Wednesday 22 April 2009

Samuel Beer has died

Samuel Beer, a Professor of political science at Harvard University, has died at the ripe old age of 97. The Guardian provides an obituary.

Beer was for a couple of generations the leading US student of British politics, writing the classic Modern British Politics. His approach to the study of politics was deeply informed by political theory. The story he tells in this book revolves around the emergence of, and competition between, rival public philosophies - an approach which David Marquand has recently developed in his own way in Britain Since 1918. His account of the emergence and character of Labour's public philosophy remains a vital reference point.

A visiting student at Balliol College, Oxford, in the 1930s, he went on to serve as a speechwriter for FDR before becoming an academic at Harvard. A friend of Bernard Crick and Jo Grimond, he was a convinced liberal in the American sense of that term and retained a close interest in the development of the British centre-left throughout his life.

Beer was excited by the rise of New Labour and wrote an excellent essay, 'New Labour: Old Liberalism', for a collection I edited New Labour: The Progressive Future? His argument was that New Labour represented a decisive turn away from the 'collectivism' of Labour and a reorientation towards the social liberal tradition in British politics. To develop his case, he examined in depth the political thought of his old friend Jo Grimond, pointing to what he saw as affinities between the communitarian liberalism of Grimond and the emerging philosophy of New Labour.

Looking back now, over a decade from when the essay was written, one is perhaps struck by the extent to which this was a possible road for New Labour but one which was largely not taken. Grimond would have applauded New Labour's initial moves towards constitutional reform, but he would have criticised its loss of momentum on this issue. He would certainly have been highly, and rightly, critical of Labour's authoritarianism on civil liberties.

Like many people, including myself, Beer doubtless interpreted early New Labour in part in terms of what he hoped it would do. His hopes have been disappointed in many respects.

But what he hoped for - the revival of a radical social liberalism, pursuing democratization of the state and wider asset ownership as well as a generous welfare state - remains absolutely right.

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