On urbanism and optimism.

AuthorOrtolano, Guy

In the quarter-century after the Second World War, the British state designated thirty-two new towns across all four nations of the United Kingdom. In his new book, Thatcher's Progress: From Social Democracy to Market Liberalism through an English New Town (Cambridge, 2019), NYU historian Guy Ortolano analyses these new towns as the 'spatial dimension' of the welfare state. He argues that Britain's new towns attest to the ambition and depth of the social-democratic project, which in turn explains Thatcher's determination to shutter the world's leading new towns programme upon taking office in 1979.

The heart of the book unfolds during the 1970s, when the oil crisis, recessions and political pressures tested the social-democratic project. But rather than treating social democracy as brittle, doomed to collapse amid the rise of neoliberalism, Ortolano emphasises the efforts of public sector actors to adapt and respond to these various challenges. Social democracy, he argues, was not a fixed project, forged in the 1940s and moribund by the 1970s. Rather, social democrats responded creatively to challenging times--even if those times, and in some ways these accommodations, ultimately ushered in the ideological world we know today. The book nevertheless ends hopefully, noting that today's ideological context is no more fixed than the one it displaced--and that the new towns, despite their faults, attest to the possibility of very different priorities and practices.

Alex Campsie (AC): Perhaps unsurprisingly, the first thing I wanted to ask you about the book was its concern to reconstruct what you call a 'dynamic' social democracy. (1) The first two chapters are particularly striking, in that they explore how this ideological formation operated in response to a series of social changes (automation, demographic transformation, divisions between the 'affluent' and 'the left-behinds', changing consumer patterns) that feel very familiar, and were successfully addressed. I wondered whether you could speak more about what makes this variant of social democracy 'dynamic'--do/did static versions exist to be overcome? And how we might approach similar issues in a 'dynamic' manner today?

Guy Ortolano (GO): I wanted to challenge essentialist conceptions of social democracy. Rather than treating social democrats as clinging to a fixed set of principles, from which any deviation means retreat or betrayal, I treat them as creative and adaptable in responding to new contexts. In this respect, I'm not actually insisting upon any special social-democratic virtues. I'm merely suggesting that we treat social democracy as we would any other subject: a living tradition, grounded in history but not therefore bound by it, capable of developing in novel ways. This interpretation cuts against two familiar ways of thinking about this history. The first treats social democracy as exhausted by the 1970s; the second treats social democracy's development as secondary to the rise of neoliberalism. By centring the ways that social democrats responded to new times, the book offers a model for thinking about social democracy in terms of its development rather than its decline.

AC: Relatedly, chapter four analyses the vibrant attempts to support ideas of 'community' in Milton Keynes, focusing on the new town's social development department and its individual agents. At its best, community in Milton Keynes in the 1970s was 'at once individualist and social', but towards the end of the decade and into the 1980s it saw itself almost torn apart by rising expectations: 'if given gardens', you write, the residents 'complained about their size'. (2) I wondered if you could talk more about this tension between collectivism and individualism--can the two durably co-exist under social democracy?

GO: Well, that remark about gardens was the exasperated lament of the city's planners. They responded by contemplating changes in their approach to social development, emphasising less communities than individuals. But we needn't follow their example. In fact, as Jon Lawrence's new book shows, imagining these aspects of social life sequentially--first collectivism, then individualism--is itself the problem. (3) Individualism and collectivism inevitably coexist. Social democracy's opponents have triumphed to the extent that they claim proprietorship over individualism. In actual life, people act individually sometimes, and collectively at other times--for...

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