Contract v. covenant, liberalism v. communitarianism

Florence Sutcliffe-Braithwaite

Labour Together’s Plan for National Reconstruction is framed around the idea of a ‘Labour covenant’ with the nation. Covenant differs from contract because it is ‘not just a deal or an agreement’: it is, the Plan says, a ‘way of making political relationships and exercising consensual power that is consolidated in legitimate and sovereign institutions’. The most famous covenant, of course, is the one between God and Abraham. Unlike a contract, which has an end-date, a covenant is open-ended and reciprocal.

It’s not surprising, given this focus on covenanting, that the Plan cites Edmund Burke, the eighteenth-century thinker who by the late nineteenth century was seen as the ‘father of modern conservatism’. Burke said that society was a partnership between ‘those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are yet to be born’. He also contrasted the beautiful, which he saw as enervating, with the sublime, which he saw as energising. As my Renewal co-editor Emily Robinson has recently argued, the sublime came to be central to Conservative rhetoric in the nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth century. Conservatives talked about the importance of the local, the familiar, and the quotidian, but they always linked this register to the ‘evocation of reverence, majesty, and awe’. Conservative thinker Keith Feiling, for example, wrote in his 1913 book Toryism: a political dialogue:

I associate Toryism with every element of permanent value in the life of a nation – above all, in the life of England. Every man … loves his home, loves the work of his hands, loves his country … Every man, too needs the help of his fellows, needs some agency to mediate between him and his God, needs law. Toryism is permanent; Liberalism, accidental. Toryism is rooted in the facts of nature in Divine revelation; Liberalism is founded on assumption and human pride.

Over the past 50 years, however, the Conservative Party has lost its faith in, or its ability to confidently refer to, the sublime. Boris Johnson has squandered the opportunity offered by the pandemic to talk meaningfully of duty and sacrifice, most obviously because of the series of squalid revelations and dissimulations that is ‘partygate’. But the change has much longer roots. In 1987 Margaret Thatcher spelled out how she saw things thus:

Who is society? There is no such thing! There are individual men and women and there are families and no government can do anything except through people and people look to themselves first. It is our duty to look after ourselves and then also to help look after our neighbour and life is a reciprocal business and people have got the entitlements too much in mind without the obligations.

Each person looks out for himself or herself first, and must fulfil his or her side of the contract in order to get the benefits of being part of society. This was precisely the sort of social contract talk that Labour Together’s Plan criticises. The Conservative Party had been taken over by liberalism.

Labour Together wants the Labour Party to be able to talk about the sublime. There’s something attractive about this ambition; I certainly felt, reading Keir Starmer’s recent Fabian pamphlet, and Rachel Reeves’s speech last week on building a stronger economy, that while Labour has some powerful policy ideas, the leadership isn’t paying much attention to the first part of the old saying, associated with Mario Cuomo, ‘you campaign in poetry, you govern in prose’. But the two main elements in older Conservative evocations of the sublime were the nation (sometimes the Empire, too), and the divine. Neither is straightforwardly easy for Labour politicians to talk about today. Labour needs a poetry that can inspire and evoke but which produces, rather than precludes, human freedom. Where to find this vision?

One answer might be that it can be found in the liberal reverence for the individual: for individual choice. Labour Together’s Covenant wouldn’t agree. The documentalso echoes early twentieth-century Conservatism in its characterisation of liberalism as a Bad Thing. It makes a powerful case that the market liberal ideas which justified selling off as many nationalised industries and outsourcing as much of the state as possible have had deeply negative results for most people (that is, most people who aren’t shareholders in privatised industries or the big outsourcing companies or the auditors of all this activity). But it evinces a broader scepticism, too, of anything associated with liberalism or liberal elites (though the Plan does note that Labour has always contained liberal strands). Now, perhaps it’s a waste of time to get deep into debates about the meanings of an ideology as complex and changing as ‘liberalism’. It’s not the stuff of which speeches are made, or of conversations on the doorstep. But to see liberalism as associated simply with metropolitan elites and with free market dogmatism misses something.

One kernel at the heart of liberalism is the insistence on the right of every individual to determine for themselves what a good life looks like, within the bounds of the social contract. This is an assumption that has been gaining general ground within British society for decades, if not centuries. In the 1980s, Elizabeth Roberts conducted a series of oral history interviews with working-class women – mainly elderly – from Barrow, Lancaster and Preston. In her book, Women and Families, she noted in an aside that her interviewees increasingly thought the very ‘aim of society’ should be the ‘protection and promotion of the integrity, independence and rights of the individual’.[i]

As Katrina Forrester has illuminated, one of the foremost proponents of liberalism in the postwar world, John Rawls, blended communitarianism into the heart of his political theory. For him, ‘morality was universal, natural and constitutive of personhood, yet was developed and earned in communities’, and ‘persons pursued their own ends not as rational egoists or strategists but because of their deep partiality and love for their families and associations’. We need both of these traditions, the liberal belief in the dignity of the individual, which is seeded so deep in British society, and the communitarian insistence that there is more to life than this.

Florence Sutcliffe-Braithwaite is an Associate Professor in History at UCL and Co-editor of Renewal


[i] Elizabeth Roberts, Women and Families: An Oral History, 1940-1970, Oxford, Blackwell 1995, p14.