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I believe in yesterday

The history of the recent past is more popular with readers than ever – and just as well, because it

"All history is contemporary history," the Italian philosopher Benedetto Croce once said, meaning, no doubt, that all history was written from the point of view of contemporary preoccupations. Inevitably, perhaps, we look at the past through the eyes of the present. Even so, until very recently, contemporary history was regarded with suspicion by the professionals. When A J P Taylor read history at Oxford in the 1920s, most of his time was spent studying the medieval period. When he reached the Glorious Revolution of 1688-89, his tutor told him, "You know all the rest from your work at school, so we do not need to do any more." The further one gets from the present, the more "scholarly" one becomes.

Yet the contemporary history of Britain flourishes as never before, as shown by the success of historians such as David Kynaston and Dominic Sandbrook. The public feels a need to understand the age in which it lives. Surely part of the appeal of the 1950s is straightforward nostalgia for that lost Elysium when, supposedly, the young knew their place, crime was confined to scrumping apples, and good-natured policemen patrolled every street. Modern novels are difficult to understand, and rarely end happily. Why not put on rose-coloured spectacles and escape to the past?

But there is more to it than this. For contemporary history has a vital civic and educative function. To cast one's vote intelligently, one must understand something of the history of the welfare state, the interwar depression and the rise of Thatcherism. Opening his first education summer school at Dartington Hall in 2002, the Prince of Wales reminded the audience of Cicero's comment that "to remain ignorant of what happened before you is to remain a child". It is also to lack the equipment to make the complex judgements a modern democracy demands of its citizens. "Historical ignorance," Dan Jones has said, "breeds political apathy." The contemporary historian, therefore, need in no way feel embarrassed by his task, but can reply as François Guizot did when reproached for writing about recent events: "Thucydides and Machiavelli wrote and published contemporary history. Why shouldn't I try it?"

Naturally, contemporary history engages the passions in a way that the distant past generally does not. Most of us care little about William the Conqueror or the Crusades, but we do have strong feelings about Margaret Thatcher and ethnic cleansing in Bosnia. Yet there is no reason why the historian should not overcome partiality, as, for example, Richard Vinen did in his recent book on Thatcherism, Thatcher's Britain, and Alan Milward did in his official history of Britain's relations with Europe, The Rise and Fall of a National Strategy, 1945-1963. It may be difficult to be objective when writing contemporary history, but these books show that it is not impossible.

The contemporary historian has some compensation for the extra difficulties that he faces. For he generally enjoys some living contact or participation in the events he is describing. The best of the modern volumes in the Oxford History of England series, that on the years 1870-1914, was written by Sir Robert Ensor, a Fabian with personal knowledge of the men of whom he was writing - Ramsay MacDonald, David Lloyd George and Henry Campbell-Bannerman. Even if writing about a period not personally experienced, such as the Attlee government, one finds that contact with one's grandparents' generation will yield a personal touch not available to the medievalist or Tudor historian.

But the contemporary historian faces a difficulty that his colleagues dealing with earlier periods can avoid. If he is to write the history of a democratic age, he has to write the history of the people, not just of the elite. In his Oxford history, A J P Taylor tells us that a law-abiding Englishman could, until 1914, pass most of his life without stumbling upon the existence of the state. It was not until the First World War that, in his words, "the history of the English state and the English people merged for the first time". Historians of the recent past, such as Kynaston and Sandbrook, are right to emphasise popular attitudes. For, in a democracy, as Sir Robert Worcester, the doyen of survey research, insists, public opinion is king. Therefore, the history of modern times must be a history not only of political leadership, but also of how the rest of us lived our lives.
Fortunately, the contemporary historian has the great advantage that he can study public opinion scientifically. On 1 January 1937, Dr Henry Durant began publishing regular Gallup polls in Britain, under the auspices of the British Institute of Public Opinion. Today, scarcely a month goes by without the pollsters inquiring as to the popularity of the prime minister and the government.

Sponsors of the published polls, the media, use them to predict election results, even though they purport to offer no more than a snapshot of opinion at a particular moment in time. But survey evidence also tells us what the public actually thought rather than what its leaders believed or hoped that it thought. As David Butler and Richard Rose, pioneers in the study of contemporary history, declared in their book on the 1959 general election: "There has never been anything comparable to sample polls as a tool for advancing understanding of mass political behaviour."

