Vernon Bogdanor has a review of Sheri Berman’s The Primacy of Politics (which we ran a seminar on last year) in the TLS, Large parts of the article are good and perceptive, but Bogdanor also seems to be using the book to make his own, rather odd claims.
The review begins:
Gordon Brown has moved into Ten Downing Street after ten years of Labour government, the longest and most successful period of social-democratic rule in Britain’s history. Yet he finds himself heir, not to a living and viable philosophy of government, but to a collection of ideological ruins. His success will depend on whether he can construct anything new out of these ruins, whether he can breathe new life into the dry bones, whether he can discover a new philosophy of government for the centre-left as fruitful as social democracy was in the past.
Social democracy … presupposed a strong state and a centralized state. …It is, therefore, severely threatened both by the transfer of power upwards to the European Union, and downwards, through federalism, regionalism, or devolution in many states of Western Europe. It appears, then, that the social democratic era is over. It corresponded, just as liberalism had done, to a particular phase of European history. Like its mortal enemy, Fascism, it rested on the primacy of the nation state. It finds it difficult to survive the advent of globalization and the EU. … social democrats fear, and rightly fear, that the European Union deprives member states of the policy instruments which they need to construct a social-democratic society. From this point of view, The Primacy of Politics celebrates not a living ideology but one which belongs to a past that has irretrievably gone.
There’s rather more of Bogdanor than of Berman in these sentiments, which is fair enough; he’s hardly the first reviewer to use the book he’s writing about as the launching pad for his own views on the issue. But it’s a little odd to see a respected political scientist like Bogdanor making these arguments, given the thriving academic literature ranging from Carles Boix’s work on how social democrats have regeared their economic policy by tackling the supply side of the economy to Geoffrey Garrett’s demonstration that openness to international markets appears to have positive rather than negative effects on welfare state size, which points to the opposite set of conclusions. There’s more of a case to be made that the EU is an inhospitable environment for social democracy – but even this is less true than it might have seemed a couple of years ago (the high tides of European market liberalization seem to be receding rather rapidly).
None of this is to say that social democracy hasn’t suffered some pretty serious setbacks in the last couple of decades, but (as a friend notes in email correspondence), these setbacks have far less to do with the ineluctable forces of globalization and EU integration than with ideational battles over the merits and demerits of the welfare state. I rather suspect that Bogdanor’s article should be read as an intervention in these battles. Now that Britain has a somewhat more pink-tinged prime minister than Tony Blair, social democrats in the Compass group and elsewhere are hopeful that their ideas will become acceptable in polite political conversation again. I can’t help wondering, perhaps unfairly, whether Bogdanor’s intervention is intended to do its little bit to help prevent this happening.