Joan Burton and the “Language of Priorities”

Aneurin Bevan

Aneurin Bevan

In recent days, particularly in light of Syriza’s submission to what has been described, rightly, as a ‘Carthaginian’ austerity package for Greece, I have been wondering whether the Irish Labour Party might have had a better handle on things than I had given credit. Whereas what awaits Greece is further misery, it looks as though there are the makings of some kind of recovery along social democratic lines in Ireland. And whilst I have been trenchantly harsh on this blog about the decisions taken by Joan Burton and her party in government, I think that events call for a reassessment. Certainly there were elements of her address to the MacGill Summer School last night that, if not made of the stuff that will shift us substantially towards socialism, at least promise some sort of change of direction.

After all, if the choice is between inflicting harsh punishment and inflicting even harsher punishment, then opting for the former is a reasonable course of action, if the point is to preserve what exists in terms of social welfare provision. And whilst some of the Minister for Social Protection’s actions may have appeared as scapegoating, particularly in relation to welfare payments, what if there was no alternative? What if greater stringency in welfare provision is a precondition for forging a political path toward a more equal society?


I have put a lot of my time and effort over the last four years in government into enforcing the standards people want for Ireland and our life together as a community. It was never about finicky rule-making or catching people out in a vengeful way. It is about the fundamentals of a fair society. It is about the balance of power in a democracy of equal citizens. It is about making sure each person makes a fair contribution.

Perhaps what we have failed to recognise in recent years is that proper democratic renewal requires public virtue. It is not enough to single out corrupt elites as the source of the problem: it is a matter of collective citizen responsibility. Unless there is sufficient consciousness of the need for each to work in the benefit of all, then the pursuit of a socialist agenda is doomed to failure. So too, I think, is the simplistic notion, voiced by the new Social Democrats formation in recent days, that one can simply import a social model from another country –in this case the Nordic model- for our own ends.

I think Burton recognises this, as illustrated below:

Our task together is to be a civilised and free society, rooted in our distinct Irish history and culture. To borrow a phrase from Martin Luther King, it’s about the content of our character. In a democracy, the government will reflect the content of the character of the people. It can also foster and sustain civic values and standards.

Pragmatism far too often appears as a dirty word in the vocabulary of the left. But pragmatism is neither good nor bad: it is the outcome of pragmatic action that counts, not the method itself. In this case, Burton is surely right to recognise both full employment and excellent public services as the immediate goal to be achieved, upon which a more fitting foundation for socialism can be built.

We have to build and secure our common standards and values. And we have to do this while we implement the right policies to secure full employment, to build excellent infrastructure and public services, and develop all the regions of Ireland.

Burton is surely right, moreover, to point to the corrosive corruption in Ireland’s public culture, brought about by “white-collar fraud”, “political corruption”, “rip-offs of consumers”, and “tax evasion”, as the source of “cynicism about the political and democratic process”.

The question is whether we as a socie…wait, did I say Joan Burton, last night at the MacGill Summer School? Sorry, I meant Mary Harney of the Progressive Democrats.

In 2002.

Sorry about that. Well, it just goes to show: talk is cheap.

Joan Burton’s real speech did contain some items worth highlighting. Whilst I think the Social Democrats are a fairly pointless exercise, they may have caused Joan Burton to profess her faith in the religion of socialism.

Burton’s Damascene conversion, revealed at MacGill’s happy hunting ground for seasoned observers and political insiders, comes only days after attacking the Greek government for proposing to resist the imposition of savage anti-socialist, anti-democratic measures on the Greek population.

In her MacGill address –the real one-, Burton quoted Dostoevsky that ‘compassion is the chief law of human existence’, and said that ‘ensuring the State is compassionate in its duty to its people’ was the starting point for the future.

Seasoned observers of compassion will recall how both George Bush and David Cameron cited it as the cardinal virtue for political action.

Burton, of course, is not the only Irish politician to séance the ghost of Aneurin Bevan in recent times in a country where only a minority have experience of the National Health Service or free education. Her colleague in government, Leo Varadkar, who in his capacity as Minister for Health opens up Accident and Emergency departments in private hospitals, likened the roll-out of free GP care to children under the age of 6 to the foundation of the NHS. But whereas Varadkar’s channelling of Bevan is a half-assed afterthought geared at masking his neoliberal outlook, Joan Burton’s is…oh, never mind. But it is worse, in a way. It is the same ghoulish performance that on other occasions summons James Connolly to provide a posthumous seal of approval for the idea that There Is No Alternative.


That great politician Nye Bevan, who created the NHS, had some valuable words of wisdom for those who wanted more than could realistically be delivered.

The language of priorities, he said, is the religion of socialism.

Bevan’s ‘words of wisdom’ were not intended for those ‘who wanted more than could be realistically delivered’. They were made initially, at the Labour Party conference in 1949, in response to a call from Labour MP Richard Acland that the Labour Party ought to pursue a “spiritual approach”.

Bevan contended that the programme the Labour Party was carrying out meant that ““Suffer the little children to come unto me”” was ‘not now something which is only said from the pulpit.”

He said:

We have woven it into the warp and woof of our national life, and we have made the claims of the children come first. What is national planning but the insistence that human beings shall make ethical choices on a national scale?…The language of priorities is the religion of Socialism. We have accepted over the last four years that the first claims upon the national product shall be decided nationally and they have been those of the women, the children and the old people.

In Ireland, the deprivation rate for children rose from 24.5% in 2011 to 30.5% in 2013, as the Fine Gael-Labour coalition pursued the same overall economic policies as its predecessors. The consistent poverty rate rose from 6.9% to 8.2%.

Bevan revisited his remarks following the Labour Party defeat in the 1955 general elections. He said –defending nationalisation- that the fact so many working-class people had not voted Labour was a problem

of education, not of surrender! This so-called affluent society is an ugly society still. It is a vulgar society. It is a meretricious society. It is a society in which priorities have all gone wrong. I once said –and I do not want to quote myself too frequently- that the language of priorities was the language of Socialism, and there is nothing wrong with that statement, but you can only get your priorities right if you have the power to put them right, and the argument, comrades, is about power in society. If we managed to get a majority in Great Britain by the clever exploitation of contemporary psychology, and we did not get the commanding heights of the economy in our power, then we did not get the priorities right. The argument is about power and only about power, because only by the possession of power can you get the priorities right.

Whereas for Bevan, priorities meant “ethical choices on a national scale” that gave “the women, the children and the old people” first claims on the national product, Joan Burton took to the streets brandishing a placard bearing a tricolour, insisting that the EU’s neoliberal stability treaty –which buried ethical choices and prioritised debt repayments to banks above all else- was in the national interest.

So too was putting the boot into the already impoverished people of Greece.

Whilst Burton might utter the same words as Aneurin Bevan, she certainly does not speak the same language.


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2 responses to “Joan Burton and the “Language of Priorities”

  1. Bogman's Cannon

    Reblogged this on The Bogman's Cannon.

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