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The Progressive Dilemma: From Lloyd George to Blair by David Marquand

8 October 2007

Slipping in yet another history of the political (centre) left in twentieth-century Britain.

The Progressive Dilemma: From Lloyd George to Blair by David Marquand

Political writer and former Labour (and then SDP, and then Lib Dem, and then New Labour, and then anti-New Labour) politician David Marquand’s book isn’t as much of a polemic as, for instance, Edmund Dell’s strange and eventful history. Nonetheless, the author does have quite a bit of criticism to direct at the politicians he mentions in this book. The Progressive Dilemma is a collection of interconnected essays, beginning with the ‘ghost’ of Liberal Prime Minister H.H. Asquith and continuing through to Tony Blair and New Labour, that presents a historical assessment of why the centre-left was an electoral failure for so much of the twentieth century. It should be noted that this book is a revised edition of Marquand’s earlier book of similar name, which was published in 1991 and therefore only went as far as Neil Kinnock.

Marquand’s main message, it seems, is that the Labour Party’s long-standing insistence on defining itself as the party of the working-class (or rather, the trade unions) severely hampered its ability to re-orient its policies in lines with demographic and societal shifts. The image of Labour as the party of trade unions worked to exclude many Liberals and liberals (note the capitalisation differences) from joining to the party and contributing to its intellectual and political development…which eventually led to stagnation and electoral defeated. The radical redefinition of Labour’s political programme may have made it electable once more, but the lack of a defineable ideology left it crippled, overly prone to drifting with public opinion and, as Marquand worries, less able to govern effectively.

It’s a complicated-sounding summary, and Marquand’s book is fairly complex. I might argue that it’s not very accessible to anyone who doesn’t have a general understanding of twentieth-century British history, particularly in the context of the forces that shape electoral politics. I also would have liked a few more references and citations in the text (more footnotes generally can’t hurt a history book), but that’s my personal preference in such matters. In the end, though, Marquand’s underlying message is a welcome plea for historical context and balance. He points out the flaws with both neoliberal Thatcherite economics and the socialist belief that economies can be micromanaged and engineered precisely to a government’s standards. Yet he also denounces how both sides exaggerate and inflate each other’s faults, creating a falsely persuasive argument against either the ‘bloated bureaucratic socialists’ or the ‘greedy heartless Tories’. That sort of arguing leads nowhere, he claims — and it certainly doesn’t provide an answer to the ‘progressive dilemma’ that continues to pose problems for British politicians in the early years of the twenty-first century.

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