Tuesday 3 February 2009

Progressive dilemmas and the democratic republican tradition

I reviewed David Marquand's Britain Since 1918 in the current Fabian Review. It offers some important challenges about the future direction of the left (and the right): in particular, for us, whether and how it is possible to bring together social democratic, democratic republican and liberal strands of thought.

Following the recent discussions on Red Toryism and Lib-Labbery, I am trying to open up a discussion about this at Liberal Conspiracy, suggesting that these 'big picture' debates about the possible futures of the major ideological traditions in British politics, and whether they can rediscover traditions which have not been recently dominant, lie behind and will probably outlast the debates of this political and electoral cycle.

The initial response at Liberal Conspiracy has been some uncertainty about what democratic republicanism is, though most regular contributors make what are broadly democratic republican arguments from a disparate range of progressive perspectives and so I suspect it is as good a non-academic space as any to attempt such a discussion. (I suspect we might have to arrange a loan deal for Stuart to post something over there on this)

This perhaps reflects the observation that "the attractions of democratic republicanism – its open-ended discursiveness – have also often proved political weaknesses". My other central concern is how we can ensure that calls for a less statist politics don’t end up losing the egalitarian mission of the left, given how easily some of the attractive rhetoric can be picked up from various points of left, right and centre and employed to a range of different ends.

Hence my (tentative and provisional) conclusion heads towards a 'fusion' of the social democratic, liberal and republican traditions - which is something David Miliband has sought to explore and a theme of several of Stuart's contributions here last Autumn - while recognising the tensions inherent in this.

Marquand’s ‘Progressive Dilemma’ concluded that Labour would be necessary, but not sufficient, to a successful, sustained challenge to Tory dominance. That argument may now be both more difficult and as important as ever.

This may depend on understanding the republican and collectivist traditions not as opposing armies but as potential, if uneasy, allies. Their on-going, mutual interrogation which could fuse social democratic and liberal thought. There would be several tensions: a thin, majoritarian idea of democracy would be one barrier; a left-libertarian allergy to the necessary role of government in dismantling class disadvantage could prove another. Still, this offers the best hope of creating a politics which could speak in the causes of equality and democracy to the spirit of Lloyd George, Tawney, Orwell and Amartya Sen, and seek to link mobilisation from below with progressive state action. It would not be easy, but the history of British democracy suggests it could also do much to determine which type of Conservativism we face.

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