We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more
  (Charles) Anthony Raven Crosland (1918–1977), by Ron Case, 1965 (Charles) Anthony Raven Crosland (1918–1977), by Ron Case, 1965
Crosland, (Charles) Anthony Raven (1918–1977), politician and writer, was born on 29 August 1918 at St Leonards, Sussex, the only son and the second of three children of Joseph Beardsell Crosland (1874–1935), under-secretary, War Office, and his wife, Jessie Raven, lecturer in Old French at Westfield College, University of London. He was educated at Highgate School and, as a classical scholar, at Trinity College, Oxford, where he obtained a second class in classical honour moderations in 1939. His university years were interrupted by the Second World War, in which he served from 1940 to 1945. He was commissioned in the Royal Welch Fusiliers in 1941, transferred to the Parachute regiment in 1942, and subsequently served in north Africa, Italy, France, and Austria. His most notable military exploit was to land by parachute on the casino at Cannes, during operation Anvil in the summer of 1944.

At Oxford Crosland had a notable career, both academically and as an undergraduate politician. He lost interest in classics and turned to philosophy, politics, and economics (primarily economics). After his return to the university he secured a first class in philosophy, politics, and economics in 1946, and was elected a lecturer and later a fellow in economics at Trinity. He held this position from 1947 to 1950, and in 1966 became an honorary fellow. Before the war he was an active and orthodoxly Marxist member of the Labour Club. In the early months of the war, however, he found himself increasingly out of sympathy with its fellow-travelling and neutralist line, and in May 1940 he joined with others to lead the successful breakaway of the Democratic Socialist Club, which was much closer to the national Labour Party position. He was elected treasurer of the Union Society, but was defeated for the presidency. Six years later, however, on his return from the army, he redressed this set-back and secured the higher office.

Crosland was an imposing undergraduate, apparently self-confident, irreverent, and even glamorous, with striking good looks, intellectual assurance, a long camel-hair overcoat, and a rakish red sports car. Later, as a young don, he, with one or two contemporaries, formed something of a cult group, of which the distinguishing characteristic was the unusual combination of hard intellectual endeavour and undisciplined, even riotous, relaxation. Crosland was, and remained, a puritan (his family were Plymouth Brethren), shot through with strains of self-indulgence.

In 1950, at the age of thirty-one, Crosland was first elected an MP, for the constituency of South Gloucestershire, which he was able to win for the Labour Party and hold for the next five years because it contained a good deal of Bristol suburb as well as south Cotswold countryside. He gave up his Oxford fellowship a few months later, and never returned to professional academic life, although he remained very much an intellectual in politics. In the House of Commons he had a considerable, although not perhaps a remarkable, success. He was an economic specialist, and a close friend and assistant of Hugh Gaitskell, who for most of that period was shadow chancellor of the exchequer. In 1952 Crosland married Hilary Anne Sarson of Newbury, the daughter of Henry Sarson, a member of the vinegar family, but the marriage was short-lived and was finally dissolved in 1957.

Before the 1955 general election the boundaries of South Gloucestershire were redrawn in a way unfavourable to Labour, and Crosland decided to seek another seat. This was a mistaken move, for the one which he found, Southampton, Test, produced a larger Conservative majority than the one he had left. He was not, however, greatly disconcerted by his exclusion from parliament, for, although devoted to politics in a broader sense, he regarded the trappings and life of the House of Commons with some indifference.

Crosland had other things to do. In 1953 he had already published his first book, Britain's Economic Problem. This was a lucid but fairly conventional analysis of the country's post-war trading difficulties. By 1955 he was already well into a much more original and substantial work, which he completed in the next year and published in the autumn of 1956. The Future of Socialism was well received at the time, but only gradually, over the next decade or so, achieved its position as the most important theoretical treatise to be written from the moderate left of British politics in the first twenty-five post-war years. It assumed the triumph of Keynesianism, and with it a future of broadening abundance and the withering of the Marxist class struggle. It disputed the importance of nationalization and challenged the bureaucratic socialism of the Fabian tradition of Sidney and Beatrice Webb: ‘Total abstinence and a good filing system are not now the right sign-posts to the socialist Utopia; or at least, if they are, some of us will fall by the wayside’. It was at once libertarian and strongly egalitarian. It saw no conflict which could not be resolved by the flowing tide of continuing economic growth. It was in the mainstream of the optimism, many would now say the complacency, of the English liberal tradition. It influenced a generation.

