The subtitle of Will Hutton’s new book How Good Can We Be? 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, The State We’re In, which was published in 1995.
That first book 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 new book – 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 The State We’re 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.
How Good Can We Be? 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 this new book catches the national mood as the first one did 20 years ago.