Tony Crosland: A Legacy Worth Remembering

OULC member, Kenji Newton, remembers the late Labour MP Tony Crosland (1918-1977) and explains why his commitment to equality and critique of meritocracy make him relevant to modern politics. 

The name Charles Antony Raven Crosland is perhaps a little obscure to the Labour voter of today. If people have heard of him at all, it’s from a rather awkward interview between David Miliband and Jeremy Paxman, where Miliband reminds Paxman of the finite nature of life with the ever memorable quote: ‘He died, Jeremy. He died.’ Indeed, it’s easy to question why I am writing such an article at all. I’m a proud student of St Anne’s while he taught economics at Trinity, and his attempt to become Party leader in 1976 saw him placed 5th out of 5 candidates.

But all of that is meaningless compared to Crosland’s vision of a viable egalitarian socialism. It was he who taught us the failings of meritocracy and how it had to be made meaningful. He taught us that humans are worth more than the intelligence our education system seeks to measure, and that we must take seriously people’s different skill sets if we are to have a civilised society. But most importantly for our movement, he made the distinction between means and ends. Social justice was the goal, and all means, even that romanticised vision of nationalisation, would come second to that. Crosland should dominate our intellectual landscape, and that is why I find myself writing this today. But first it would do to have a look at a rather extraordinary life.

Crosland was born in August 1918 in the town of St Leonard-on-sea in Sussex to Joseph Beardsall Crosland, Under-Secretary to the War Office and Jessie Crosland, a lecturer in Old French at UCL. He entered National Service in 1940, dropping by parachute on the casino in Calais in Operation Anvil in 1944, and came back to Trinity to gain a 1st in PPE. Giving up an economics fellowship in 1949, Crosland turned to politics, becoming MP for South Gloucestershire in 1950-1955 and Great Grimsby from 1959-1977. During this time he promoted the growth of polytechnics while Minister of Education, plus he held posts as Secretary of State for the Environment and Foreign Secretary. Sadly, this latter position was to be his last, as he passed away from a cerebral haemorrhage in February 1977 in John Radcliffe Hospital, aged only 59 and at the height of his ministerial career.

Despite this, Crosland’s influence persists through his work. His magnum opus, the 1956 book The Future of Socialism, which was described by former Home Secretary Roy Jenkins as ‘the most important theoretical treatise to be written from the moderate left of British politics in the twenty-five post-war years,’ outlines his ideas for an egalitarian society. The foundation of this treatise is Crosland’s conception of equality. For Crosland, equality was, rightly, an end in itself. The extent to which it presents itself as a means at all is ‘to help create a more just, united and humane community.’ This goal is as relevant as when it was written more than 50 years ago. We cannot expect to live in a just, united or even humane community when it is racked by an inequality which is completely morally arbitrary. Moreover, this inequality is not the result of individual failure, but rather the entire socio-political system.

The answer to a grossly unequal society is not meritocracy, however. Crosland rejects a notion of meritocracy which isn’t meaningful, instead attempting to level the playing field of different environments through egalitarian policies pursued by public spending. For Crosland, ‘no one deserves either so generous a reward or so severe a penalty for a quality implanted from the outside and for which he can claim only a limited responsibility’, so a meritocracy imposed on an unequal rewards system simply aids those already benefitting from the unequal structure of society, and is inherently meaningless.

Yet the solution cannot be equality of outcome either. Such an approach would involve an intrusion onto the individual by the state. Organic communities and the virtue of effort that underpin communitarian projects would be re-written in a statist nightmare. As Crosland argues, we should pursue redistributive and egalitarian measures to help raise those who for no reason other than ‘brute luck’ find themselves at the bottom of the social ladder, but we must respect their place as an individual and abandon any notion of equality of outcome that destroys individuality.

Crosland also understood that we must appreciate human beings as a whole, rather than judging them based on one measurable trait: intelligence. In our society where it somehow seems entirely appropriate for our university’s Vice Chancellor, Louise Richardson, to suggest the Brexit vote happened because of the limited education levels of many Brits, the need to recognise the legitimacy of different skill sets is all the more urgent, as is Crosland’s message here: ‘why should this one trait (intelligence), or even a group of traits, alone determine success or failure, riches or poverty, a high or low prestige? Why should no marks be given for saintliness, beauty, assiduity, continence, or artistic ability… It is the injustice of isolating, as a basis for extreme inequality, certain selected ones out of the multiple strands that go to make up the human personality, which constitutes the fundamental ethical case against any elite or aristocracy.’ Apart from ignoring the lived experience of people far different from herself, Richardson misses how people are more than the amount of passes they get in GCSEs. We as a society need to take a wider view of the individual and peg different skill sets like those suited to industry and commerce to a meaningful social mobility. Arbitrary endowments cannot justify the level of inequality we see in today’s society. Crosland, as Minister of Education, made some advances in achieving a more meaningful meritocracy through his encouragement of polytechnics and the binary system of education, but we must take this further.

In paying respect to Crosland we need to be able to recognise his faults. His Keynesian economic approach is not as effective in this globalised world as it once was. But this should not obscure Crosland’s principles. His commitment to a practical egalitarian socialism and a meaningful sense of equality that portrayed individuals as a myriad of qualities and talents are values that are enduringly important for the Labour Party. It is up to the revisionists of the future to revise Crosland’s methods, but his equality and humanity presents us with a legacy worth remembering.

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