Abstract arguments about political philosophy don’t usually have much bearing on the pragmatic day-to-day business of British politics.
Britain’s reputation for political stability, current difficulties notwithstanding, is often attributed to the suspicion with which its decision-makers, commentariat and electorate habitually regard dangerous things like ideas.
But sometimes, as with the Labour Party’s present agonies, repressed differences over fundamental matters of political ideology surge to the surface. For all the personal venom that has attended it this is one of those rare British political crises that, in the end, is about ideology. What does Labour want to do and why? What is Labour actually for?
Among the many words the party’s warring factions use to describe each other – some of them printable – the most interesting are ‘socialist’ and ‘social democrat’. Though often used without much precision, and sometimes interchangeably, these terms refer to distinct political traditions with different visions of the good society. Understanding how they have usually been defined by historians and philosophers since they first entered the political lexicon helps illuminate the deep-seated political differences that make Labour’s ongoing crisis so peculiarly bitter.