Making sense of Labour

14th March 1997 at 00:00

Professor "Chelly" Halsey, 74 this year, has spent a lifetime with the social and moral issues which make up the stuff of education policy. His brand of sociology has been about origins and arrivals - about social mobility and the part education plays in speeding it up or slowing it down,about equality and opportunity and the extent to which they are compatible with the institutions which incorporate the checks and balances of society.

He has also been a life-long Christian Socialist, "puritanical in my attitudes toward work and leisure and life," a working-class boy, promoted by the institutions he set out to study and change. In this book he offers a selective account of his life and times.

Autobiography ought to be self-revelatory. It needs a bit of exhibitionism. This one, however, is more discreet than revealing. What it shows is a complicated man who (as one reviewer of Halsey's English Ethical Socialism pointed out) is a Tory in everything except politics. He was the son and grandson of railwaymen, born in Kentish Town just north of St Pancras and King's Cross stations. The family moved to Rutland and then to a village outside Corby in Northamptonshire, where he grew up.

The account he gives of his working-class home and values provides a running theme through the book. His mother was the proverbial good manager of a tiny income. Going to the parish church three times each Sunday and a socialist rector forged the links between his religion and his politics.

Halsey seems to have been brought up with a strong sense of family and nation - a natural patriot with a first allegiance to a romanticised working class. Being bright, he won a scholarship to the grammar school (as his father had before in St Pancras) and enjoyed the camaraderie of rugby, cricket and other sport which extended his social confidence.

At 16 he left school and became a "sanitary inspector's boy", before joining the RAF and training as a pilot. It was not till he went to the London School of Economics, aged 24, in 1947, that the academic came out of hiding and he began his lifelong love-affair with sociology.

It has to be said that his autobiography would be more widely readable if he had not decided to devote so much of it to sociological theories and their exponents among his contemporaries. But this is the angle from which he has written his life and times and while much of it is beautifully and skilfully written there are times when the jargon intervenes, and not always intentionally.

This also comes out in the section of the book based on a BBC radio series he did 15 years ago, a latter-day sequel to J B Priestley's English Journeys. It is no disrespect to Halsey to say that he is no Bill Bryson.

What stands out for the non-sociologist is the naive post-war illusion that his academic subject could provide a scientific guide for political action. The failure of Old Labour's politics in the 1970s and 1980s must have been a profound disappointment - though by then he had more interesting fish to fry at Oxford, where from 1978 he held a personal chair. "Faith in the City" gave him a unique opportunity to help the Church of England focus on socio-political issues.

He quotes a penetrating remark (in the mid-1960s) by Raymond Aron, the hawk-nosed, beady-eyed doyen of French sociology, who poured scorn on Halsey's school of British sociology as "essentially an attempt to make intellectual sense of the political problems of the Labour Party".

Halsey pleads guilty to the charge - his Labour politics have been integral to his life as a human being, a citizen, a scholar and a Christian, and the package has included his manifest conservatism, his idealisation of a working class childhood, and of the virtues of manual labour. His scorn for the Gang of Four who deserted Labour when it was at its nadir knows no bounds.

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