There is, therefore, no longer any need for the historian to rely on the hunches of members of the elite, remote from the people. But the views of the people cannot be discovered from anecdotal evidence or the impressionism of organisations such as Mass Observation, whose interviews have been well described by Bob Worcester as "chance encounters", in which the investigators tried "unobtrusively to strike up friendships with the natives by buying them drinks". It is difficult to imagine anything less authentic or statistically reliable. By contrast, looking at the trends over time in the Gallup files can prove highly rewarding. Indeed, I am sometimes tempted to say that one could write the history of Britain over the past 70 years from survey evidence alone. Sometimes, the results are surprising. The most popular prime minister in the 20th century was Anthony Eden in the summer of 1955, and the most unpopular Margaret Thatcher before the Falklands war.

Politicians and the public alike would have been less often surprised had they taken notice of the polls. In February 1945, for example, although 85 per cent were satisfied with Churchill and 77 per cent with the government's conduct of the war, Labour had an 18 per cent lead over the Conservatives well before the election campaign had begun. Churchill's "Gestapo" speech, in which he said that socialism could be introduced only with the aid of a secret police, probably had less effect than is generally imagined, because the Conservatives actually narrowed the gap between February 1945 and election day in June.

Polls also tend to disprove "golden age" theories of politics, usually espoused by the elderly, who will insist on telling the rest of us how much better things were in their day. Yet, in our grandparents' time - for example, during the 1950 general election campaign in the Greenwich constituency - only a quarter could name their local MP, and just half knew which party he belonged to. The level of civic knowledge was pitiful.
It is, I suspect, the left that has suffered the most from the scientific study of public opinion. For the left has always prided itself on having
a peculiarly intimate relationship with the people. In the 1950s, Aneurin Bevan denounced opinion polls for taking the poetry out of politics. He knew what the people wanted, simply by looking into his own heart. The trouble was, sadly, that the people often did not want what he thought they ought to want.

In 1982, during the great debate on sending a task force to the Falklands, Tony Benn waved a handful of letters in the Commons and declared that public opinion was swinging massively against the war. He was quickly contradicted by a MORI finding published in the Economist a few days later, showing that 78 per cent of the British public was in favour of it.

In 1983, Bevan's disciple Michael Foot, shortly before Margaret Thatcher's landslide victory, insisted that the real election was not that described by the polls, showing a huge lead for the Conservatives, but was to be found instead in the cheering crowds who attended his election meetings. All too often, the left lives within a closed world of its own. It can be successful only when, as in 1945 and 1997, it is in tune with popular aspirations, not when it seeks to impose its own prejudices upon the people.

More than 150 years ago, Alexis de Tocqueville noticed that democracy was a new kind of society requiring a new kind of history. It is the
development of the scientific study of public opinion that enables this new kind of history to be written.

Vernon Bogdanor is professor of government at Oxford University. His book "The New British Constitution" was published in June by Hart (£17.95)

This article first appeared in the 21 December 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Special

Picture: Archives Charmet / Bridgeman Images
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What Marx got right

...and what he got wrong.

1. You’re probably a capitalist – among other things

Are you a capitalist? The first question to ask is: do you own shares? Even if you don’t own any directly (about half of Americans do but the proportion is far lower in most other countries) you may have a pension that is at least partly invested in the stock market; or you’ll have savings in a bank.

So you have some financial wealth: that is, you own capital. Equally, you are probably also a worker, or are dependent directly or indirectly on a worker’s salary; and you’re a consumer. Unless you live in an autonomous, self-sufficient commune – very unusual – you are likely to be a full participant in the capitalist system.

We interact with capitalism in multiple ways, by no means all economic. And this accounts for the conflicted relationship that most of us (including me) have with capitalism. Typically, we neither love it nor hate it, but we definitely live it.

2. Property rights are fundamental to capitalism . . . but they are not absolute

If owning something means having the right to do what you want with it, property rights are rarely unconstrained. I am free to buy any car I want – so long as it meets European pollution standards and is legally insured; and I can drive it anywhere I want, at least on public roads, as long as I have a driver’s licence and keep to the speed limit. If I no longer want the car, I can’t just dump it: I have to dispose of it in an approved manner. It’s mine, not yours or the state’s, and the state will protect my rights over it. But – generally for good reason – how I can use it is quite tightly constrained.

This web of rules and constraints, which both defines and restricts property rights, is characteristic of a complex economy and society. Most capitalist societies attempt to resolve these tensions in part by imposing restrictions, constitutional or political, on arbitrary or confiscatory actions by governments that “interfere” with property rights. But the idea that property rights are absolute is not philosophically or practically coherent in a modern society.

