David Marquand 1934-2024: Our Intellectual Compass

David Marquand, who died aged 89 earlier this week, was probably the most influential intellectual in terms of how Compass thinks and what we do. He was one of the signatories to our founding statement in 2003 and his 2010 Annual Lecture for us, A Realignment of the Mind, previewed and pushed our 2011 vote to open membership up to people beyond the ranks of Labour. From that point on Compass didn’t just see red, but green and yellow and every progressive political shade.

He was that now rather rare thing, a public intellectual whose thoughts and ideas didn’t just shape factions, currents or even parties, but cut across not only political divisions but resonated in the Commons, the European Commission, academia, the media and the town hall – all places he seemed equally at home.

David was a restless figure, never content to simply coast.  He was a priceless intellectual in the sense that he wanted to learn, develop, challenge and change.  He did this both in terms of his thinking and writing but also the platforms and vehicles he used.  He was a Labour MP, a European bureaucrat running the office of Roy Jenkins when he led the Commission, an academic, prodigious writer of books, essays and articles and a public speaker. He started life in Labour but ranged from the SDP to the Lib Dems, but was intrigued by the Greens and finally Plaid Cymru from his retirement perch in Penarth, around the bay from Cardiff where he was born. 

Three major contributions stand out in terms of David’s theoretical and practical contribution to social democracy.  The first is this willingness to be open, curious and adaptable, key requirements of life in an age of increasing crisis and chaos. His adherence wasn’t to a party but to ideas. He left Labour when in his estimation it became too left-wing in the 1980s under Michael Foot but then too right-wing in the late 1990s under Tony Blair.  He re-joined Labour when Ed Miliband became leader but drifted away again in his remaining years.  

The second is set out in his 1991 book The Progressive Dilemma which tackled the strategic issue of how to unite the anti-Tory forces in the country. David was a very social liberal and a social democrat who put more emphasis on the democrat than the social.  As he wrote in the book:

“What is needed for anti-Conservative Britain…is a marriage between the communitarian, decentralist, participatory radicalism to which the Liberal Democrats are heirs, and the communitarian, decentralist, participatory strands in the socialist inheritance: a marriage, if you like, between Thomas Paine and William Morris”

In the run up to the 1997 general election the relationship between Tony Blair and Paddy Ashdown almost gave life to this dream.  If it had the New Labour project may have endured and not lost its way in terms of a politics of centralization, commercialization and conquest in the shape of Iraq.  It might even have implemented the Jenkins Commission which recommended a form of proportional representation which in-turn may have acted as a bulwark against Tory austerity and even Brexit.  But this was to be a road untravelled.

David’s final big contribution could be found in his 1989 book The Unprincipled Society. In it he explores the difference between mechanical politics and moral politics. The mechanical was the regime of the technocrat, who promised to deliver on behalf of a grateful nation.  It represented the politics of utility but citizenship passivity.  Moral politics, in contrast, was the values-based underpinning of a project – not the how of deliver but the why. Of course, in reality we need both, a mechanical process that largely works, but when it inevitably fails there is a principled underpinning which builds support and resilience to a project. By merging the two we also merge the relationship between the state and the citizen, who work together to co-produce answers to the complex and challenging issues we now face.

As such David was interested in the process of political renewal, not just the outcomes. In a telling exchange in the pages of Prospect magazine he chided New Labour guru Anthony Giddens who spoke about what would happen when we arrived at a social democratic society. David urgently exclaimed that there was no point of arrival, merely another stage in the never ending struggle to create a better society.

David was no doubt pleased to see Labour and Plaid Cymru working together to build a better Wales. Equally he would have been delighted to see the Labour conference pass a resolution in favour of proportional representation.  He was no fan of Jeremy Corbyn and his lack of intellectual curiosity and pluralism. What he made of Keir Starmer as his long illness kicked in, we don’t know.

David leaves a rich legacy of ideas and practise which provide crucial elements of a blueprint for a new politics of radicalism, openness and curiosity.  He will be greatly missed but his ideas and his actions remain to guide us as the process of renewing social democracy becomes ever more urgent.

Listen to Neal Lawson and Colin Crouch discuss David Marquand and the lasting relevance of his ideas:


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