In a recent debate at the LSE with Michael Gove, Lord Maurice Glasman described Labour’s conceptualisation of ‘One Nation’. He argues that it is an expression that places the idea of an innovation nation within a framework of decentralised institutions which maintain a role for tradition, good practice and ethos in navigating an effective response to the demands of globalisation. It seeks to reconcile the societal divisions that liberalism denies exists.
It is not the credit of our political culture that given the unique circumstance of a fixed term Parliament there is so little public debate between politicians. The lack of substantive political debate depletes and diminishes our political culture founded upon civil disagreement. Civility is not a virtue opposed to politics but a condition of it. I am grateful to the LSE fulfilling its vocation as a civic institution in hosting the debate that took place between myself and Michael Gove.
While I do not expect that this will be the beginning of a public affair with Michael Gove, or even a civil partnership, let alone god forbid, the kind of loveless contractual marriage that he and his party have entered into with the liberal democrats, I really do appreciate his participation in our debate. It shows confidence and courage, two important political virtues that he has also displayed as one of the two serious reforming ministers of this Government.
The new director, Professor Craig Calhoun wrote of Marx that ‘like many heirs of the enlightenment he cannot accept the intrusion of seemingly irrelevant tradition into the rationality of the future’. That, in a nutshell is the argument I will be making about Michael Gove’s theory of modernisation.
I sometimes view this government as having all of the vices and none of the virtues of New Labour and the necessity of moving beyond it to embrace a politics where the balance of interests and vocation are given a more significant role. And most importantly where tradition and virtue are seen as constitutive aspects of modernity and a successful competitive economy.
It was also appropriate to have the debate at the LSE because it concerns a debate in the social sciences about modernity and globalisation. There are those, and I think Michael Gove is clearly on this side of the debate, who argue that there are two dominant institutions in a modern society; the market and the state and the market should be sovereign in the economy and the state in politics. A price setting market and the rule of law defines modernity and is the road to liberty and prosperity. The political choices are stark in this vision of modernity; sink or swim, adapt or die, the past or the future, open or closed societies, innovation or stagnation, optimism or nostalgia, the market or the state. I take all of these examples from the lecture Michael Gove gave to the think tank Politeia on the 28th of April.
I hate to raise the spectre of the ‘big society’ that was supposed to define the orientation and direction of this liberal-led coalition but the remarkable thing is that there is no conception of society at all in Mr Gove’s conception of modernity. The past is a drag on modernisation, unions hinder innovation, vocation impedes aspiration and tradition must be constrained within Max Weber’s iron cage of modernisation by managerial prerogative and the maximisation of returns in the public and private sectors.
And then there are those on my side of the fence who argue that the assumptions of this kind of globalised modernisation theory are mistaken in their proposition that the greatest degree of market organisation and state administration is the only, or even the best way, of assimilating changes in technology, information and practice in a global economy. That there is something wrong about an exclusive stress on transferable skills, in the rejection of institutional mediation and above all in the invisibility of tradition, inherited practice and vocation in the constitution of modernity.
Our argument is that these things don’t matter less but matter more in a high value added skilled economy that wishes to be competitive in a global economy. We have known for decades that there would be a knowledge economy, our mistake, and it was shared between both parties, was to think that academics had all the knowledge when a brief conversation with any of us would indicate that this is far from the case. There was a contempt for labour and labour traditions as the carriers of value, of knowledge and of skill. We thought that people who read books knew more than people who worked with other people and did things. We still do and that needs to change.
The fundamental counter example that is put forward by mediated globalisation theory is Germany. We ask those on Michael Gove’s side of the argument to explain how the country with the greatest degree of worker representation in its corporate governance structure, the greatest degree of vocational regulation of labour market entry through the enforcement of apprenticeships as a condition of being able to practice a trade, with the greatest constraints on capital through its system of regional and sectoral banks that are not allowed to lend outside of a defined geographical location or specialism, as well as a pension system that administered on parity terms between capital and labour, should have the most successful economy in Europe. From the point of view of liberal or third way modernisation theory it simply makes no sense at all.
The overwhelming lesson of Thatcherism, and the hardest to face, is that Germany won. We have a Champions League final next week between two supporter owned and democratically governed football clubs. Neither liberal nor Keynesian economic theory can explain this because neither has any concept of tradition, institutions, firms, vocations, or any intermediate structures between the individual and the collective, or the market and the state. Neither has any conception of society. That is why the Labour Tradition and One Nation Labour as an expression of that places its innovation theory, its idea of an innovation nation, within a framework of decentralised institutions which maintain a role for tradition, good practice and ethos in navigating an effective response to the demands of globalisation. You cannot innovate out of nothing, there is always pre-existing matter and knowledge that is transformed by the innovation. It is precisely the wisdom of the conservative tradition that revolutionary change cannot understand the continuity of things through time, the constant balance between change and continuity and that not everything can be put into doubt simultaneously.
This leads to the insight that an inheritance is necessary for a future, that tradition is necessary for innovation.
It is this insight that has been lost to Conservatives since Thatcher and Michael Gove’s vision of modernity is one of relentless change with no institutional mediation in either understanding, shaping or constraining it. It is for this reason that we embrace a politics of paradox where quality and equality, virtuous elites and a renewed democracy, tradition and innovation, the past and the future are understood as complementary not as opposed concepts. We have to be open and closed and the balance between them is the task of the new statecraft.
Disraeli defined One Nation as ‘the maintenance of the institutions of the realm and the elevation of the conditions of the people’. It remains a noble description of the vocation of politics. We need to renew not subordinate our institutions such as our great universities, our Parliament, our city governments and professional associations and extend them into the working life of the nation.
One Nation assumes the plurality and diversity of existing interests and traditions and seeks to reconcile them in pursuit of the common good, of a societal purpose that gives incentives to virtue and is oriented towards the good. It conceives of this in reconciling the societal divisions that liberalism denies exists, between capital and labour, between immigrant and local, Christians and Muslims, religious and secular, men and women, rich and poor and between North and South.
Such a political vision is very different from the one proposed by this government, or the last Labour government, both of which are characterised by a contempt for tradition, a belief in managerial prerogative and the domination of a single interest in the name of efficiency. One Nation Labour is offering a future that is significantly different and better. There are interesting times ahead.
Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the British Politics and Policy blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please read our comments policy before posting.
Maurice Glasman is an English academic, social thinker and Labour life peer in the House of Lords. He is credited as the originator of Blue Labour, a term he coined in 2009