Equality and the British Left

Equality and the British Left: A study in progressive political thought, 1900-64

Ben Jackson
John Callaghan
Steven Fielding
Steve Ludlam
Copyright Date: 2007
Pages: 272
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt155j78x
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  • Book Info
    Equality and the British Left
    Book Description:

    The demand for equality has been at the heart of the politics of the Left in the twentieth century, but what did theorists and politicians on the British Left mean when they said they were committed to ‘equality’? How did they argue for a more egalitarian society? Which policies did they think could best advance their egalitarian ideals? Equality and the British Left provides the first comprehensive answers to these questions. It charts debates about equality from the progressive liberalism and socialism of the early twentieth century to the arrival of the New Left and revisionist social democracy in the 1950s. Along the way, it examines and reassesses the egalitarian political thought of many significant figures in the history of the British Left, including L. T. Hobhouse, R. H. Tawney and Anthony Crosland. This book demonstrates that the British Left has historically been distinguished from its ideological competitors on the Centre and the Right by a commitment to a demanding form of economic egalitarianism. It shows that this egalitarianism has come to be neglected or caricatured by politicians and scholars alike, and is more surprising and sophisticated than is often imagined. Equality and the British Left offers a compelling new perspective on British political thought that will appeal to scholars and students of British history and political theory, and to anyone interested in contemporary debates about progressive politics.

    eISBN: 978-1-84779-219-8
    Subjects: Political Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-vii)
  3. Series editors’ foreword
    (pp. viii-viii)
    John Callaghan, Steven Fielding and Steve Ludlam

    The start of the twenty-first century is superficially an inauspicious time to study labour movements. Political parties once associated with the working class have seemingly embraced capitalism. The trade unions with which these parties were once linked have suffered near-fatal reverses. The industrial proletariat looks both divided and in rapid decline. The development of multi-level governance, prompted by ‘globalisation’ has furthermore apparently destroyed the institutional context for advancing the labour ‘interest’. Many consequently now look on terms such as the ‘working class’, ‘socialism’ and ‘the labour movement’ as politically and historically redundant.

    The purpose of this series is to give...

  4. Acknowledgements
    (pp. ix-x)
    Ben Jackson
  5. List of abbreviations
    (pp. xi-xii)
  6. Introduction
    (pp. 1-14)

    Critics of capitalism have long argued that the market, if left to its own devices, will inevitably generate unacceptable inequality in the distribution of wealth, opportunities and work. While the history of attempts to substantiate this criticism is partly a story about ever increasing sophistication in the marshalling of appropriate empirical evidence, it is also necessarily a story about the shifting political concepts and ideological strategies that have been pressed into service in order to justify the superiority of a more egalitarian distribution. Since the demands of political argument require egalitarians to describe the disadvantages of a capitalist distributive pattern...

  7. Part I 1900–31:: Foundations
    • 1 Riches and poverty
      (pp. 17-37)

      The decades surrounding the First World War raised a testing question for the British political system: on what terms could the working class be integrated into a stable social settlement? Manual workers and their families constituted an overwhelming, but severely disadvantaged, majority of the British population in this period, and both their industrial strength and political power were on the increase. Over 70 per cent of the British workforce was drawn from the working class; trade unions had begun to tap into this potential support after a long period of quiescence, with the percentage of union members in the total...

    • 2 From each according to their ability
      (pp. 38-58)

      A traditional criticism of policy measures that transfer resources to the disadvantaged is that the recipients are effectively the beneficiaries of state-sponsored largesse, since they are in receipt of benefits that they have not personally earned and that are issued to them regardless of the productive contribution they have made. In short, the recipients of welfare benefits are given someone else’s rightfully earned money, for which they do nothing in return. This was a common rhetorical manoeuvre used against social reform measures in the early twentieth century, and was given a distinctive period appeal by the supplementary claim that under...

    • 3 Fair shares
      (pp. 59-90)

      ‘It is a matter of common agreement among all persons whose opinion is worth considering at all’, wrote G. D. H. Cole, ‘that wealth is far too unevenly divided’.¹ Since progressives were united on this point, it followed that, as the Nation put it, ‘all social reformers, to whatever party they belong, are committed to various levelling processes’.² As we have seen, the justification for this egalitarian orientation was derived from a desire to efface the numerous social and political harms inflicted by class divisions. Progressives aspired to a community characterised by egalitarian social relationships, equal life chances and active...

  8. Part II 1931–45:: Economics
    • 4 Marxists and social democrats
      (pp. 93-116)

      Throughout the early twentieth century, the Left’s egalitarian ideals had been grounded on a hidden and largely uncontroversial premise. Progressives assumed that arguments about political values were central to legitimating policy proposals and political strategies, and consequently believed that a fairer society could be advanced through reasoned democratic debate about the ethical virtues of an egalitarian distribution. However, these beliefs only appeared uncontroversial in an ideological climate that emphasised the importance of ethical discourse to politics and the conviction that rational debates about values could produce significant moral and political progress. Both of these characteristics of British political debate were...

    • 5 Social justice and economic efficiency
      (pp. 117-148)

      Surveying the ideology of the British Left in 1933, a young economist called Hugh Gaitskell identified an important philosophical and strategic cleavage between two different types of socialist. For Marxists, he wrote, ‘the transition to socialism’ was ‘not something which can be effected by the mere appeal to reason’, being instead ‘an inevitable process of historical development’. In contrast, for the ‘mild tempered evolutionary idealists’ of ‘the British labour movement’, it was assumed ‘that man is a rational being, free to choose his own future. He is asked to select this programme, this line of development rather than any other.’¹...

  9. Part III 1945–64:: Revisions
    • 6 Means and ends
      (pp. 151-182)

      The period 1940–51 saw the emergence of a British state that had unprecedented sympathy with working-class demands for equality. The egalitarian ethic of the War and the post-war government’s policy of ‘fair shares’ produced a remarkable redistribution of income and social esteem to the working class. Although the extent of this redistribution was, and is, debateable, there had undoubtedly been a tangible shift towards a more egalitarian social order.¹ It was now possible for the Left to argue ‘that Britain in recent years has come closer to being a just society than any other major country in recorded history’.²...

    • 7 Let us face the future
      (pp. 183-218)

      In the previous chapter, I argued that the ideal of social justice defended by the revisionists was robustly egalitarian and involved a powerful critique of the idea of a ‘meritocracy’. Attempts to portray the revisionists as meritocrats have therefore misunderstood the revisionist case, and have distorted accounts of the public philosophy of the Labour Party in this period. However, it would be misleading to conclude my analysis at this point. While putative critics of revisionism might be prepared to concede that both the contextual and textual evidence supports the claims of the previous chapter, they might nonetheless reformulate their criticism...

  10. Conclusion
    (pp. 219-227)

    In this book I have examined the historical development of the ideal of equality and its role in the ideology of the British Left. I have focused on three main themes. The first, and overriding, theme of this book is the sheer historical durability of a particular kind of social democratic egalitarianism. From the Edwardian period to the early 1960s, both left liberals and socialists were profoundly disturbed by the unfair economic inequality that structured British society. The aim of reducing or eliminating that inequality (and not simply poverty) was fundamental to progressive political thought and to the Left’s understanding...

  11. Select bibliography
    (pp. 228-250)
  12. Index
    (pp. 251-259)