3. What Marx got right about capitalism

Marx had two fundamental insights. The first was the importance of economic forces in shaping human society. For Marx, it was the “mode of production” – how labour and capital were combined, and under what rules – that explained more or less everything about society, from politics to culture. So, as modes of production change, so too does society. And he correctly concluded that industrialisation and capitalism would lead to profound changes in the nature of society, affecting everything from the political system to morality.

The second insight was the dynamic nature of capitalism in its own right. Marx understood that capitalism could not be static: given the pursuit of profit in a competitive economy, there would be constant pressure to increase the capital stock and improve productivity. This in turn would lead to labour-saving, or capital-intensive, technological change.

Putting these two insights together gives a picture of capitalism as a radical force. Such are its own internal dynamics that the economy is constantly evolving, and this in turn results in changes in the wider society.

4. And what he got wrong . . .

Though Marx was correct that competition would lead the owners of capital to invest in productivity-enhancing and labour-saving machinery, he was wrong that this would lead to wages being driven down to subsistence level, as had largely been the case under feudalism. Classical economics, which argued that new, higher-productivity jobs would emerge, and that workers would see their wages rise more or less in line with productivity, got this one right. And so, in turn, Marx’s most important prediction – that an inevitable conflict between workers and capitalists would lead ultimately to the victory of the former and the end of capitalism – was wrong.

Marx was right that as the number of industrial workers rose, they would demand their share of the wealth; and that, in contrast to the situation under feudalism, their number and geographical concentration in factories and cities would make it impossible to deny these demands indefinitely. But thanks to increased productivity, workers’ demands in most advanced capitalist economies could be satisfied without the system collapsing. So far, it seems that increased productivity, increased wages and increased consumption go hand in hand, not only in individual countries but worldwide.

5. All societies are unequal. But some are more unequal than others

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, an increasing proportion of an economy’s output was captured by a small class of capitalists who owned and controlled the means of production. Not only did this trend stop in the 20th century, it was sharply reversed. Inherited fortunes, often dating back to the pre-industrial era, were eroded by taxes and inflation, and some were destroyed by the Great Depression. Most of all, after the Second World War the welfare state redistributed income and wealth within the framework of a capitalist economy.

Inequality rose again after the mid-1970s. Under Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, the welfare state was cut back. Tax and social security systems became less progressive. Deregulation, the decline of heavy industry and reduction of trade union power increased the wage differential between workers. Globally the chief story of the past quarter-century has been the rise of the “middle class”: people in emerging economies who have incomes of up to $5,000 a year. But at the same time lower-income groups in richer countries have done badly.

Should we now worry about inequality within countries, or within the world as a whole? And how much does an increasing concentration of income and wealth among a small number of people – and the consequent distortions of the political system – matter when set against the rapid ­income growth for large numbers of people in the emerging economies?

Growing inequality is not an inevitable consequence of capitalism. But, unchecked, it could do severe economic damage. The question is whether our political systems, national and global, are up to the challenge.

6. China’s road to capitalism is unique

The day after Margaret Thatcher died, I said on Radio 4’s Today programme: “In 1979, a quarter of a century ago, a politician came to power with a radical agenda of market-oriented reform; a plan to reduce state control and release the country’s pent-up economic dynamism. That changed the world, and we’re still feeling the impact. His name, of course, was Deng Xiaoping.”

The transition from state to market in China kick-started the move towards truly globalised capitalism. But the Chinese road to capitalism has been unique. First agriculture was liberalised, then entrepreneurs were allowed to set up small businesses, while at the same time state-owned enterprises reduced their workforces; yet there has been no free-for-all, either for labour or for capital. The movement of workers from rural to urban areas, and from large, unproductive, state-owned enterprises to more productive private businesses, though vast, has been controlled. Access to capital still remains largely under state control. Moreover, though its programme is not exactly “Keynesian”, China has used all the tools of macroeconomic management to keep growth high and relatively stable.

That means China is still far from a “normal” capitalist economy. The two main engines of growth have been investment and the movement of labour from the countryside to the cities. This in itself was enough, because China had so much catching-up to do. However, if the Chinese are to close the huge gap between themselves and the advanced economies, more growth will need to come from innovation and technological progress. No one doubts that China has the human resources to deliver this, but its system will have to change.

