A Vacuum in the Centre: A Review of How Good We Can Be: Will Hutton

In 1995 Will Hutton published the incendiary The State We Are In. Whilst its focus on a specific historical moment 20 years ago means it hasn’t dated excellently in terms of application, many of Hutton’s predictions have largely been proven correct. The capitulation of New Labour due to their failure to adequately dilute Thatcherite economics means Hutton can posit Blair’s disinterest in ‘Stakeholder Capitalism’ as the natal point of the banking crash. Now, after the fact, with Britain in a paroxysm of austerity, Hutton’s analysis has a ominous gravity. In How Good We Can Be, he uses this position to assert a route out of this predicament, and to accurately draw the contours of his vision of a socially conscious capitalism.

It’s refreshing to read anti-establishment commentary that actually has some policy to it. Hutton is no Owen Jones, and does not beat around the proverbial people’s-emancipation-bush by advocating nebulous concepts or meaningless buzzwords. How Good We Can Be is unashamedly a manifesto, and like its predecessor is borne of a particular political climate, and thus attempts to respond pragmatically rather than theoretically to our current financial ecology. This is perhaps Hutton’s greatest strength insofar as the book’s vision seems feasible due to its contemporaneity and the diligence of its micromanagement. Smart Britain sounds very appealing, and very possible.

That isn’t to say that there are no issues with Hutton’s vision, and indeed, to use his discussion of education as an example, his centrist manifesto isn’t necessarily watertight. Hutton is correct to circumvent the logic trap of arguing for the abolition of private schools, and his balanced suggestion of fee-paying institutions taking on a significantly greater amount of talented (he suggests 33% of all pupils), but disadvantaged children is attractive. To dissolve the independent sector in lieu of ubiquitous state education would surely lead to the very richest families investing in expensive tutors, and/or jettisoning their offspring to prestigious overseas education systems, widening the gulf in standards and further cementing social hierarchies. Hutton’s navigation of this quandary is indicative of his recognition of the footloose nature of capital and the need to work (at least for now) within existent networks to achieve progress. I question however his support of Academies, which is echoed in contemporary Conservative policy. As argued convincingly by current teachers, the proposed mass transfer to Academy status entails a “wholesale privatization of the education system” that seems at odds with Hutton’s overall vision. To universally integrate competition, specialism and self-governance into the fabric of schooling could well be a disaster for children with learning difficulties for example, as they may be shut out from ambitious establishments and forced into vocational schools with a bad track record of delivering necessary qualifications and life-skills. Thus, whilst Hutton’s collusive propositions often seem sensible due to their moderacy, in some cases they seem to offer little solution to already-existent problems. Perhaps, with regards to the Academy question, we should be quicker to advocate a ‘smarter’ curriculum and exam board at national level rather than trust schools to self-govern?

Hutton’s vision is ultimately propelled by a call for a radical change to the dominant neoliberal ideology. He argues that “there is a greater willingness to challenge the consensus of the last thirty years,” and through this recalbiration of dogma, we can create an infinitely more equal, and prosperous Britain. I can’t help feel that he places too much emphasis however on inequality as stemming from a free-market creed. In practice, do corporate executives deny opportunities to trade-unions because they are paid-up affiliates of the Chicago School? Or, is it due to an overwhelming desire to maximise gains, and power that is felt by individuals? For Hutton, the banking crisis was indicative of blind faith in neoliberal ideology, but for me, it seems more so endemic of the ways by which power and wealth corrupts — an attrition that has alloyed the entirety of human history. It is very difficult to disagree with Hutton’s arguments or policy ideas, but his prioritisation of dogma demonstrates a need for a wider theory of power, as without it, How Good We Can Be seems theoretically incomplete.

Hutton predicts (writing in 2015), that the EU Referendum will result in Remain, and Cameron et. al, will use this as an opportunity to purge the Conservative party of its more demagogic elements, resulting in the establishment of a centre-right hegemony in Westminster. In light of this, he points towards the potential of Labour as a centrist force, as; “it knows the socialism it used to champion no longer functions: [but] it knows neoliberalism does not work either.” Apropos these hypotheses, Britain today could not be more different, and whilst Hutton argues the Centre must hold, it seems almost completely vacated. Twenty years ago, New Labour ignored Hutton’s notion of stakeholder capitalism, and thus became a critical agent in producing the atavistic economy documented in How Good We Can Be. Reading this one year on, the tragedy isn’t that it has become obsolete, rather, it is already so difficult to see who would put its pertinent ideas into practice.

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