Crosland The Social Democrat

I first became aware of Tony Crosland in 1980 when I watched a TV documentary covering that year’s election for the Labour Party leadership in which Michael Foot narrowly defeated Denis Healey. The programme profiled a Labour MP whom it said had voted for Crosland in the previous contest four years earlier. I later discovered that he came last in that poll garnering only seventeen votes from his fellow parliamentarians, I wrongly concluded from that mere statistic that Mr Crosland wasn’t much of a figure in the Labour Party. How wrong I was.

In fact, from his entry into politics as a young man in the 1940s to his untimely death in 1977 Crosland was a key figure on the progressive centre-left. First becoming an MP in 1950, he went to serve as a minister under both Wilson and Callaghan in a variety of departments ending as Foreign Secretary. His passing resulted in the fast track promotion of one David Owen to that role which some might argue made Owen such a key player subsequently.

However, it was as the writer of the groundbreaking ‘The Future Of Socialism’ in 1956 that Crosland is probably best remembered. The book which perhaps should have been called ‘The Future Of Social Democracy’ was welcomed by Labour moderates but condemned by its left for arguing that nationalisation was not the crucial route to a fairer Britain, arguing instead that equality of opportunity through significant improvements in areas like education was the answer. The book is still talked and written about all these years later.

Throughout his time in politics, Crosland was close to Roy Jenkins whom he met at Oxford and sat in cabinets with, there was some divergence in the early 1970s when they disagreed over tactics in relation to Britain’s entry into the Common Market but their respect for each other endured. In her excellent biography of her husband Crosland’s widow, Susan paints a vivid picture of their lives before they met, their marriage and the many significant political figures they engaged with. In 2016 three old friends Giles Radice, David Lipsey and Dick Leonard spoke at an event at Queen Mary University to commemorate 60 years since the aforementioned book was published. Each was asked whether Crosland had he lived would have joined the SDP when it was formed. They thought he wouldn’t, but I am not so sure. Of course, we will never know. What is clear however is that this man who was rejected so decisively by his fellow MPs when he sought the opportunity to lead them was a confirmed social democrat whose ideas live on in the party that carries forward the flame of that philosophy the Liberal Democrats.

* David is a member of Horsham and Crawley Liberal Democrats

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12 Comments

  • I’ve always found him fascinating too. It’s certainly true that he was an intellectual force in the Labour party of the 60s and 70s, but his problem was there were too many big hitters on the right of the party at that time – Jenkins, Healey, Brown, Callaghan – and all of them had better political skills than he had, which is why he never made it to the top. He died tragically young though.
    John Campbell’s biography of Roy Jenkins suggests he and TC were more than just friends when they were at university.

  • John Marriott 5th Feb '20 - 5:39pm

    He didn’t like grammar schools either! Like Hugh Gaitskell, John Smith, and David Penhaligon, to name just three, he sadly died before he could achieve his full potential.

  • Yousuf Farah 5th Feb '20 - 7:03pm

    I probably should not have taken this bait, but my head was so sore from all the scratching. Are you saying that the philosophy of people like Blair, Brown, Corbyn, Wilson etc is what the Lib Dems are about? That’s not Liberalism, that’s socialism, or rather champagne socialism.

  • David Warren 5th Feb '20 - 7:25pm

    @YousufFarah

    No, that isn’t what I am saying at all.

    Blair and Brown are authoritarians, Wilson was originally a Bevanite who relaxed his principles in the pursuit of power, Corbyn an old style Tribunite Labour left winger.

    Crosland belonged to a completely different group of liberal leaning social democrats, one of whom was Roy Jenkins who was the most liberal Home Secretary Britain has ever had.

  • Harold Wilson came from a nonconformist background in Huddersfield. His father had been a deputy Liberal agent before becoming an industrial chemist with I.C.I.. When young Harold got to Oxford he was active in the University Liberal Club.