Political theory having been disposed of with imagination, even if not total prescience, Crosland showed his practical sense by devoting the next two years to acting as secretary (under Gaitskell's chairmanship) to the independent committee of inquiry into the co-operative movement and writing a good report. Then he re-entered the House of Commons in 1959 as member for Grimsby, the constituency which he represented for the remaining seventeen and a half years of his life. He was quickly involved in all the Labour Party disputes which followed that lost election, urging Gaitskell on in his desire to modernize the party and dump some out-of-date ideological baggage, supporting him against unilateral disarmament, and sharply disagreeing with him over his reticence towards Macmillan's initiative for British entry to the European Community. Even apart from the European issue, however, he was in no way a client of his leader. He had too strong a personality and too critical a judgement for that. In some ways Gaitskell sought him more than he sought Gaitskell, and he appeared less thrown by Gaitskell's early death in 1963 than were some others in the circle. In the election to the leadership which followed he supported James Callaghan, who ran a bad third, rather than George Brown, who was the candidate of the majority of the ‘Gaitskellites’.

In 1964 Crosland married again and also entered government for the first time. His second marriage, on 7 January, was to Mrs Susan Barnes Catling (1927–2011), daughter of Mark Watson, of Baltimore, Maryland, who subsequently (sometimes under the name of Susan Barnes) became a prolific writer of skill and perception; unlike the first marriage, it was a great and continuing success and brought Crosland two stepdaughters. His initial government post was minister of state in the newly created Department of Economic Affairs, but after only three months he filled an unexpectedly early cabinet vacancy and became secretary of state for education and science. He was sworn of the privy council in 1965.

The combination of his second marriage and entry into government, some close observers felt, produced a considerable change in Crosland's personality. He had a happier and more rounded life, and became somewhat more benign. He also became more of a party politician, more stirred by ambition, less the uninhibited and fearless commentator. He was a successful departmental minister, a master of various subjects, but occasionally lacking in decisiveness, always believing that a decision had so carefully and logically to be thought through that he sometimes missed the moment at which to make it. His popular impact was also limited, and, surprising though this may seem in retrospect, he was frequently confused in the public mind with Richard Crossman.

Crosland stayed at education for two and a half years. The great departmental issue of the time was the furtherance of comprehensive secondary schools. Michael Stewart, Crosland's Labour predecessor, who had just been promoted to the foreign secretaryship, had given priority to such reorganization. He had accepted a cabinet decision not to legislate on the subject, partly because of the government's minuscule majority and partly because it looked unnecessary, most local authorities being willing to respond to a firm steer. To this end he had prepared a draft circular, which under the famous number of 10/65 Crosland was soon to issue. The main point which the new secretary of state had to decide was whether it should ‘require’ or ‘request’ local authorities to go comprehensive. He decided in favour of the latter, softer word, but he was none the less most vehemently in favour of the policy. The policy was not at the time particularly controversial. Edward Boyle, the previous Conservative education secretary of state, had been broadly in favour of it, and Margaret Thatcher, who became Edward Heath's education secretary in 1970, continued to implement it. No alternative to Crosland in 1965 or successor between 1967 and 1970 could in a Labour government have resisted it. He, however, approached the task with a characteristic extremity of expression. He was, to turn a tag round, to be fortiter in modo but not suaviter in re. His expletive-rich desire to destroy every grammar school, although authenticated in his wife's sympathetic posthumous biography, should be seen in the context both of his natural liking for not too serious phrases designed to shock and of the conventional wisdom of the time.

