20 years on and still in a state

The subtitle of Will Hutton’s new book 

conveys the message very concisely: ‘ending the mercenary society and building a great country’. It is the heartfelt product of the times we’re in, the post-crisis, mid-austerity, fractured-politics state of the UK. Readers of Will Hutton’s Observer columns will not be surprised by his diagnosis of the country’s ills. Nor will readers of his first bestseller,
, which was published in 1995.

[amazon_image id=”1408705311″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]How Good We Can Be: Ending the Mercenary Society and Building a Great Country[/amazon_image]   [amazon_image id=”0099366819″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]The State We’re In: (Revised Edition): Why Britain Is in Crisis and How to Overcome It[/amazon_image]

 caught the mood of the nation. We had had enough of Thatcherism, of the short termism of finance and the divisiveness of class in Britain, the inequalities of opportunity and outcome. The book became a sort of handbook for people on the left of politics working to bring about what turned out to be Tony Blair’s landslide first general election victory in 1997. Hutton is clearly disappointed by how Britain turned out after three Labour terms in office, as well as by the post-2010 coalition. For the 
– although quite measured in how it says so – clearly sees New Labour as misguided in its adherence to the Thatcherite insistence on the pre-eminence of markets, markets, markets. “Craven attitude to private is best notion,” goes the index summary of one of the passages about New Labour. The Blair governments turned out to have no interest in the kind of ‘stakeholder’ capitalism advocated in
. It was seen as too close to the traditional Labour approach to the economy, perhaps. New Labour was very keen – understandably – to ensure it was seen as business-friendly.

 uses different terminology and of course notes the different political context – the devolutionary forces, the impact of austerity, the  fragmentation of support for the major parties and rise of UKIP. But it insists on essentially the same analysis and approaches. The book emphasises the importance of the institutional fabric of the economy and society in between ‘state’ and ‘market’, and on the fact that government and private sector have to work in harmony in any successful advanced economy, rather than seeing each other as incompatibly opposite ways of organising economic activity.

My sense is that many voters have strong reservations about the role of markets, and big business is hardly admired these days; but the simplistic Thatcherite approach to economics still has a far, far stronger grip on officialdom and the public policy conversation than it has inside the economics profession. It’s dispiriting to read, after two decades, that many of the same long-term British economic problems (skills, infrastructure, short-termism in finance) have not abated.

I hope it will be widely read during the election campaign. Hutton has plenty of interesting policy suggestions – if anything, they add up to quite a modest programme. Even people who disagree with his politics ought to be willing to consider with an open mind proposals that might help address some of the glaring issues such as the need for economic devolution around the UK including English regions, or the fraught question of corporate taxation. It remains to be seen whether 

catches the national mood as
20 years ago.

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2 thoughts on “20 years on and still in a state

  1. Pingback: 20 years on and still in a state | Homines Economici

  2. As a consequence of two world wars, added to a string of other conflicts, for much of the 20th Century the UK government has been arriving on the economic battlefields after the main battle has finished and moved on. That is they have been always and increasingly behind change and developments, notably in technology etc. So essentially they have been engaged in sporadic skirmishing, looting and stripping the dead. Whether to the right or left, as Hutton, they are addressing the past in terms of the past. We are all the losers and the losses are beginning to mount to rather higher levels.

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