    He had the additional benefit (as far as I am concerned) of being a life long supporter of Huddersfield Town. He carried a picture in his wallet of the Town team that won the title for the third year running in 1926, and his statue in St George’s Square usually has a blue and white scarf on it. He was a very clever man who knew how to relate to ordinary people, once chatting with my Dad about football for half an hour when he was on holiday in the Scilly Isles (that’s how I know about the picture). Without knowing it they’d both stood on the terraces at Leeds Road in 1926.

    Anthony Crossland was an intellectual heavyweight – and a very brave man – a Captain in the Parachute Regiment in WW2.

    We could do with people of their calibre today.

  • William Wallace 6th Feb '20 - 12:41pm

    David:

    Huddersfield Town as a world-class football club is a nostalgic memory – splendid, but belonging to the years when Blackpool and Preston North End were top clubs. When I stood in Huddersfield West in 1970 the team had just managed to climb back to what was then the First Division; and the town’s two Labour MPs put posters up with their pictures over the slogan ‘Huddersfield’s other winning team’. In the following 3 years, as I recall, Huddersfield Town went down a division a year….

  • @ William : Correct, William, and you could almost correlate their ups and downs with that of the Liberal Party.

    On a more positive note I was at Wembley to see them get back into the top Division two years ago – and later beat Manchester United 2 – 1. It’s always sweet to see the underdog do well.

    It’s also impressive to realise that the Town Foundation has provided almost one million free breakfasts in schools in Hudders over the last few years, with the players being contractually obligated to take part. They will rise again.

  • Richard Underhill 6th Feb '20 - 6:27pm

    David Warren 5th Feb ’20 – 7:25pm
    A young politician such as Harold Wilson can progress his career by resigning, but Bevan as Health Secretary was sacked by Attlee: “I want your resignation in the morning”. The PM decided it was politically necessary to commit troops and support the Americans in Korea with consequent costs.
    I was very young in the late forties, but the possible restoration of prescription charges and their costs was still an issue when Wilson was PM and the Ministry of Health was computerising its systems.

  • David Warren 6th Feb '20 - 8:16pm

    @DavidRaw

    I have always had a soft spot for Huddersfield Town and that remains despite the fact they beat my team Reading in the play off final a few years back.

    I was aware that Harold Wilson was a fan because in his excellent book ‘Only A Game’ Eamonn Dunphy mentions the fact that Wilson once came into the dressing room when The Terriers were playing Millwall.

    Crosland was also a keen football fan and after his selection as the candidate for Grimsby became a regular attender at Mariners games. He also loved watching Match Of The Day.

    @RichardUnderhill

    Harold Wilson’s good luck was in being in the right place at the right time. He won the leadership of the Labour Party in 1963 after Gaitskell’s death largely because of doubts about the deputy leader George Brown. Brown had already defeated Wilson in the deputy election three years earlier and had there been a more solid candidate from the right wing of the party he would have won.

  • David Warren 8th Feb '20 - 10:35am

    I am pleased to report that I have managed to get a copy of ‘The Future Of Socialism’ from my local library which I am really looking forward to reading.

  • bernard Aris 10th Feb '20 - 3:41pm

    It has always been a problem for Social Liberals and pro-Europeans that there were (and still are?) social-democrats (note the term) whose thinking and political attitudes overlapped so much with us Liberals. In some families you see sisters or brothers choosing the one for the socdem wing of a “party of Labour”: (the Dutch variant), and the other for us SocLibs. Or fathers and sons thus diverging.

    And it is complete nonsense to put Crosland and Blair in the same box; ideologically the blank space Tony was continously set upon by Cherie, according to two Dutch Blair biographies the true Socialist in that household; Crosland was a pragmatic conviction politician.

    Blair wasn’t a pragmatic social democrat; he was a spindoctor-dependent power politician who, just like Johnson will experience, got totally the wrong end of the stick by insisting on his “Special Relationship” to enhance the British world position with the American President and Dick Cheney. Blairs Europeanism was one foot deep; as far as The Sun allowed.

  • David Warren 16th Feb '20 - 3:16pm

    Thanks Bernard. In my view Blair is completely devoid of principle or conviction. His only desire was to get power and then to keep it.

    Crosland on the other hand had a genuine desire to create a fairer, more equal society through progressive government action.

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