A Strange Eventful History: Democratic Socialism in Britain by Edmund Dell12 September 2007
I’d originally thought to link this review with David Marquand’s The Progressive Dilemma: From Lloyd George to Blair, but I think I’ll save that one for a review to come. Dell’s book deserves to stand on its own, anyway.
A Strange Eventful History: Democratic Socialism in Britain by Edmund Dell
There’s a saying that’s usually attributed to Labour politician Herbert Morrison — ‘Socialism is what a Labour government does’. I’ve always found it to be a fascinating statement, because simply by shifting the emphasis in that statement, you can say one of two things: 1) a Labour government is, by definition, a government that will implement the classic ideas of socialism; or 2) the definition of socialism depends entirely on the Labour government that claims to be implementing it. This particular book kept me thinking about that old saying, and where the emphasis in that saying really lies. And while I can’t deny that Edmund Dell’s book is in many ways a polemic, 500-plus pages of thinly-veiled bitterness about what the Labour movement has become, it’s a book that really does keep you thinking about that possible change in emphasis all the way through.
Now, the late Edmund Dell wasn’t one who had many kind things to say about the Labour party. His book The Schuman Plan and the Abdication of British Leadership in Europe is positively vituperative in its condemnation of the Labour Party’s fear of Franco-German cooperation and further European union. An unsurprising sentiment, perhaps, since he was one of the Labour MPs who broke with the Party and joined the SDP in 1980…in part because of Labour’s anti-Europe stance, though the party’s general drift to the left also played into Dell’s decision to jump ship. But Dell doesn’t seem to have much sympathy for any aspect of Labour government or democratic socialism — at least, not in the way that it has been defined by various Labour politicians and thinkers over the years. And in some ways that lack of sympathy is the book’s main weakness: it’s not always easy to tell when his criticism of Labour’s interpretation of democratic socialism is fully justified, or when he’s attacking Labour out of sheer spite.
Dell is clever with words, I must admit. There’s a wonderful description of Harold Wilson’s desperate, angry pleading with Lyndon Johnson over the shabby state of Britain’s finances in the 1960s: ‘like a suicide threatening to cut his throat on his neighbour’s doorstep’. And I must admit that he does an excellent job with the historical writings, tracing the threads of democratic socialism from the early socialist thinkers in the trade unions right up through Labour’s victory in 1997 (where his account ends). But A Strange Eventful History has to be read with one eye on the writer, always remembering that this history of democratic socialism was written by a man who sadly fell out with the Labour government that claimed to espouse the very ideals of democratic socialism…back when more people considered it to be a truly viable political movement.