14 JULY 1979, Page 28

Out of puff

Geoffrey Wheatcroft

Mr Roy Jenkins was about to leave Westminster for Brussels, the 'European ideal', and a well-deserved disposable income of some £40,000 per annum. (I once calculated that we indolent darkies, very properly kept in our places by paying 'Income Tax', would need a pre-tax income of more than 1700,000 to enjoy the same take-home pay; never mind.) During his last week in the House of Commons Mr Jenkins addres sed a valedictory gathering: leave the Commons with sadness and wegwets— but 1 leave without wancour'. Voice From the Back: 'I thought you were taking Marquand with you.'

The story may suggest, as Beerbohm would have put it, the hand of our old friend Benjamin Trovato. Vero or not, it came back to me as I read Mr David Marquand's long article in the July Encounter, 'Inquest on a Movement: Labour's Defeat and its Consequences'. This is not indeed Mr Marquand's Farewell to the Labour Party, which is something to be thankful for: that is a genre which will shortly become as stylised and undiverting as the Noh play. But Mr Marquand clearly aligns himself with the `defectors'; and as a statement of the Extreme Moderate position his article is worth examining.

The author is, of course, one of the best-known Extreme Moderates of his age, especially during his 11 years as MP for Ashfield. (The Encounter bioblurb unctuously says that 'he left this safe seat, majority over 20,000, to join the staff of Roy Jenkins, the newly appointed President of the European Commission'. At which the Voice From the Back might come in again: 'Yer, so bloody safe that the men of Ashfield — a mining seat! — showed what they thought of his departure by electing a Tory.') His life of Ramsay MacDonald may have been, as Mr Laski has it, 'acclaimed as a masterpiece of political biography'. I confess that I found it to be written much as the article is, in a style which manages to be at once hackneyed and obscure. Mr Marquand is never afraid of the wellworn phrase: nettles are grasped, voters have gut reactions, Gaitskell tries to 'seize his followers by the scruff of their necks and carry them willy-nilly into' -Myles na Gopaleen's 'Cathechism of Cliche' would have asked here, into what present temporal situation? Yes — 'the second half of the 20th century'. Tone is imparted by foreign words; indeed Zeitgeist and hubris fly around like bullets at the OK Corral, until we come to the words (I don't quite know how to place them, but they come into any concise anthology of Sentences Which I'm Glad I Didn't write): 'In the mid-70s, however, the Zeitgeist began to turn traitor.'

The style isn't all of the man: Mr Marquand has a Message. Part of the Message is a conventional rubbishing of the Left and applause of the Right. Conventional, but largely erroneous. See how Mr Marquand's team spirit carries him away; 'Dennis Skinner . . . has deliberately cultivated a parliamentary style of mindless incivility', from which you might not guess that, whatever is thought of his politics, Mr Skinner is ten times the parliamentarian that Mr Marquand ever was. Again, 'the venom with which the party machine pursued Dick Taverne' is explained by the fact that 'he was a dissenter who had been to a public school and who owned a yacht'. Oh, really? A simpler explanation for the venom is that political parties behave like that towards those whom they conceive to be turncoats: ask the former Lord Hinchinbrooke.

Mr Marquand's main contention is broader. He does, at least, not tout the usual Extreme Moderate line that the Left, has taken over the party, and is responsible for all the Labour's errors and tribulations. Rather, 'the version of welfare-state social democracy practised in this country since the war' has run out of (what recondite metaphysical vaporised liquid?) 'moral steam'. In itself this is as sharp an apercu as saying that last winter's weather was rather nasty. When he comes to the point Mr Marquand has difficulty in, shall we say, grasping the nettle. He can see that the Labour movement has failed, even judged by its own standards and its own aspitations, but dares not quite say so.

It is not just that, as Barbara Hammond memorably put it, the Labour party has 'exalted the humble and the meek and redistributed wealth, only unfortunately the humble and the meek have turned very nasty in the process'. The problem that the Extreme Moderates in the Labour party have to face up to is the failure not of `Labourism', not certainly of socialism, but of social democracy. It hasn't merely run out of steam, which stale metaphor suggests that the boilers once functioned smoothly: it never really worked at all. It palpably bears much of the blame for our economic failure. Mr Jenkins complained that with the State spending 50 to 60 per cent of GDP the country was reaching the 'frontiers of social democracy'. He did not pause to wonder whether social democracy might not be inherently expansionist, that it might push back its frontiers by its very nature.

In the same way, Mr Marquand deplores the way that the 'social wage' has bitten into individual wages, and, as is now fashionable, reprehends the 'alienation' of ordinary people under a bureaucratic welfare state; just as predictably, he looks for a 'libertarian, decentralist social democracy'. Yet when he comes back to the People's Party and the 'gulf between socialists and social democrats [which] is now the deepest in British politics' he emphasises the irreconcilable opposition of the two wings of the party on (among other things) 'incomes policy, prices policy. . . and European policy': the poor booby can't see that on these three subjects it is the Left which is 'libertarian, decentralise, or at least offers some hope of a libertarian solution.

The sadness is that while trying so hard to be fresh and iconoclastic Mr Marquand only succeeds in showing up the sterility of the Labour Right — or, to be fairer, of postButskellism, of that consensus between Tory paternalism and Fabian managerialism which has ruled us for a generation with such unhappy results. The recognition that the consensus now broken down is a vital first step. But when new political paths are found it is not difficult to guess that they will be explored by the far 'Right' and the far 'Left' rather than by the Moderate centre.