From page one, David Marquand makes his case clear: “There is surely something in Freud’s notion that adult fascination with money stemmed from childhood fascination with excreta.” His claim is that when it comes to geographical variations in this fascination, there is no other populous country more devoted to money worship than the UK. These are bold claims, and the author’s stated aim is to redress the balance and make Britain more normal.
When the book is at its most entertaining and enlightening, readers may find it hard to believe that they are reading the words of a man approaching his 80th birthday. The City of London is described as a “swelling boil on the nether parts of the global financial system”; Richard Branson as a man unworthy of admiration who boasts of his firm’s tax evasion; Tony Blair as a “particularly prominent fawner” to Rupert Murdoch and a man who lacked a messianic cause other than self-promotion.
Mammon’s Kingdom is a political historian’s lively account of the waxing and waning of the love of money in Britain. By concentrating on just one country, he presents a more nuanced story than that recently told by Thomas Piketty. The UK has not had just one brief experience with greater equality, and the post-Second World War era was not a single exceptional period. There has been more than one progressive age when greed was held at bay.
Marquand is also more optimistic than his nearest comparator, the late Tony Judt, about how we might treat the various ills that prevent the spread of fairness across this land, but he is fully aware of the huge magnitude of the challenge. His view is that the UK has an unusually extreme problem, is remarkably unequal in comparison with otherwise similar countries, and hence finds itself currently caught in a unique trap, one in which even the US is not so firmly stuck.
This essay on Britain is a book of many short stories which, when “read for legal”, must have raised a few eyebrows. One still-living banker is described as “ruthless, driven, domineering, ferociously ambitious and increasingly prone to megalomania”. Another is defined as emulating the first. And all this is said before the author gets on to their really bad qualities.
Almost everyone comes out looking bad in the stories in the first half of the book. New Labour’s greatest sin was getting in bed with bankers, and the rest of us were at fault for not spotting the sleaze. However, when almost everyone’s a fool then no one appears to be to blame. The one complaint I have with this argument is that precisely why Britain became so uniquely greedy is glossed over. The City of London could only be deregulated in the “Big Bang” of 1986 because the Conservatives won the election of 1983 so convincingly. That was arguably only possible when the Left split between Labour and the Social Democratic Party. Marquand was part of that split – joining the SDP – but it is never mentioned in his book.
This one complaint isn’t a personal dig that stems from having been around at the time; I was a child when those key decisions were made. But for a book that throws so much mud at so many, a little more introspection might have been in order. Marquand was part of the generation that allowed Britain to lurch to the laissez-faire. In hindsight, his contemporaries in most other countries in Europe did better when the pendulum was swinging so unpredictably. All that he says is: “The champions of the public realm succumbed to a soporific complacency.” I’d like to know more of how and why. But I get the sense that hatchets have been buried. The further back in time this author goes, the more magnanimous he is.
At many points it is suggested that some great political figure of the past was more of a moderate than we might suppose. At one point so many of the key characters in this story became masters of one Oxbridge college or another that it looks like nothing so much as a somewhat partial history of the patrician elite. At other points in the book, where in my view it is at its best, it adopts a style of narration that recalls the work of the film-maker Adam Curtis, but with wonderfully woven words standing in for Curtis’ soundtracks and grainy images.
Just as Curtis portrays the high priests of the current market orthodoxy in film, here (in words) Marquand describes Chicago School economics as a modern-day cult, one based on doctrines that are aesthetically satisfying to those with “crossword-solving minds”. The Chicagoan axiom that “rewards reflect productivity” is described as naive and quaint in the extreme, but also incredibly dangerous.
The Chicago cult to which all of our three main political parties still strongly adhere defines as “rational” any behaviour that accords with its axioms. In his call to arms Marquand proclaims that “economics is no longer a science”, that economic behaviour is not a timeless truth but a trope of rhetoric, and that the Chicagoan worldview has now collapsed. That final claim may be a little optimistic.
This is not a book written by a radical. Attempts to hold back 1980s marketisation by David Blunkett in Sheffield and Ken Livingstone in London (and their fellow democratically elected local councillors) are described as “astounding folly”. Contemporary student protests over tuition fees are labelled “hardly commensurate with opposition to unjust taxation” and yet the new fees equate to a 49 per cent tax rate for many future graduates. Half of all young women in the UK now go to university. They are set to pay tax at higher rates than many members of the far richer 1 per cent who are mostly male and just a few years older than them.
