Should social democrats be conservative? Emphatically not, declares David Miliband in today’s New Statesman leader. Social democracy cannot win and govern successfully in defensive posture, putting up protective barricades around its remaining citadels. Nostalgia for a post-war heyday will not do either. Social democracy is at its best when it leads projects of national and economic, social and political renewal: witness 1945, 1964 and 1997.
But is there a distinct social democratic ideology which has political relevance in the 21st century? Patently not, if you think that social democracy was the product of a particular moment in European history that has now passed. This view, exemplified by John Gray’s After Social Democracy, holds that social democracy was a geopolitical response to the cold war, a class compromise to build a democratic, social market alternative to Soviet communism and US capitalism, which lasted nearly 40 years, until a combination of neoliberalism and the collapse of the Berlin Wall administered its last rites.
Ironically, this perspective is obliquely endorsed even by self-professed social democrats. As Miliband notes, in Ill Fares the Land, the late Tony Judt lamented the passing of the post-war European order, just as he defended social democracy’s achievements. But he did so in terms that conceded the depth of social democracy’s political defeat and offered little hope of its resurrection.
It is perhaps unsurprising, therefore, that Third Way revisionists seeking to revive the fortunes of the democratic left in the 1990s recoiled from professing an ideological position. Anthony Giddens gave the subtitle The Renewal of Social Democracy to his book The Third Way but ‘what matters is what works, not ideology’ was more often the lodestar of New Labour. In the pre-crash period of steady, continuous economic growth – or so-called Great Moderation – a distinct political ideology came to be seen as a little outré.
The political terrain of post-crash politics is more rugged. Yet as European voters splinter off the mainstream political parties, there is no guarantee that social democracy will furnish the ideological or political tools for a new generation to bring it back to power (indeed, even contemporary Labour theorists like Maurice Glasman who are critical of the New Labour record disdain the term social democracy, preferring to nourish themselves on European Christian Democracy, Catholic social movements, and the guild traditions of British socialism). That is why the kind of confident, assertive social democracy which Miliband calls forth will be necessary. A defensive stance will not work.
The social democratic tradition is a remarkably resilient and versatile one, however. It defeated its main rivals, Marxism and fascism, in the 20th century. It fed off a productive intellectual and political relationship with liberalism, the other great winner of the last century, and built institutions for the common good that have endured successfully in European countries. It was pragmatic, recognising the necessity of building cross-class alliances, and drew political success as well as ideological flexibility from that pragmatism. But it held fast to core beliefs, chief among them the universality of citizenship, a claim which it embodied in institutions of the welfare state, like the National Health Service, through which social democratic values live and breathe, assumed and unspoken, today. And it renewed its political appeal despite the passing into history of the cold war era and the organised industrial working class which had done so much to shape it. Its most successful Nordic bastions remain beacons of social justice, human flourishing and the pursuit of a decent common life. Miliband is right to cite his admiration for the achievements of his northern European cousins.
If social democratic ideology has continued relevance today, it is because it asserts the ‘primacy of politics’, in Sheri Berman’s felicitous phrase. It insists on the importance of active democratic citizenship and the primacy of politics over economics. If New Labour was ‘too hands off with the market, too hands on with the state’, then a new combination of active economic intervention with a more localist, relational statecraft could well prove to be the key to its renewed success.