History repeats itself, but never in the same way. I’ve been thinking about this saying (for which I can’t find a definitive source) as the British Labour Party has been tying itself into knots over whether to oppose the government’s welfare cuts. On one side of the argument is the proposition that the cuts are wrong and unnecessary. On the other that Labour lost the last election and should accept the prevailing, or anyway government, view that ‘hard choices’ must be made to balance the budget.
The historical resonance is with the early 1930s and the formation of the National Government or coalition of the Labour leadership, the Tories and the Liberals, which split the Labour Party at the time. For sure, this is not a repeat of that but in recent years very similar notions have swirled around. The formation of a Conservative-Liberal coalition in 2010 in the ‘national interest’ echoed the 1931 National Government, and the current debate has a similar flavour – some idea that a ‘responsible’ Labour Party must accept the terms of the Tories. And, as at that time, the axes of the debate are those of balancing the government budget and the concomitant need for spending, especially welfare cuts. It was the call to cut unemployment benefit by 20% that broke the Labour government in 1931. Moreover, the popular narrative that Labour had been responsible for the 1929 financial crisis (aka the Wall Street Crash) mirrors the narrative that holds Labour responsible for the 2007-08 global financial crisis.
So although not precisely the same, there is a great similarity between British politics now and then. I don’t know whether that is comforting or not. In one way, it is depressing to see the same pre-Keynesian nonsense about balanced budgets being trotted out all these decades after his work in exactly the same way as it was before, and not just in Britain but in relation to Greece and other countries. There are no certainties in economics but we do in broad terms know that Keynes was right, which is why even the IMF have indicated that the EU plan for Greece won’t work (and we might also look to Keynes’ assessment of the 1919 Treaty of Versailles to see why the entire approach to Greece is storing up disaster).
In another way, the parallel is encouraging, at least in the parochial context of the British Labour Party. For it does show that even from a deeply unpopular and unpromising trough it is possible to recover. In 1931, Labour lost 225 seats and was reduced to a rump of 52, a far worse result than in 2015. But 14 years later they won a landslide majority and created the welfare state that, even now, shapes the British polity. Of course I know that in the intervening years there was the small matter of the Second World War but as business leaders and textbooks never tire of telling us, we live in times of unparalleled change – so who knows what the situation may be in 2029.
At the very least what history might teach us, imperfect teacher though it is, is that change happens not through the ‘realistic’ acceptance of the supposedly immutable truths of the present time but through a radical re-imagination of those truths. In Britain, that happened perhaps three times in the twentieth century: the Liberal landslide of 1906, the Labour landslide of 1945 and the Tory landslide of 1979. There was a fourth, botched, possibility in the 1997 Labour landslide of 1997. That possibility remains, pregnant, to be grabbed until it is forced upon us. As will happen not (I hope) because of world war but by the accumulated misery of unfilled roads; moribund emergency services, closed libraries, courts and nurseries; delayed operations or even the suicides engendered by welfare cuts.
The core of this is the democratic politics is about both representation and persuasion. It is not enough for Labour (or any other democratic political party) to represent the views of some or many people; it must also seek to change those views, through persuasion. That means believing in something and fighting for it; and if that belief is rejected then fighting again. In the end, that is how change happens.