R.W. Johnson

  • The State We’re In by Will Hutton
    Cape, 352 pp, £16.99, January 1995, ISBN 0 224 03688 2

Will Hutton, the Guardian’s economics editor, has produced a book which is part show-biz – it carries a passionate puff from Ian McEwan on the front cover and leapt straight into the bestseller list – and part political event: it clearly aims to provide a sweeping economic and political platform for Labour, has been elaborated with the help of Tony Blair’s adviser, David Miliband, and sees Blair’s election as leader as an epochal event, finally settling Labour’s commitment to social democracy. All of which sounds very much as if Hutton hopes to become a key adviser in a future Blair administration, though the Tories may well want to know how much of the book really represents Labour policy. The State We’re In will almost certainly be a powerfully influential book among Labour’s élite, but many of its positions – particularly its out-and-out republicanism – are considerably bolder than any Labour’s leadership is likely to own up to.

The heart of Hutton’s book lies in his raking critique of the Thatcher period. This, heaven knows, has been done before but he does it exceedingly well. The sheer social vandalism of those years has lost none of its capacity to shock: the fact that homelessness has increased in every single year since 1979, an utter disgrace committed as a conscious act of policy; the £3 billion thrown away on bringing in and then abolishing the poll tax; the £22 billion given away in public assets sold under cost; the dreadful damage to the manufacturing base, which recaptured its 1979 level of production only in 1988; the crazy adherence to monetarism despite the fact that monetary growth in 1983-8 averaged 14.7 per cent while inflation averaged 4.7 per cent, quite invalidating the alleged causal link between these figures; the destruction of the Serps pension scheme and thus the deliberate infliction of poverty on millions of old people; and the wicked and deliberate increase in inequality of every kind. This last is what makes all the bombast about ‘Tory radicalism’ and Major’s ‘classlessness’ such a terrible, empty sham, for, as Hutton points out, the net effect of all these changes was ‘the entrenchment of the old class structure that Tory radicals affected to despise’, with the gap between those able and those unable to afford private health, welfare and education far, far worse at the end than when it began. Hutton is also rightfully scathing about the extent to which systematic Tory patronage has created an état conservateur quite comparable to the hegemonic état Gaulliste built up in France during the 16 unbroken years of Gaullist rule. Perhaps the choicest example is the appointment as director of the Immigrant Appeals Panel of Keith Best, the disgraced Tory MP found filling in false names on BT share application forms. It’s not just that Best is not an appropriate man to make life-and-death decisions over immigrants desperate not to be deported back to, say, Iran or Iraq, but that he is actually the sort of person we’d like to export to somewhere else if only someone would take him.

Hutton then outlines his prescription for turning it all around – essentially a mixture of left Keynesianism with a thoroughgoing programme of constitutional reform. Personally, I agreed with all this before I picked the book up but felt, nonetheless, a steadily rising dissatisfaction as I read on. Hutton’s passionate advocacy of something I already believed in gradually undermined my confidence in it, leaving me at the end a weaker believer in the same case and more than ever aware of its faults and deficiencies.

Things start to go wrong on page two. It is an odd treatise on political economy which, by this stage, is already deeply into the national crisis occasioned by ... the breakdown of royal marriages, which, apparently, are ‘symbolic of the age’. It is all so pantingly retailed: the indignity suffered by the Queen, the horror of the Prince of Wales’s acknowledgment of his adultery and, worse still, his desire to be ‘defender of many faiths’. All of which ‘opens up profound questions’, produces ‘deep divisions fissuring national life’ which, horribile dictu, ‘ensure that apparently innocuous royal remarks are loaded with political significance, further disabling the monarchy as a national institution.’ You can feel the weight of this mighty crisis pressing down until you reflect that, being a republican, Hutton is presumably pleased by this lucky break for his side of things. But on he goes: the country is in a state of ‘social and economic disintegration’, ‘Britain’s national affairs are reaching explosive levels of stress’ and ‘the deepest parts of the British psyche’ are affected, ‘there is a general sense of fear and beleaguerment,’ even our ‘military values are suborned’ so that the Armed Services are unwilling or unable to fight, for they are ‘no longer clear what they might be fighting for’. And, yes, the fearful giant, Negative Equity, stalks the land.

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