UK: Towards a more sane political alternative. (1 of 2)

UK: Towards a more sane political alternative. (1 of 2) - "The Progressive Dilemma - From Lloyd George to Kinnock" by David Marquand (Heinemann, 240 pages, £20.00).

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

"The Progressive Dilemma - From Lloyd George to Kinnock" by David Marquand (Heinemann, 240 pages, £20.00).

Review by Tim Beaumont.

It is difficult to write a book about current affairs these days which is not overtaken by events before publication. David Marquand is particularly unlucky that his account of the "dilemma of the left" in British politics has been dealt a double blow by the fall of Mrs Thatcher and the outbreak of a mini world war. Yet while it would have been instructive to read the author on the implications of both of these events on the question which he poses, the question itself is fundamental enough to survive unharmed.

Indeed, as the subtitle of the book points out, it has been with us since at least World War I. Put at its most most simple it is this: how can those on the left of politics in Britain put together an inclusive and fertile coalition? It is important that it is "inclusive" or it will never command the majority in Parliament that it has most of the time in the country; and it is important that it is "fertile" or it will either run out of ideas fairly quickly, like the immediate post-war Labour Government, or not have any to start with, like subsequent ones.

Such a coalition, David Marquand holds, can exist. It existed during Franklin D Roosevelt's presidency in the United States. It existed, he maintains, in Britain in 1906-14 - and, contrary to received wisdom, was not running out of steam then. Helped by the concept of social democracy (the author was, of course, a Labour MP and then a Social Democrat guru) and a fair voting system, it exists to a greater or lesser degree in various countries of mainland Europe today.

The author is always a lucid and enlightening writer and this particular book is brought to vivid life after the first 70 expository pages by a series of lively character sketches which illustrate the main schema. Bevin, the great apostle of working class solidarity who found his niche as Foreign Secretary working with that archetype of Establishment solidarity, the Foreign Office; Dalton, "the Progressive as Bounder"; Morrison, the constructor of political programmes and political machines; Cripps, the sea-green incorruptible; Bevan, Gaitskell, Crossman and Crosland. He analyses their individual gifts and weaknesses with flair and with the additional spice of pithy anecdote - "Poor man", Crossman once said of Walter Citrine, "he suffers from files".

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