Leading article

Labour’s identity crisis

19 September 2020

9:00 AM

19 September 2020

9:00 AM

On the face of it, there could scarcely be better conditions for a revival of the Labour party. Even before the Covid crisis, a generation of young people were struggling to earn as much as their parents did at their age. The housing crisis remains unresolved, prices are higher than before the pandemic. The Tories are borrowing far more than they can afford and there will soon be a reckoning — with tax hikes, austerity or both. Unemployment will soar as the furlough scheme is unwound.

But much of the left’s energy is being wasted in marching down the cul-de-sac of identity politics. For activists, the summer has been spent in an unseemly competition over who can find offence at the most unlikely people and inanimate objects. This week, they began to turn on their own icons. Students at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (Rada) demanded that the institution rename its George Bernard Shaw theatre on the grounds that the Irish playwright supported eugenics and spoke in favour of Mussolini, while a petition successfully led to the University of Edinburgh stripping the name of David Hume from one of its buildings, which for now will just be called 40 George Square.

Hume, complained those who started the petition, had invested in a plantation that was staffed by slaves and wrote that he was ‘apt to suspect the negroes to be naturally inferior to the whites’. These would be damning offences if committed today, yet in Hume’s time, over two centuries ago, they were hardly unusual views. What matters far more, surely, are the ways in which Hume, often described as the father of the Scottish Enlightenment, changed the world with his insights into the relationship between reason and emotion. He also opposed slavery.


Shaw, too, also expressed views which would result in a rapid Twitterstorm nowadays, but a belief in eugenics was hardly unique among the socialists of his day. Many who considered themselves to be of progressive mind attached themselves to the idea that control of breeding was the route to a better world. To this list we can add Sidney and Beatrice Webb, Harold Laski, John Maynard Keynes, Marie Stopes and others. Bernard Shaw argued that ‘the only fundamental and possible socialism is the socialisation of the selective breeding of man’. Few would go down this intellectual route today, but then we have the advantage over early-20th–century socialists in knowing where the pseudo-science of eugenics led.

That great historical figures can be frustrating mixtures of good and bad seems lost on the activists who have been toppling statues and denouncing people. One chink in the armour of a historical figure — or a contemporary figure for that matter — and they must be cancelled. Gandhi has already gone from the pantheon of the left for his views on Africans. It may not be long until Keir Hardie, after whom Sir Keir is named, also comes under the microscope. In the 1880s he led a xenophobic campaign against Lithuanian immigrants. He wrote that he had no idea what they were doing at ironworks in Glasgow other than ‘to teach men how to live on garlic and oil, or introduce the Black Death, so as to get rid of the surplus labourer’. Such language was typical of the scaremongering of the era, which was deployed against Irish workers as well.

Using today’s moral standards to judge figures from history would mean tearing down almost every statue that exists. The Labour party of Keir Starmer is not leading the attack on icons of the left, but nor has it been prominent in trying to stem the tide of identity and grievance politics which has swept Britain and the world this summer. It is a missed opportunity: Sir Keir is well placed to tell his party that pulling down statues — or its digital equivalent, trying to ‘cancel’ people for things they might have said years ago — is pernicious, illiberal and has no place in modern politics.

So far he is silent not just on these issues, but on policy overall. He has signed up to all of the government’s Covid interventions. There are no real Labour policies of note. The party has switched to a more electable leader — even George Osborne says that he can easily envisage Sir Keir in No. 10. But the ‘red wall’ crumbled at the last election for a reason: the party had nothing to offer the working classes, especially those in the Midlands and the north. People brought up on council estates on Teesside, where educational underachievement is rife and employment opportunities are relatively few, do not take kindly to being told they are in possession of ‘white privilege’.

If the left is deserting the battlefield of ideas and abandoning the enlightenment principles of David Hume and others, conservatives should gladly claim them. If the Conservative party can position itself as the party of tolerance and diversity of views, it will return to being a powerful movement for good — and not just the party that stopped Jeremy Corbyn from getting into power. Standing up for enlightenment values might seem a lonely stance to take just now, but it will prove a good position in the longer run.

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