Tuesday, 5 February 2008

Social policy and the vampire bat

There are fashions in political ideas. I was transported back more than three decades in my mind when I heard David Willets -Tory front bencher-talking about Mutual Aid on Start the Week (Radio 4). He did not call it Mutual Aid but for all practical purposes that is what he was describing. He was particularly taken with the behaviour of the Vampire bat which having sucked blood shares his surplus with other vampire bats. Co-operation as a response to outside threats is well documented in biology. Ever since Darwin- and the more enthusiastic advocates of competition/natural selection and nature being red in tooth and claw- there have been others principally Kropotkin (pictured) who have pointed out that one survival strategy in nature is mutual aid. This debate is current with Richard Hawkins playing the part of a latter day Darwin.
It is interesting to see a Tory who after having embraced the cruder and more brutal aspects of a market economy now talks about need for community cohesion and draws on the ideas of the liberal/libertarian left. It certainly blew the mind of fellow Start the Week guest novelist Peter Carey.
The Liberal history group ran a series articles in the spring and summer last year looking specifically at Kropotkin's influences on the New Liberals at the turn of the last century. In particular his theories of Mutual Aid and their impact on such key Liberal thinkers as L.T.Hobhouse and J.A.Hobson.
Half a century later the Young Liberals took him up again. I well remember a poster which had emblazoned upon it in bright pink a quote allegedly from Kropotkin's essay 'Appeal to the Young'. In 1975 as Political Vice Chair of NLYL I edited a series of pamphlets and Kropotkin's 'Appeal to the Young' was one of them-along with essays by Jo Grimond, Michael Meadowcroft and Henry Thoreau (Michael always said that the authors sounded like a firm of shady solicitors). Sadly during editing I noticed that the quote on the poster was no where to be found in the essay.
At about the same time a new edition of Kropotkin's Factories Field and Workshops was published with foreword by Colin Ward. This was his great 'green' manifesto with ideas on economic and environmental sustainability which influenced Ebenezer Howard and the town and country planning movement and the development of garden suburbs like Letchworth. On reflection I think that the 'green' ideas Kropotkin advanced -a century before they entered mainstream political debate which were more influential on my generation than were his ideas on mutual aid. Had I got round to it that would have been the substance of a letter to the Liberal History Journal.