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The state Will Hutton is in

Frank Lee considers the political evolution of the former cheerleader of stakeholder capitalism – from social-democrat to liberal-democrat.

I well remember Will Hutton’s columns in the Guardian and Observer during the dark days of Thatcherism; here was the riposte to the idea that there was no alternative. At that time Mr Hutton, along with William Keegan, were conducting a desperate rearguard battle against a tidal wave of monetarism and neo-liberalism. Hutton was indefatigable in his attacks on the new orthodoxy and became a focus of anti-Thatcher sentiment as well as the champion of Rhineland capitalism. Rhineland capitalism described a type of capitalist economy prevalent in mainland Europe which was based upon industrial banking, a comprehensive welfare state, small equity markets, dynamic and research-intensive manufacturing, comprehensive training and education, strict company laws and also a tightly regulated financial sector.

Times have changed it seems. Judging from his most recent articles Mr Hutton seems to have undergone some sort of Damascene conversion. In hindsight and by his own admission it appears that he was wrong about the Thatcher ‘reforms’. Consider this for example: ‘Looking back after 20 years, it is clearer that the defeat of Scragill was vital for the economy, the labour market, the environment, the public interest and progressive politics … With the miners defeated, Thatcher’s reforms of the labour market could proceed apace and New Labour has not been minded to revoke them’. (Why King Cole Had to Die – Observer 6 March 2005).

So there we have it, Mrs Thatcher was right all along and the Blair/Brown axis have wisely accepted the tenets of the 1979 settlement and the continuation of her market based solutions to economic problems. Moreover, far from extolling Rhineland capitalism any longer Mr Hutton now actively opposes it praising the virtues of the once reviled Anglo-Saxon model. Britain we are told ‘ … is in remarkably good shape … and in a position to shape the European debate so vital to our interests, a tribute to how the Blair-Brown leadership has run the country and which its critics from both the traditional left and right could never match.’ He even goes on to say that sclerotic old Europe should adopt our superior mode of economic organisation. ’Britain, to our collective surprise, offers Europe a distinctive economic and social model from which it needs to borrow and whose strengths more and more Europeans recognise.’

People like Mr Hutton might like to enquire as to why the neo-liberal prospectus has never had any appeal among the European electorates. If deregulation, privatisation and liberalisation are so good why do these misguided people always seem to vote against? But let is pass.

Mr Hutton is right about one thing though: smashing the miners’ strike did indeed pave the way – it paved the way for grinding down and intimidating the rest of working people with the fear of unemployment and some of the toughest anti-union laws in the developed world. The scene was now set for the creation of a low wage, post-industrial economy. The other features of the period were two deep downturns: one in the early 80s and another in the early 90s. These were more than simply recessions since they involved the collapse of asset prices and a massive shake out in British manufacturing. The long upturn since 1995 has its origins in the massive devalorisation of capital which took place during the Thatcher slumps, together with factors such as the house-price bubble and household debt which have kept the growth momentum going since then.

It seems that Mr Hutton has fallen victim to the British Wirtshaftwunder myth now widely propagated and rarely challenged in the political or media milieux.

The sad story of Will Hutton is hardly novel however. This is what happens to almost every British radical – with the possible exception of J.M.Keynes - who attempts to challenge the system from within. The Labour party and its leaders are, of course, the paradigm example of this process. One-time crusaders with a will to effect change from the inside simply become absorbed and integrated into the existing structures and political values (with apparent alacrity in Blair’s case); eventually they transmute into defenders of the existing order; often very partisan defenders.

This is a systemic feature of bureaucratised societies. Moreover, given the track record there seem no compelling reasons to think that it will ever be any different. One is reminded of Michels’ closing words in this respect: ‘It is probable that this cruel game will continue without end.’ (Political Parties).