Them and Us: Changing Britain: Why We Need a Fair Society

December 2, 2010

Will Hutton is an angry man - angry about the depredations of financial capitalism, angry about a system that offered Lance Bombardier Ben Parkinson, who lost both legs after a landmine exploded in Afghanistan, a mere £150,000 in compensation, while Eric Nicoli, the head of EMI, emerged with a pay-off of almost £3 million, despite having failed to turn the company around. Many will share Hutton's anger and ask why it is that the misjudgements of the bankers are to be visited upon the poorest and most vulnerable in our society. Gross inequalities of income and wealth are, Hutton believes, corrosive, so that the gentleness, kindness and tolerance that we used to think of as characteristically British have vanished in a public domain "now dominated by the tabloid bully, the professional mocker, the seeker of celebrity and the xenophobe".

But Hutton's anger is a directed anger. Unlike so many polemicists, he knows what he is talking about. He is indeed that rare figure - a radical who really understands, from his earlier career as a stockbroker, how financial institutions work. He could, no doubt, have himself joined the super-rich had he remained in the City. But instead he has pioneered the concept of stakeholder capitalism, the idea that the Left should concentrate upon equalising capital ownership as well as incomes - or at least strive to render the distribution of capital less unfair, in a society in which the poorest quarter owns less than 1 per cent of the nation's assets, while the top 3 per cent owns a sixth.

He believed at one time that he had made a convert in Tony Blair, but Blair was skilled at making his interlocutors believe he was on their side. In any case, Blair had little time for ideas. His search for a philosophy was, so Bernard Williams once told me, rather like Oscar Wilde's search for a wife.

Nothing indeed could be further from Hutton's vision than the unregulated capitalism over which Blair, like Margaret Thatcher and John Major, presided for so long. Blair was willing to tolerate the excesses of capitalism so long as it laid the golden eggs that allowed massive increases in public expenditure. New Labour, so Hutton believes, "ran up the white flag before the march of finance without even an exchange of hostile fire". Social democracy, in its New Labour variant, instead of regulating finance capitalism, had become parasitic upon it.

Hutton, however, is in no sense hostile to capitalism. His fundamental argument, which would have been found quite unexceptionable by Adam Smith, whose Wealth of Nations was preceded by The Theory of Moral Sentiments, is that fairness, far from undermining capitalism, is an essential bulwark of it since it makes it morally legitimate. Like Vince Cable, the politician whose views are perhaps most similar to his, Hutton seeks to save capitalism from itself. For only a fairer capitalism can become a stable capitalism.

Them and Us is a spirited polemic. There is a fine intellectual honesty about it, and a willingness to think things through from first premises that all too few radicals display. But in making his case, Hutton races rather breathlessly through a host of intellectual disciplines - political philosophy, European history and modern economics - and occasionally the effect is somewhat helter-skelter.

Moreover, he never really tells us why Britain, by contrast with the Continent, has found it so difficult to develop a more socially responsible capitalism. His answer may well be that the adversarial political system is inimical to notions of power-sharing in society as in politics. Winner-takes-all in politics mirrors winner-takes-all in economics.

It is largely for this reason that Hutton favours the introduction of proportional representation. He looks with longing to the Continent where his ideas have been adopted, as much by Christian Democrat governments as by administrations of the Left.

He hopes that Britain's present coalition government, with its commitment to a five-year Parliament, may persuade ministers to take a long-term and critical look at our financial institutions, although he is opposed to immediate deficit reduction and opposed George Osborne's first budget. But he finds encouragement in the fact that, whereas under Labour nine of the 11 members of the Financial Services Authority had backgrounds in the financial services industry, three of the five members of the inquiry into banking announced by David Cameron in June are distinguished non-bankers.

Without abandoning his radical credentials, Hutton has become an adviser to the coalition on fair pay in the public sector. He will be hoping, no doubt, that Cameron proves a better advocate of a socially responsible capitalism than Blair was, and that Cameron, like Disraeli, succeeds in outflanking the nominal party of the Left by his radicalism. Whatever the fate of the coalition, Them and Us provides a powerful stimulus to thought on matters fundamental to our economic life.

Them and Us: Changing Britain: Why We Need a Fair Society

By Will Hutton. Little, Brown, 418pp, £20.00. ISBN 9781408701515. Published 30 September 2010

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