But it is precisely its author’s lack of radicalism that makes Mammon’s Kingdom so powerful. What is asked for is simply reasonable, not revolutionary. When someone so firmly based in the centre ground tells you that “the continuities between Thatcher and Blair were more salient than the contrasts”, it’s time to admit that comedian Russell Brand may have been making a fair point when he identified stultifying similarities among our political elite.
Turning to solutions, Marquand’s answer is to suggest a new national conversation based on a renewed understanding of our past, and of respecting and re-melding of a great many former viewpoints, many of which have been either largely forgotten or greatly distorted as history is retold to fit what Brand might call the hegemonic individualist discourse of our times.
Among the pantheon of heroes in the second half of Marquand’s account, R. H. Tawney stands out. Few people writing today on potential solutions to society’s ills can quote from an interview they conducted with that man, who died in 1962. Tawney lived through times more inequitable than today’s and saw greater equality dawn.
The national conversation is vital, Marquand insists, because until we can talk the talk of mutuality we have no chance of walking the path away from individualism. The greatest obstacles in our way are ourselves, and how the very way in which we think has become so corrupted. Mammon’s Kingdom makes such a claim now part of the mainstream. Which is what it has to be, if there is to be hope of escaping the trap we presently find ourselves in.
Of the state of affairs that Mammon’s Kingdom addresses, David Marquand says: “There’s a hell of a lot to be angry about, and I may have overdone the anger, but in the end I am hopeful.”
Marquand now divides his time between Headington on the edge of Oxford and a “tiny flat” in Penarth, on the outskirts of Cardiff, that he recently purchased with Judith, his “wonderful wife of 55 years”. The move represents a return to the land of his fathers for an academic, author and former politician who observes that as he gets older, he finds his Welsh roots matter more and more to him.
Born in Cardiff, Marquand spent much of the Second World War with his grandparents in the mining village of Ystalyfera in the Swansea Valley. When his father Hilary was elected to Parliament in 1945, Marquand’s family moved first to Battersea and then Wimbledon.
Was he a studious child? “This is a hard question to answer. In some ways I was very idle: I couldn’t read until I was over six years old, and I vehemently resisted learning to do so on the grounds that it was much nicer to be read to. On the other hand, once I did learn to read, my nose was always (well, fairly often) in a book. But I idled at subjects I didn’t like - notably maths - and worked at things I liked, notably history.”
Marquand’s mother, he says, “was really beautiful as a young woman; she was also charming, gregarious and somehow indomitable. What I remember most about her (and for that matter about my father as well) is that, although they must have been frightened at various times during the war - for example, during air raids in the Blitz and later in the wave of bombing in early 1944 - they never communicated their fear to us children.
“I was closest to my mother when she was in her late eighties and early nineties. (She died at 92.) By then she was immobile, and had to live in an old people’s home. Sometimes she was understandably pretty depressed, but mostly she was amazingly resilient and perky. I particularly remember her reciting a long Welsh poem to me, very movingly, even though I couldn’t understand a word of it. At the end she told me it was about a pauper’s grave. She loved poetry; and perhaps that was her biggest gift to me.”
He attended Emmanuel School in London, “a distinctly un-grand grammar school when I was there. (Today it is independent.) The atmosphere was pretty laid back. If you wanted to work hard, you were helped to do so, but if you didn’t, no one pestered you. It had an excellent modern languages department. The French master - universally known as ‘Boozer Ginn’ - spent the whole of our first term teaching us French phonetics. Many of the boys ended up with much better French accents than their English ones.
“There was also an excellent dramatic society, run by another French master, who was a bit of a 1930s Cambridge leftie. I particularly remember The Ascent of F6. I wasn’t much good at acting (unlike my brother Richard, who ended up as a famous film director), but I was good at reading: in fact, I regularly won the Reading Prize. I can still remember reading Tennyson’s Ulysses and Moloch’s speech in Milton’s Paradise Lost, and biggish chunks of them are still lodged somewhere in my cerebral cortex.
“But it wasn’t until I got into the third year sixth that I took off. A new history master, ‘Taffy’ Williams, arrived from somewhere (I don’t remember where) and taught me how to write essays. ‘Hit the examiner between the eyes’, he used to say. I think there are large traces of his teaching in my Mammon book.”
