Social Democracy reviving in the UK?

by Harry on September 17, 2003

I just got back from an interesting conference in Newcastle (UK) organised by the Institute for Public Policy Research, and presided over by Matthew Taylor as his last big act before going to direct policy at number 10. (Actually I got back a week ago, but pressures of work and technical set-backs have kept me silent till now). Basically it was a ‘looking for a new big idea’ kind of gathering for New Labourish types – IPPR had asked a bunch of academics to present their thoughts and findings about meritocracy, social mobility, and equality of opportunity, and a bunch of politicians, policy makers, and representatives of domestic NGOs to engage with them. I confess that I anticipated a kind of dialogue of the deaf, but it wasn’t like that at all. The academics (including John Goldthorpe, John Roemer, Stephen Machin, Adam Swift, Michael Hout) made brief, pertinent, and not-dumbed-down presentations; and the in-session and out-of session discussions were to the point and thoughtful. Gordon Brown gave a talk on the first afternoon with which I, very much not a New Labour person, was very impressed. He seemed not only to have a coherent, worked out view, and a straightforward comfortableness with the language and concerns of traditional social democracy, but also to have read and understood all of the preparatory readings. (Apparently he called up John Goldthorpe the previous Thursday to ask him about some of the technical points in Goldthorpe’s paper). My brief was to respond to the minister for school standards, David Miliband’s, speech on why the government is focussing its attention on teaching and learning more than on admissions and funding. Again, I was impressed by the thoughtfulness and reasonableness of his presentation, and the care with which he distinguished issues of what should ideally be done and what is feasible given political and constitutional constraints; though, fortunately, disagreed with enough to make it worth debating him. One large disagreement among the attendees was the extent to which a society should try to reward ‘merit’ financially. Again, though, whereas I’d assumed on going in that I’d be in a minority with Swift and Roemer against meritocracy, it was striking how soft the support for meritocracy was in all the discussions, and how well disposed Brown was, for example, to prioritizing the interests of the least advantaged.
Cynics will dismiss my impressions as the consequences of either being over-susceptible to politicians charm, or (more likely) jet lag, and in another couple of weeks I’m sure I shall relapse into my own negativity. But the fact remains (as Americans I’ve described the conference to keep saying) that such a conference, in which senior elected politicians discuss the work of serious left-wing academics on their own terms, in the presence of senior policy-makers, is utterly unimaginable in the US.
All the papers for the conference, by the way, are accessible here at Ippr.



Maria 09.17.03 at 7:09 am

Sigh, makes me almost nostalgic for London…

A friend who works in the Treasury tells me that Gordon Brown can hoover up a 20 page brief in minutes, and address the single toughest and most pertinent question to its writer there and then.


Doug 09.17.03 at 1:01 pm

Provocative counter: By definition, US left-wing academics are not serious, and thus there’s no need for serious policy makers to address them on their own terms.



Marc 09.17.03 at 2:31 pm

Is it really “uttey unimaginable” that Larry Summers (or, to choose another administration, Condi Rice) could and would be able “to discuss the work of … serious accademics on their own terms”? They have both done pretty in the world of serious accademics. Rice might prefer center- or right-wing accademics, but that’s to be expected from a center-right politician.

Neither is an elected politician, but they are/were the functional equivalent of the attendees at your conference.

In fact, the US system, where cabinet (and, equally important, sub-cabinet) officials need not be elected politicians, brings many more accademics into government.


PG 09.17.03 at 4:54 pm

Yes, there have been plenty of academics in the U.S. Cabinets — the current president of Harvard was a Labor secretary under Clinton.
However, I don’t know if these people spend much time with other academics once they receive high government posts. It seems like they then must become more oriented toward the political speech defending X policy, even if it wouldn’t be considered sound by their former ivory tower peers.

Coming to one of my interests, it appears that the Brits — and perhaps most other nations generally — understand the rewarding of merit to be a policy tool rather than a matter of morality.
Makes for an interestingly different starting place in any tax discussion; in the U.S. one always has to contend with those convinced that taxation beyond a certain (and often arbitrary) point like 33% (for GWB) or 50% (for most people) is somehow wicked and immoral.


Ophelia Benson 09.17.03 at 6:02 pm

The president of Harvard wasn’t Labor secretary under Clinton. You’re thinking of Robert Reich, who is not president of Harvard. That’s Laurence Summers, who was I believe an Undersecretary in the Clinton Treasury Department. Kind of the other side of the road from the Labor Department, as Reich makes clear in his book ‘Locked in the Cabinet’.


Tom 09.17.03 at 7:12 pm

“That’s Laurence Summers, who was I believe an Undersecretary in the Clinton Treasury Department.”

Summers was Secretary of the Treasury.


Marc 09.17.03 at 8:31 pm

You are both right. Summers was undersecretary of treasury for international affairs, then deputy secretary, and finally secretary (when Rubin left)

Before that, he was on the faculty of first MIT and then Harvard. He also continued to write accademic papers while at the Treasury.

Condoleezza Rice, who is the National Security Advisor in Bush’s cabinet, was first a professor, and then provost of Stanford University.

Attorneys General are regularly taken from amongst the ranks of law professors.

Of course, with a full time job running a department, these former accademics don’t spend as much time with thier former collegues; but then again, neither do British cabinet members. If anything, I would expect an accademic (or, for that matter, someone from business — another group represented in US cabinet posts) especially one who will likely return to the accademy, to be much less political than a career politican in a similar post.

I am not sure what Harry and the other conference attendee think is utterly unimaginable. If they are talking about left-wing ideas being considered by the Bush administration, then of course he is right, but that is the norm for politics. If they think that US cabinet and sub-cabinet members can’t and don’t talk to ‘accademics on their own terms’, then their imagination seems to be lacking.

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