Crosland, although with some misgivings, accepted his transfer to the presidency of the Board of Trade in September 1967, hoping that this would lead on to the exchequer. When the vacancy in the chancellorship occurred a few months later and this did not follow, he was deeply disappointed. His relations with Harold Wilson were not close, and in the autumn of 1969 there was some doubt about his survival in the government. But he was too able a man to lose, and for the last few months of that government occupied a co-ordinating role over unmerged departments as secretary of state for local government and regional planning.

There followed nearly four years in opposition. Crosland worked hard as a party spokesman, and published another book, Socialism Now, in 1974 (which, like its 1962 predecessor, The Conservative Enemy, was a collection of political essays, but more circumscribed in scope by his housing and local government responsibilities), but he surprised and disappointed many of his friends by failing to vote with sixty-eight Labour MPs in favour of Britain's entry to the European Community in the decisive division of October 1971; he did not vote against, but abstained. This probably accounted for his poor result in the deputy leadership election of 1972.

In the 1974 Wilson government Crosland became secretary of state for the environment, essentially the same job but with a different name, tighter control over his subordinate ministers, and a more senior position at the cabinet table than he had occupied in 1969. His experience as an upper-middle-rank departmental minister was unrivalled. The great offices of state continued to elude him. He responded by being increasingly effective in his department and by exercising more authority in the cabinet than in the previous government, while moving consciously away from the right and towards the centre of the party. In March 1976, when Harold Wilson resigned as prime minister, Crosland was determined to contest the succession. He ran fifth of five candidates, securing only seventeen votes. Yet the contest did not damage him. He succeeded to the Foreign Office in the new Callaghan administration with an unimpaired authority, and had he lived might well have been a stronger rival to Michael Foot in 1980 than Denis Healey proved to be.

Crosland was foreign secretary for only ten months. Although he had always tried to think and write in an internationalist context, his experience was insular. He was unacquainted with the intricacies of foreign or defence policy. He was impatient of many of the nuances of the game. He knew foreign sociologists rather than foreign statesmen. Yet, after a hesitant start, he impressed most of his officials and his foreign colleagues by his authority, his wit, and his intellect. His personality, if not his fame, was a match for that of his principal confrère, Henry Kissinger. He was no longer the glamorous enfant terrible of his Oxford days, or even the adventurous thinker of The Future of Socialism. He was not old, but he had become a little tired in body, heavy and hooded-eyed, yet mordant of phrase, contemptuous of pomposity, and capable of a still dazzling charm.

Crosland was pleased to be foreign secretary, but he still wanted, as ten years before, to be chancellor of the exchequer, and devoted some of his over-taxed and waning energy to preparing for that job, which he was never to hold. This was a last but typical manifestation of the paradox of Anthony Crosland. His intellect was one of the strongest in post-war British politics, and he fortified it by exceptional powers of application. But it was weakened by some uncontrolled demon of discontent, which marred his satisfaction in his own particular roles of excellence. He died at Oxford on 19 February 1977, in office and at the age of fifty-eight, six days after a massive cerebral haemorrhage.

Roy Jenkins


S. Crosland, Tony Crosland (1982) · personal knowledge (2004) · The Times (21 Feb 1977)


BLPES, corresp. with the editors of the Economic Journal; papers |  Nuffield Oxf., corresp. with Philip Williams  



BFINA, current affairs footage · BFINA, party political footage




BL NSA, current affairs recordings · IWM SA, recorded talk


V. Weisz, ink and wash, 1960, NPG · R. Case, photograph, 1965, Hult. Arch. [see illus.] · I. Showell, photograph, 1974, Hult. Arch. · photographs, 1974–7, Hult. Arch. · T. McGrath, photograph, 1976, Hult. Arch.

Wealth at death  

£116,933: probate, 2 May 1977, CGPLA Eng. & Wales