After completing National Service, Marquand read modern history at Magdalen College, Oxford. Asked what sort of undergraduate - dreamy, gregarious, insecure, swotty, confident - he was, he replies: “I think I was all of these things. I was incredibly lucky, both in my tutors and the Oxford degree structure of the time.
“I was taught history at Magdalen by two really great men - ‘Bruce’ Macfarlane the medievalist and A.J.P. Taylor the modernist. Since the degree structure meant that there were no exams between the end of the second term of your first year and your finals at the end of your third year, you could (and I did) devote yourself to extracurricular activities throughout most of your second year. I was very active in the Labour Club, somewhat less active in the Union and very active indeed in the student newspaper, Isis.
“Nowadays there is a myth about the Fifties. They are damned as boring and conformist. They were nothing of the sort. They saw the birth of the New Left, and (not coincidentally) the mass protest against the Suez War in 1956. I will never forget hearing Aneurin Bevan denouncing Anthony Eden and the Conservative government at a mass meeting in Trafalgar Square. But in my third year, I put all this behind me and got down to really hard work for my finals.”
Marquand, like his father before him, would go on to become a Labour MP, representing Ashfield in Nottinghamshire from 1966 to 1977. He resigned his seat to work as chief adviser to Roy Jenkins when the latter became president of the European Commission.
“I wasn’t much good at parliamentary politics, quite frankly. To be honest, the best thing about being an MP was that you had a ringside seat at the rare, exciting events when you could, metaphorically speaking, smell blood on the floor,” he says, adding: “I beat a local man for the constituency I represented, and I have no doubt that he would have been a better MP than I was.”
He joined the Social Democratic Party as a founder-member when it was created in 1981. “In the 1983 election I stood as SDP candidate for the High Peak, where my wife and I were then living. I devoted a huge amount of time and energy to that, but I remember one of my fellow SDPers saying she thought the thrill of the chase was what mattered to me, not winning. I haven’t stood again.”
Starting in 1978, when he accepted a professorship at the University of Salford, Marquand’s academic career would take him to institutions in the UK, the US and Australia, and from 1996 until his retirement in 2002 he served as principal of Mansfield College, Oxford. “The college was originally a Congregationalist foundation, and the tradition of dissenting nonconformity still survives - of course in a 21st rather than 19th-century idiom. I don’t think I’d have been happy running a conventional college, but I adored Mansfield,” he says.
In each of the past two years for which statistics are available, Oxford admitted just 15 applicants who had been in receipt of free school meals. Does Marquand hope to see the ancient university better its widening participation achievements? “It won’t improve without a determined effort on the part of the teaching and administrative staff. The trouble is that the marketisation of higher education that I describe and attack in my book is forcing Oxford to go down the American Ivy League route of high fees and frenetic fundraising.”
Marquand says he “can’t think of any particular incident” that was a spur to writing Mammon’s Kingdom. “Although most reviewers have dwelt on my alleged despair about the state of Britain, it was in fact written in hope at least as much as in sorrow or anger.
“There’s a section in the last chapter headed ‘Intimations of a Challenge’, where I list a mass of hopeful signs, ranging from the Occupy Movement to the internet campaigning group 38 Degrees, and from London Citizens and the Campaign for a Living Wage to Compass, the non-party pressure group of the democratic Left and the burgeoning Green movement.
And of recent European Parliamentary electoral successes for the new right-wing political party Ukip, Marquand says that “no single person or group of people are to blame” for its rise in popularity. “I think Ukip’s success is an epiphenomenon, if I can call it that, of the social, cultural, economic and political malaise I try to describe in Mammon’s Kingdom.
“The last sentence of the book is: ‘We can’t go on as we are’. I believe passionately that that is true; and I also believe that more and more people are coming to the same conclusion. I notice that Mark Carney, the governor of the Bank of England, and Christine Lagarde are among them. The top one per cent, the chief beneficiaries and apostles of Mammon worship, will fight to defend their privileges. But they can be beaten, if the rest of us have sufficient will and intelligence.”
Were a good fairy to offer him the gift of any skill or talent, Marquand says he would choose to be able to sing.
Mammon’s Kingdom: An Essay on Britain, Now
By David Marquand
Allen Lane, 288pp, £20.00
Published 29 May 2014