Review: Them and Us, Will Hutton

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Will Hutton (2010) Them And Us: Changing Britain – Why We Need a Fair Society, London: Little, Brown.

I was first interested in Will Hutton’s work when one of my friend’s read The State We’re In in 2007. Her nose was roughly 3cm away from each page. A left-of-centre critique on Thatcher did seem like it would make for good reading, but I (ashamedly) didn’t get round to it. In 2010, Hutton came to Sheffield for Off the Shelf. [1] His new book has a resounding message for anyone interested in a critique of free marketeers, financial greed and pro-business elitism. It is a book that won me over.

Hutton begins with the context of the times. In 1979, Britain took a turn to the right that would not end until 2008. Even post-credit crunch Britain hasn’t changed all that much so far. Hutton epitomised this by Damien Hirst’s diamond encrusted skull, sold for over $100 million. [2] The purpose of art had become to celebrate wealth as a luminous death mask corrupting everyone from society to the artist to the buyer. It is a chilling message that stuck throughout the book. But before Hutton wanted to explain how we got there, he went back to basics: Why fairness?

Fairness, for Hutton, is not strictly about redistributive justice or the ‘I-eat-what-I-kill’ neo-liberal philosophy. Fairness is primarily about proportionality, and getting one’s due deserts. So putting in a certain amount of effort should mean a certain amount of reward; malevolence of some degree will be punished with the same degree (pp.38-7). Engaging with Karl Marx, Adam Smith, John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and John Rawls, we move along a philosophical journey grounded strongly in Enlightenment values. Here is an author prepared to justify his beliefs from the depth of political philosophy right up to the current affairs agenda. Hutton’s conceptualisation of fairness is simple and comprehensive. With that, Hutton asks one blunt question: is a CEO worth 300 times more money than an ordinary worker (p.67)? Independent studies and resentment from the public seem to suggest that no, he (and it usually is a he) is not. [3] Hutton is equally damning of the traditional left – equality of outcomes does not focus on proportionality and due desert; arguments about entitlement begin on wrong philosophical precepts.

Armed with this normative and somewhat elusive concept, Hutton suggests that only in fair, open-access and plural societies can capitalism work. General Purpose Technologies (GPTs) tend to evolve only in these types of society. Innovation cannot thrive in a closed, secretive society that props up the status quo. Innovation is everything, and it will continue to grow of importance. This is why Hutton focuses a great deal of his time on the knowledge economy. Britain in the post-industrial age needs to invest in brainpower to work effectively. He is in favour of arguments raised by Howard Gardner that cognitive capabilities need to be expanded. [4] Other ideas: education services need to be more autonomous (i.e., like academies) but also retain an input from local authorities; teachers must be subject to regular professional reviews; pupil premiums must be established; UCAS must accept background and circumstance; internships could be funded by more creative use of loans… and so on. The essential point is that our society should be all about education. It is something that the Thatcherites forgot and the New Labour government didn’t work on enough.

Hutton’s most pervasive attack is on economics. The financial system of the UK adopted a high risk strategy with catastrophic end results. Banking regulation from the 1930s was dismantled by Thatcher, Major, Blair and Brown. All four are condemned to serving the British public with a resounding debt that will take generations to pay off. Unfortunately, however, this is also where Hutton tends to lose his charm: chapters 5, 6 and to some extent 7 were not easy to follow: leveraging, deleveraging, asset-bargaining, financial nodes – for a student of Politics, a little bit dull. The gist was easy enough to undersand: banks lent too much, borrowers couldn’t pay it all back, there were runs on banks, and a financial vacuum destroyed the economic bubble. The remaining third of the book was spent on offering solutions; a supply of ideas that British policy-makers and the public ought to think about. They range from more medium-sized banks, capped bonuses (more resonant than ever?), a financial transaction tax, voting reform, an elected House of Lords, empowerment for local government and press regulation.

Hutton offers a compelling case in defence of welfare and taxation. Whilst the book lulled on occasion with possibly the worst concluding chapter I’ve read in a long time, it is a worthwhile read. It provides context, analysis and, most importantly, a way out to a more egalitarian – a more just – society.

Article by Marc Geddes.

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