We never seem to learn, do we? Will Hutton wrote 'The State We're In' during the mid-1990s, and when it was published in 1995 the Labour Party were the coming men. The then-Conservative government of John Major was in trouble, hated in many places around the country, a fact that is now increasingly forgotten as populist opinion sides with one party or the other, mainly the Labour Party, so that it looks increasingly likely that Labour will come to power again in 2015. And so the story continues: history repeating itself as farce, with the spectacle descending deeper and deeper into a kind of burlesque camp.
On its own terms, and allowing for aspects that are obviously dated, this book is a useful antidote against a burgeoning pro-Tory revisionism that attempts to rehabilitate the Thatcher-Major years in the popular consciousness. It is easy to forget why the country wanted change in 1997 and to adopt the lazy position that Blair simply 'conned' or hoodwinked the country into power. It's not true. The Conservatives were decisively and ruthlessly swept from power for a generation by an angry electorate because the Conservative government was unpopular. It was unpopular because it did things that were inimical to the country's interests. There was asset-stripping and privatisation, the destruction of our manufacturing base, mass immigration, the ERM débâcle, the sleaze scandals, and much more. These things happened under the Conservatives. That similar things also happened under the subsequent Labour governments does not change or invalidate the reasons for the country's rejection of the Conservatives in 1997.
By the time this book was published, a broad popular anti-Conservative front had coalesced consisting of the Labour Party itself; the wider labour and trade union movement; left-leaning academics like Hutton; a large pro-Labour client base in the public sector; various cultural apparatchiks mainly within the BBC but also across the arts and entertainment community; senior figures within the Church; large majorities among working class people in the depleted industrial areas of Scotland, Wales and northern England; not to mention millions of ordinary people around the country who had either suffered due to Conservative policies, or who, instinctively or otherwise, just didn't like Tories (to give the Conservatives their slightly pejorative label). Most of these people were not Labour Party people, as such. Nor were they even 'pro-Labour' necessarily. Indeed, most of them did not necessarily self-identify as 'left-wing' in any sense. Nevertheless, they became Labour's confederates. It was the Labour Party, and in particular a narrow clique at its apex, that benefited most from the opposition to Toryism. This book, perhaps without the author intending to, helps to explain how and why this 'anti-Tory' populism arose.
This book is also an antidote against a different, more substantive kind of revisionism. It is now said that Labour under Blair then Brown had a lax attitude to the public finances and is responsible for the unacceptable levels of public debt that the country now (supposedly) faces. There is a kernel of truth in this and it has to be conceded by honest Labour politicians that the Party's policies in government were, in part, responsible for the fiscal and economic difficulties. They cannot just blame global financial and economic issues. However, it is also sobering to reflect that the level of public debt inherited by Labour in 1997 was actually higher than that inherited by the ConDem Coalition in 2010 - yes, higher. The approach taken by Brown and Darling to tackling the crisis of 2008-10 was sound in its essentials. That their policies contributed to the problem and partly caused it in the first place need not detract from an acknowledgement that their response was correct and competent. For its part, this book outlines the problems that the Conservatives' own economic policies caused during the 1980s and 1990s and which Labour inherited and attempted to resolve, with a degree of success.
'The State We're In' will be of practical use for students and researchers of politics and economics, in that it provides comprehensive coverage of the centre-left, neo-Keynesian arguments against New Right Conservatism, arguments which still hold true today. Will Hutton was, and remains, the type of inoffensive, centre-left intellectual of moderate social-democratic impulses that we still see on the BBC. That's the meter of this book, and Hutton's views - both then and today - reflect broadly the perspective of the metropolitan Establishment. Yet for all this, it would be wrong to pigeon-hole Hutton as a court academic or a sycophantic creature of the Establishment, nor is he a purveyor of the type of 'fuzzy middle' platitudes that became associated with British social-democrats in the 1980s and 1990s. Admittedly, there is a feel of pregnant hesitancy at times in the prose, as if Hutton is anxious not to offend and doesn't want to go too far, but there is rigour and understanding here and perhaps this explains why, for all his talents and contacts, Hutton was never at the centre of what became New Labour. His attitude to economics and his policy prescriptions were not in simpatico with either the Blairites or the Brownites, so 'The State We're In' is really more a manifesto of what Labour could have done in power had it really been Labour. Indeed, it would be interesting to ask Hutton whether he originally wrote the book in anticipation of a Blair government or in anticipation of a John Smith government, though I think the answer is obvious. That is not to deny that Blair was profoundly of the Left, but his understanding of social-ism was very different to the understanding found among the old Right of the Labour Party. With the death of John Smith and the ascendency of Blair, the prospects for a fairly moderate, conservative, provincial-minded Labour government diminished and instead we had a revolutionary Left clique in power: i.e. New Labour.
In my view, this book remains both prescient and relevant. The state we're still in is the state we were in back in 1997, only worse in some ways. Where I think Hutton goes wrong is in this view that the solution to Britain's problems is a kind of 'Co-operative Capitalism'. Co-operative Capitalism is still capitalism. Really, you can stick whatever label you want on it, the meaning is the same essentially. We can call it 'Compassionate Capitalism', or something nice and fuzzy like 'Green Capitalism', or even 'Democratic Capitalism'? How does that grab you? It's still the same thing. In my opinion, the solution for society is democracy, which is the opposite of capitalism. The real problem is our inability to understand this and learn from the experience of a failed and bankrupt social system that returns leader after leader, some better than others, but all embarked on a futile mission: to reform a system that cannot be reformed in the interests of humanity. When will we learn? Probably not in my lifetime. Of course, all that is just my opinion, my perspective. There are some still within the Labour Party, and others close to it, who retain their confidence in social-democracy (though I would call it faith rather than confidence). For those people, this book is a kind of chalice. The forgotten and necessary case for this 'decent', well-meaning kind of social-democracy can return if a brave few are willing to make it. Certainly, there has not been a more opportune time for Labour to return to those arguments and the spirit of this book.