How Good We Can Be: Ending the Mercenary Society and Building a Great Country, by Will Hutton

Top-down ideas narrow a New Labour architect’s vision of a brave new Britain, says Philip Roscoe

February 19, 2015

In 1995, a self-described “maverick outsider” named Will Hutton published The State We’re In: Why Britain Is in Crisis and How to Overcome It, a savage indictment of the failures of Conservative rule. Twenty years later, How Good We Can Be reprises these themes, surveys a mess far worse than he ever predicted and sketches out possibilities for the future prosperity of the UK.

Hutton is now a pillar of the centre-Left establishment, the spiritual architect of New Labour, former editor-in-chief of The Observer and the principal of Hertford College, Oxford. The book’s dust-jacket photograph features him, shirt and tie, arms crossed, staring at the camera, the pose of a man ready to sort things out. He wants the UK to be a smart and flourishing nation, its universities the innovation factories of the world, its high-tech industries solving “wicked problems” such as climate change and water usage. In Hutton’s future, the last great frontiers will be pushed back. The oceans will be farmed and seabeds mined. Medical advances will help people to live well past 100 and still remember their names, and space exploration will bring back rare minerals to replace those that we have used up down here. There will be flying cars. Hutton offers us a collaborative, space-age update on 19th-century frontier capitalism: stakeholder politics meets Dan Dare. In the midst will be the UK, flourishing, smart, empowered and prosperous.

Perhaps I’m being unfair. Flying cars make only a brief appearance in the hallucinatory first chapter. Much of the book is critique, and here Hutton is as persuasive, and as furious, as ever. He is angry, and it is hard not to be angry along with him, at the cabal of politicians and business leaders who have plundered and stripped UK industry for short-term gain; at those who have been blessed by the lucky congruence of a simplistic, wrong-headed political ethos and their own self-interest, rewarded for havoc by knighthoods and gold. He is angry that the politicians who made so much capital out of his ideas were craven and cowardly in office; that their idea of a public-private stakeholder deal was the ludicrous and eventually crippling private finance initiative. He rails at “ownerless firms” run by transient shareholders, and at rentier capitalism in all its forms; at inequality, the ideologically driven rollback of the state, the breakdown of institutions, of social justice and mutual trust; and at the dismal future awaiting both youngsters and retirees. Like many, Hutton wants something better for Britain.

Hutton proposes reform of company law and ownership structures to foster long-term ownership and concomitant management. He advocates state-sponsored innovation, collaboration between government and people through intermediary institutions and a commitment to local government. The UK is to be the world’s leading smart society, with universities the innovation machines at the heart of the nexus. The technical training and good jobs that this smart society can offer will be enfranchising and emancipatory for its citizens: human flourishing and economic prosperity go hand in hand.

Many of these ideas are familiar to those of us who work in higher education, depressingly so for those unfortunate enough not to work in applied sciences. Hutton even adopts former universities and science minister David Willetts’ eight great technologies. The only difference in prescription is a commitment to the open exchange of ideas, stewarded by state-sponsored knowledge exchange institutions. Hutton writes of government co-creating innovation with industry and proposes a research-industrial base seeded by the state, with the Shareholder Executive acting as sovereign wealth fund and incubator. Elsewhere, co-creation involves intermediary institutions offering proprietary methodologies to measure public value and impact. Alas, co-creation is 1990s New Public Management in drag, and Hutton, having convincingly demonstrated that the UK has been hollowed out by one variety of measurement and associated incentives, proposes another. More intermediaries, consultants and metrics: these are hardly likely to restore public trust.

The motif of the Enlightenment and its virtues runs throughout the book. It is a fount of Britishness, of “self-deprecation, a love of irony, a willingness to queue, neighbourliness, fair play in sport and a suspicion of high theory”. But a distrust of intellectualism leaves Hutton short, and he understates the ingenuity and effectiveness of contemporary enclosure. On the subject of university tuition fees, for example, he is strangely mute, while students, forced to take outrageous terms, are turned into a reliable, bankable revenue stream. Nor does he see that his beloved digital technologies are equally pernicious means of exploitation in the hands of vast digital gatekeepers.

What is missing from Hutton’s brave new Britain? Women, for one. When he discusses the Scottish referendum, he makes no mention of the women’s political movements that so nearly carried the Yes vote. Nor does he mention the bubbling multicultural cauldron that the UK has become since 1995. To be sure, he deplores the xenophobia and small-mindedness of Ukip, but for all his co-creationism, his thinking runs top-down. He takes little notice of real grass-roots movements, unpredictably surging up from below. When, in the final pages, he calls on Labour to stand up to the task of rebuilding our nation, he champions a two-party political system that is fading fast.

How Good We Can Be: Ending the Mercenary Society and Building a Great Country

By Will Hutton
Little, Brown, 304pp, £16.99 and £12.99
ISBN 9781408705315 and 5971
Published 12 February 2015

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