to embrace neo-liberal economics and some aspects of social authoritarianism.

Neither the model of a heroic champion nor that of a mistaken failure stand up to serious historical examination. Yet what matters is not what historians say, but the popular memory. And the idea of Labour as a failure, so eagerly promulgated by sections of the party itself, has staying power. It is now being milked to the full by Coalition politicians who repeat the mantra about 'the mess Labour left behind' at every opportunity.

And this points to a big problem. What happens when the faction that claims to know how to be electorally successful actually fails? There are two lines the party can take. The first is to argue, as Blair does, that Labour lost because it ceased being New Labour and so it must renew the faith to win again. The second repudiates New Labour in favour of something different. This is what the current leadership seems to be trying hesitantly to do. I would argue that in order to do so they need to revisit the idea of popular memory and start the task of rehabilitating the Labour Party's past, seeing the party as the historic vehicle for a politics that combines collective economic action with the advancement of individual social liberties. Such a vision offers us the prospect of a party willing to learn from mistakes and change with the times certainly, but also sees it as a political movement that is seeking to rebuild and renew the triumphs of the past, rather than one trying to repudiate self-confessed, semi-fictitious failures. It won't be easy.

*They did. It was called the Conservative Party, which at the time showed an insatiable appetite for self-destruction.


Ann O'Dyne said...

I wonder ... if there had not been any wars ... ?

Great post though dear FMOAK

Overtired and emotional said...

You must remember that Blair has no sense of history, no respect for institutions and no interest in the past save to the sense that it affects and is contiguous with the present.

He would not have read your post any further than the words 'Harold Wilson'.

He understood fighting a seat in 1979, winning in 1983 and sitting in opposition until the great day came.

No party can be defined just by its immediate past or its opposition. Red Ed has, amoungst other things, to decide just how red he ought to be.