He was educated at Trinity College, Oxford, where he at first focused on the classics and then settled on economics. His academic life was interrupted by World War II, during which he became an officer in the Royal Welsh Fusiliers and served in North Africa.
He returned to Oxford after the war, becoming chairman of the Democratic Socialist Club, president of the Oxford Union, and a member of the national executive of the Fabian Society. He became a tutor and lecturer in economics at Oxford in 1947. However, he abandoned his academic career in 1950 to become M.P. for South Gloucestershire. He lost that seat in 1955.
In 1959 Crosland was elected to Parliament as the M.P. for Grimsby. During this period he supported Gaitskeli’s campaigns to revoke Clause Four and to ensure that the Labour Party abandoned its policy of unilateral nuclear disar-mament. However, the momentum of revisionism faded in 1963 when Gaitskell died and was replaced by Harold Wilson, a pragmatic and more compromising Labour leader. As a result, Crosland was given middling government posts rather than the higher posts he might have expected under Gaitskell.
Crosland was Wilson’s minister to the Department of Economic Affairs in 1964 before serving as secretary of state for science and education between 1965 and 1967. In this latter role he was largely responsible for Circular 10/65, which requested that all local authorities consider plans for a comprehensive reorganization of education. This circular created controversy, as it made clear that Crosland meant to replace the selective grammar schools with all-embracing, comprehensive schools.
Crosland was president of the Board of Trade between 1967 and 1969, and secretary of state for local government and regional planning between 1969 and 1970. In June 1970 the Labour Party was defeated in a general election, and Crosland was in the opposition until 1974. However, during that period, and particularly between 1972 and 1974, it is clear that he was pushing forward arguments within the party in favor of a future Labour government seeking Britain’s entry into the European Economic Community, although he compromised on this issue from time to time.
In Wilson’s 1974 Labour government, Crosland was appointed secretary of state for the environment. This was a post of only middling importance, but it gave him a seat on the cabinet. When Wilson resigned, Crosland entered the party leadership contest but came in last out of six candidates, polling a mere 17 votes in the first ballot, in an election that eventually resulted in James Callaghan’s installation as Labour leader. Despite this outcome, Callaghan promoted Crosland to foreign secretary, a post he held from April 1976 until his death on 19 February 1977, during which his main concern was dealing with Ian Smith’s declaration of independence for Rhodesia.
During the last year of his life, Crosland began to rethink again the revisionist ideas he had first put forward in the 1950s. The deepening economic crisis in 1976 had forced Denis Healey, the chancellor of the exchequer, to seek a loan from the International Monetary Fund. The loan was obtained, but at the cost of massive cuts in government expenditures. At this juncture, Prime Minister Callaghan spoke of the fact that the party was over and that vast inputs of investment and expenditure in the economy could not be expected in order to ensure that there was continued full employment. The Keynesian expansionist policies that Labour had adopted since 1945 were now unaffordable. The redistribution of income and wealth that the Labour government had promised the trade unions in 1974 in return for a “social contract” controlling wage demands would not be achieved. The Crosland idea was also dead. Economic growth could not ensure high social expenditure and the redistribution of income and wealth, because it could not be sustained.
Crosland was a successful politician and an effective cabinet minister, but above all he is remembered for being a great socialist thinker. His book The Future of Socialism is still regarded as one of the most influential socialist tracts of the twentieth century, although its demands for the redistribution of wealth no longer form a major plank in New Labour strategy. Crosland’s lasting legacy is his commitment to Britain’s being a society of equals rather than the “parade of dwarfs and giants” described in the Guardian (28 July 1997) in the aftermath of the Thatcher and Major administrations.