Nick Pearce: Is the UK Coalition government truly radical?

Roundup: Talking About History

[Nick Pearce is Director of the Institute for Public Policy Research.]

I was surprised to hear Steve Richards, whose journalism I admire greatly, declare on the Today programme that the Coalition government was a radical administration on par with the 1945 Attlee and 1979 Thatcher governments. For one thing, the Owl of Minerva spreads her wings at dusk, not dawn. It is impossible to judge prospectively whether a government is truly radical. What matters is the legacy it leaves behind and how much of its reforming zeal endures, as Douglas Alexander pointed out in the discussion afterwards. We must therefore await the verdict of history, even if today the first historians to record a judgment tend to be of the contemporary variety (such as Anthony Seldon and my ippr colleague Guy Lodge, co-authors of a new book on Gordon Brown's premiership).

But radicalism is also not self-determined by politicians, however much leadership matters in politics. Men make history, but not in circumstances of their own choosing, as Marx once said, and we must look to deeper and broader currents of social and economic change to inquire whether we stand at the threshold of epoch-making change. For example, the Attlee Labour government came to power at the end of a war that had demanded a supreme national effort from the British people. This burnished its collectivism and grounded it in practical common experience.

The government's policy programme also embodied a new intellectual consensus on the importance of full employment and a strong welfare state, which had been constructed by radical liberals as much as by socialist thinkers, and which then defined a new settlement in British politics that lasted until the late 1970s. This settlement in turn rested on the strength of organised labour, within a relatively coordinated national economy, and it was only when these pillars of class and nation started to shake that the Conservative Party could embrace a radically right-wing Thatcherite agenda. Thatcher's great genius was to turn the deeper waves of change that were breaking down the post-war settlement – the decline of the industrial working class, the rise of individualism, the birth of new social movements, and the first stirrings of globalisation – into a transformative political project that reshaped Britain.

In retrospect, we can see that New Labour's radicalism was greatest in those areas that Thatcher had left untouched...

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