7. How much is enough?

The human instinct to improve our material position is deeply rooted: control over resources, especially food and shelter, made early human beings more able to reproduce. That is intrinsic to capitalism; the desire to acquire income and wealth motivates individuals to work, save, invent and invest. As Adam Smith showed, this benefits us all. But if we can produce more than enough for everybody, what will motivate people? Growth would stop. Not that this would necessarily be a bad thing: yet our economy and society would be very different.

Although we are at least twice as rich as we were half a century ago, the urge to consume more seems no less strong. Relative incomes matter. We compare ourselves not to our impoverished ancestors but to other people in similar situations: we strive to “keep up with the Joneses”. The Daily Telegraph once described a London couple earning £190,000 per year (in the top 0.1 per cent of world income) as follows: “The pair are worried about becoming financially broken as the sheer cost of middle-class life in London means they are stretched to the brink.” Talk about First World problems.

Is there any limit? Those who don’t like the excesses of consumerism might hope that as our material needs are satisfied, we will worry less about keeping up with the Joneses and more about our satisfaction and enjoyment of non-material things. It is equally possible, of course, that we’ll just spend more time keeping up with the Kardashians instead . . .

8. No more boom and bust

Are financial crises and their economic consequences part of the natural (capitalist) order of things? Politicians and economists prefer to think otherwise. No longer does anyone believe that “light-touch” regulation of the banking sector is enough. New rules have been introduced, designed to restrict leverage and ensure that failure in one or two financial institutions does not lead to systemic failure. Many would prefer a more wholesale approach to reining in the financial system; this would have gained the approval of Keynes, who thought that while finance was necessary, its role in capitalism should be strictly limited.

But maybe there is a more fundamental problem: that recurrent crises are baked into the system. The “financial instability” hypothesis says that the more governments and regulators stabilise the system, the more this will breed overconfidence, leading to more debt and higher leverage. And sooner or later the music stops. If that is the case, then financial capitalism plus human nature equals inevitable financial crises; and we should make sure that we have better contingency plans next time round.

9. Will robots take our jobs?

With increasing mechanisation (from factories to supermarket checkouts) and computerisation (from call centres to tax returns), is it becoming difficult for human beings to make or produce anything at less cost than a machine can?

Not yet – more Britons have jobs than at any other point in history. That we can produce more food and manufactured products with fewer people means that we are richer overall, leaving us to do other things, from economic research to performance art to professional football.

However, the big worry is that automation could shift the balance of power between capital and labour in favour of the former. Workers would still work; but many or most would be in relatively low-value, peripheral jobs, not central to the functioning of the economy and not particularly well paid. Either the distribution of income and wealth would widen further, or society would rely more on welfare payments and charity to reduce unacceptable disparities between the top and the bottom.

That is a dismal prospect. Yet these broader economic forces pushing against the interests of workers will not, on their own, determine the course of history. The Luddites were doomed to fail; but their successors – trade unionists who sought to improve working conditions and Chartists who demanded the vote so that they could restructure the economy and the state – mostly succeeded. The test will be whether our political and social institutions are up to the challenge.

10. What’s the alternative?

There is no viable economic alternative to capitalism at the moment but that does not mean one won’t emerge. It is economics that determines the nature of our society, and we are at the beginning of a profound set of economic changes, based on three critical developments.

Physical human input into production will become increasingly rare as robots take over. Thanks to advances in computing power and artificial intelligence, much of the analytic work that we now do in the workplace will be carried out by machines. And an increasing ability to manipulate our own genes will extend our lifespan and allow us to determine our offspring’s characteristics.

Control over “software” – information, data, and how it is stored, processed and manipulated – will be more important than control over physical capital, buildings and machines. The defining characteristic of the economy and society will be how that software is produced, owned and commanded: by the state, by individuals, by corporations, or in some way as yet undefined.

These developments will allow us, if we choose, to end poverty and expand our horizons, both materially and intellectually. But they could also lead to growing inequality, with the levers of the new economy controlled by a corporate and moneyed elite. As an optimist, I hope for the former. Yet just as it wasn’t the “free market” or individual capitalists who freed the slaves, gave votes to women and created the welfare state, it will be the collective efforts of us all that will enable humanity to turn economic advances into social progress. 

Jonathan Portes's most recent book is “50 Ideas You Really Need to Know: Capitalism” (Quercus)

Jonathan Portes is senior fellow The UK in a Changing Europe and Professor of Economics and Public Policy, King’s College London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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