Daniel Finkelstein OBE was Director of the Conservative Research Department between 1995 and 1997 and in that capacity advised John Major as Prime Minister and attended meetings of the Cabinet when it sat in political session. From 1997 to 2001 he was chief policy adviser to the Leader of the Opposition William Hague and Secretary to the Shadow Cabinet. Daniel is comment editor and a weekly political columnist for The Times; he also writes the football column 'Fink Tank' for the paper and a column for The Jewish Chronicle. Below he discusses David Marquand's Ramsay MacDonald.
Daniel Finkelstein on Ramsay MacDonald by David Marquand
Not so long ago, The Times asked me to contribute to a regular feature entitled 'I admit that I've read'. I thought about it for a long time - I've read a great number of very obscure books - but in the end there was only one choice. I admitted that I had read the entire Longman's Chronicle of the Conservative Party, all six volumes of it. And by the way, not a minute of the time I spent on it was wasted.
Yet if the question had been phrased differently, if the desire had been to sniff out the study of obscure subjects, rather than obscure volumes, my answer would have been different. I would have confessed instead to the many books I have read on a subject that only normblog readers would (or might) regard as mainstream - the right wing of the Labour Party.
I spent many happy hours in the LSE library, when I should have been studying for my exams, reading back issues of Socialist Commentary. It started as a quest to find the source of strength of the democratic socialist revisionists. The work of Douglas Jay and Evan Durbin, John Mackintosh and Tony Crosland seemed to show a way forward for moderate progressives.
But soon it became something else - an attempt to understand the movement's weaknesses. Why had they lost control of Labour? Why had they failed in office? Why had the Conservative Party succeeded in appealing to the aspiring members of the lower middle class?
And no one helped me understand this better than David Marquand.
It has always seemed to me that Professor Marquand has been underestimated as a public thinker. His writing is more profound and insightful than anything else that has come out of the centre left for decades and his political influence (on Roy Jenkins first and then on Tony Blair) has been striking. He has had recognition, of course, but lesser thinkers have had more.
Three books by Marquand have been particularly important. The Progressive Dilemma was responsible for planting in the mind of the current Prime Minister the idea of an alliance with the Liberals. He took from it (perhaps via Roy Jenkins) the idea that the split on the left had been responsible for the Conservative century. He probably didn't want to face up to its other conclusion - that the creation of the Labour Party was a disaster for the left.
Marquand's other important work of thought was his Unprincipled Society. Here he brilliantly explains the failure of corporatism in Britain, arguing that it runs counter to the British culture. Rather oddly, he concludes that we need to change the culture to suit Jenkinsite orthodoxy. I concluded that it would be simpler to dump corporatism. Whichever view you take, his argument was compelling.
However it is the first book that I read by Marquand that I wish to nominate as my book for the normblog 'Writer's choice' series - Marquand's Ramsay MacDonald.
This book triumphantly passes the tests that should be set for any biography. It is a readable account of the subject's life and an original history of the period, using new source material (MacDonald's copious papers). The complexity of MacDonald - that he was both a towering figure with great political gifts and a windy speech-maker with great capacity for self-pity - is admirably dealt with. So is the tragedy of his life. MacDonald is known mainly as a political traitor when in fact he was a political figure of huge importance and achievement.
But what makes the book special is something that goes beyond the depiction of a life. Marquand traces the failure of ideas that dragged MacDonald towards the rocks and doomed his fellow members of the centre left. The aspirations and ideals were luminous; the programme - the policies to achieve transition from here to there - was opaque, to say the least.
Philip Snowden, an unattractive figure in many ways, seemed the only one who knew what he wanted. The rest were at sea dealing with the practical problems they encountered in office. The confusion between ends and (very poorly chosen) means went on to bedevil every Labour leader until Blair took office.
If you want to understand Labour go back to the source. All in all, I think Marquand's MacDonald is one of the most important books I've ever read.