What nature of beast?

It was, I think, Martin Rowson, perhaps our most ghoulish cartoonist, who first asked whether the coalition was evil, useless or both. Faced with David Cameron’s eccentric stewardship since May 2010, government opponents are often unsure whether to laugh, cry, or run away in terror. What Polly Toynbee and David Walker want us to consider is, that if the government is useless, it might be useless for a reason.

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Dogma and Disarray: Cameron at half-time
by Polly Toynbee and David Walker
Granta, 90pp, £5

Dogma and Disarray is an old-fashioned polemic, pure and simple. There’s no attempt to win over government supporters here. Instead, for a fiver, they try to offer Cameron’s opponents (Lib Dem as well as Labour) a coherent idea of what they’re up against. If it is indeed a beast, what nature of beast is it?

Not easy. Unwieldy, ugly and hard to love, Cameron’s government remains a puzzle even to many of its own supporters: a hybrid composed of a Thatcherite brain, a liberal Tory heart and Europhobic limbs, with Liberal Democrat dangly bits sewn on here and there. It resembles less Frankenstein’s monster than the renegade Time Lord Morbius from Doctor Who. Morbius ends up as a decomposing brain yoked to a mélange of different body parts it can barely control. But the Coalition brain, if Toynbee and Walker are right, is still functioning. Worse still, it has a plan.

Austerity is the coalition’s one consistent and agreed theme. But to borrow a phrase from Aneurin Bevan, austerity isn’t a policy, it’s an emotional spasm. If austerity doesn’t bring growth and jobs, or even reduce the deficit, what is it for?

For the authors, austerity is the means to a different end: not fiscal rectitude but completing the Thatcherite revolution by reducing – to a cypher – the role of the state.

‘Market fanatics have long admired Joseph’s Schumpeter’s idea of creative destruction: now it was to be adapted to the public sector,’ they warn. ‘Cameron is opening up a vast new field for private profit by bringing firms into territory previously considered fundamental to the state’s identity.’

This explains the government’s serial U-turns, its indolence and seeming indifference to failure, the retention and even promotion of discredited ministers, and its bull-in-a-china-shop reforms of justice, education and welfare, After all, if you believe the state is inherently useless, why bother to run the state well?

Seen this way, Andrew Lansley’s ‘circular disorganisation’ of the NHS was not a clumsy attempt to put GPs in charge, but a wrecking ball designed to make ‘the NHS a pioneer for privatisation across the public services. If it could be accomplished in the NHS, the most politically sensitive of all public services, then the field was open.’

For a prime minister who will presumably need a second term to complete his project, Cameron has been cavalier with public opinion, relying on cack-handed opportunism on welfare and Europe – his only consistently popular policies – to win over voters, but to limited effect. The authors faintly hope that Cameron (like Morbius) might be brought down by his own ineptitude before he does too much damage. If not, the people must decide whether he is bringing ‘creative destruction’ or just smashing things up. In a democracy it’s voters, not the market, who have the final say.

A version of this post was published in public service magazine, winter 2012.

Can’t get no satisfaction?

‘You can’t always get what you want,’ sang Mick Jagger in 1969. ‘But if you try sometimes, well you might just find, you get what you need.’ The Rolling Stones frontman isn’t mentioned in How Much is Enough, which is a shame since his lyrics encapsulate the failure to distinguish between needs and wants which is at the heart of this thoughtful assault on contemporary capitalism.

Buy How Much is Enough from WH Smith

How Much is Enough? The love of money and the case for the good life, by Edward & Robert Skidelski, Allen Lane, 2012.

Although they sound like a Scottish punk band, the Skidelskys make an unlikely pair of iconoclasts: Lord Robert, the acclaimed biographer of John Maynard Keynes, and his philosopher son, Edward. And it is from Keynes’s mistaken belief that the richer we became the less we would choose to work less that they take their cue. Keynes failed to understand, say the authors, how capitalism would continue generating endless wants which could never be satisfied. Indeed, neo-classical economics has abolished Jagger’s distinction between wants and need by subsuming both within the empty concept of ‘utility’. So we keep working longer and harder to afford more stuff which we certainly don’t need and may not even really want.

To make capitalism work for us rather than the other way round, the Skidelskys propose trying to meet our needs rather than our wants. To this end, they identify seven ‘basic goods’ which we need in order to live, in Keynes’s words, ‘wisely, agreeably and well’: health, security, respect, personal independence, leisure, friendship, and harmony with nature.

For this to work, we need to dispense with the modern Western idea that happiness is merely a subjective ‘state of mind’, which makes it worse than useless as a goal of public policy. The Skidelskys’ solution is to revive the Ancient Greek concept of happiness – eudaimonia –  as ‘a blessed or enviable condition’. Behind this lurks the idea that some modes of life are intrinsically better than others. Take friendship: who would disagree with Aristotle’s assertion that, ‘No one would choose to live without friends, even if he had the other good things’?

jagger_portraitThe Skidelskys cheerfully own up to ‘honest paternalism’, and you can hear Keynes’s echo in their suggestion that the good life is more about ‘strumming a guitar’ or ‘decorating furniture’ than ‘watching television and getting drunk’. Curiously, there is no discussion of democracy here, or how we might choose between different versions of the ‘good life’ without an Athenian-style panel of elders deciding for us.

Some of the Skidelskys’ policy prescriptions – a basic income for all citizens (working or not) and higher pay for public servants, for example – look like a dauntingly hard sell in the current environment. And it’s a measure of the capture of conservative thinking by free-market fundamentalism that ideas drawn from Greek and medieval philosophy, Christian social teaching and Edwardian patricians like Keynes are now only likely to find favour on the left.

‘Making money cannot be the permanent business of humanity, for the simple reason that there is nothing to do with money than to spend it. And we cannot just go on spending,’ the Skidelskys warn. Mick Jagger might have agreed with that in 1969. These days, I’m not so sure.

  • A version of this review was published in Public Service Magazine, Autumn 2012.