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The Progressive Policy Think Tank

Juncture 19.4: Spring 2013



In an oeuvre that encompassed studies in British working-class history, works of political and economic theory, biographies and detective novels, the guild socialist intellectual GDH Cole wrote two analyses of the condition of Britain: one penned in the middle of the depression in the 1930s, with his wife Margaret, and another in the 1950s, when the country enjoyed full employment and rising prosperity. The two studies were separated by World War II, the Beveridge Report and the Attlee government, as well as at least a dozen other books by Cole himself, and the gulf between Britain in the 1930s and what it was to become in the 1950s was wide and deep. An entirely new economic and social settlement – forged on the anvil of war and built by the 1945 Labour government – shaped post-war Britain.

Cole did not live to see the destruction of that settlement in the 1970s and 1980s (he died in 1959, the year Harold Macmillan was returned to power by an electorate grateful that they 'had never had it so good'). Were he alive today, he would recognise features of the 1930s economic and social landscape: prolonged economic stagnation, falling living standards, and sharp divides between north and south. Faithful to a profound belief in the dignity, worth and potential of human beings, he would recognise too the immense reservoirs of strength and resilience in the British people that characterise the country now, as much as in the past. These would be sources of inspiration for a politics of hope, premised on the power, capabilities and convictions of working people. Cole stood for community and fellowship, not state or market.

He would doubtless, therefore, hear echoes of his own voice at times in this edition's lead essay by Jon Cruddas and Liam Byrne. Their analysis of the condition of Britain starts from the lived experience of people in Britain today, rather than abstract categories of political thought, just as Cole's did. It seeks primarily to shape a new centre-left understanding of British society. If New Labour was 'too hands-off with the market, too hands-on with the state', one of the party's pressing intellectual and political tasks today is to conjoin its emerging economic reform agenda with a new account of how it will approach social policy.

In these arguments, we can see a new democratic politics for the British centre-left taking shape. It is much more attentive to democratic empowerment, drawing inspiration from the socialist and cooperative traditions, exemplified by GDH Cole, and more instinctively localist. It focuses increasingly on the institutions of public life and the relationships they sustain, rather than the transactions between self-regarding individuals more typical of new public management. And it seeks to balance the desire to conserve, cherish and protect, with the urgency to reform, given the scale of the social challenges Britain faces.

Read more: Editorial: Appraising the condition of Britain


  • Editorial \ Guy Lodge and Will Paxton
  • The condition of Britain: A new politics of society for the centre-left \ Jon Cruddas and Liam Byrne
  • Juncture interview: Bonnie Honig
  • Statecraft without statism: Governing for shared prosperity in an age of austerity \ James Plunkett
  • Europe needs a new social balance \ Sigmar Gabriel
  • Obama campaign: An insider's view \ David Axelrod in conversation with David Muir
  • Time for Labour to establish economic credibility \ John Curtice
  • Shifting out of neutral on parental leave: Making fathers' involvement explicit \ Tina Miller
  • Reviews: Barker on Burgin, Mitchell on Helm