The (im)morality of markets

How "Hedge Fund Hugh" manages to defend the indefensible.

Hugh Hendry, an engagingly straightforward hedge-fund manager, made another appearance on Newsnight last night -- he's been on before, holding his own rather well against Joseph Stiglitz (or "Joe" Stiglitz, as I noted Ken Clarke called him during the recent Any Questions he appeared on with Mehdi).

Hendry was being attacked by Poul Rasmussen, president of the Party of European Socialists and the driving force behind proposals to limit the activities of hedge funds. Rasmussen said that the way Hendry and his ilk had affected the price of government debts -- Greece's in particular -- was not "democratically acceptable", that they were hurting innocent people by their actions and making structural problems worse.

One's natural sympathy was on the side of Rasmussen. It is very hard to see any merit in the kind of international speculation that made George Soros, for instance, so rich -- which is why I have always been bemused that a man whose wealth and prominence derives from the misfortune of others should be treated with such respect.

But Hendry did a very good job of making himself out as the one who was behaving morally. "If Greece reforms its behaviour, then speculation against it will be profitless," he said, quite truthfully. "I'm trying to save us putting more money into this black hole which is Greece's economy."

Newsnight's reporter Justin Rowlatt had asked him earlier in the programme, with some incredulity: "So are you saying you're providing us with a social service?"

Hendry could see this one coming, but replied: "Maybe I'm naive, maybe I'm foolish, but I believe that I'm the guard dog of the capitalist system." Greece had been caught "cheating", he said -- a statement with which I don't think anyone can disagree -- and was now paying the price.

My point is this: to me Hendry, was the far more convincing guest, because his argument was totally consistent. The "morality" he believes to be contained within the market is the one which is now doling out punishment to Greece, and deservedly so, he would say.

I suspect that Rasmussen does not believe that markets are in any way "moral" at all. Indeed, if he thinks that they are by their very nature cruel and immoral, I would agree with him. He probably regards market economies as necessary, but not virtuous.

Why then, however, would he expect people who really do believe in the market to abide by his moral values? If you sup with the devil . . .

You can find the whole report and the exchange that followed on BBC iPlayer, about 20 minutes in. It's well worth a look. Even if you don't agree with him, I think you'd have to admit that the aforementioned devil has a remarkably good advocate in Hendry.

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Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
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Tony Blair might be a toxic figure - but his influence endures

Politicians at home and abroad are borrowing from the former prime minister's playbook. 

On 24 May at Methodist Central Hall, Westminster, a short distance from where he once governed, Tony Blair resurfaced for a public discussion. Having arrived on an overnight flight, he looked drawn and puffy-eyed but soon warmed to his theme: a robust defence of liberal globalisation. He admitted, however, to bafflement at recent events in the world. "I thought I was pretty good at politics. But I look at politics today and I’m not sure I understand it."

Blair lost power in the summer of 2007. In the ensuing nine years, he lost reputation. His business ventures and alliances with autocrats have made him a pariah among both the public and his party. A YouGov poll published last year found that 61 per cent of voters regarded Blair as an electoral liability, while just 14 per cent viewed him as an asset. In contrast, John Major, whom he defeated by a landslide in 1997, had a neutral net rating of zero. It is ever harder to recall that Blair won not one general election (he is the only living Labour leader to have done so) but three.

His standing is likely to diminish further when the Iraq inquiry report is published on 6 July. Advance leaks to the Sunday Times suggest that he will be censured for allegedly guaranteeing British military support to the US a year before the invasion. Few minds on either side will be changed by the 2.6 million-word document. Yet its publication will help enshrine Iraq as the defining feature of a legacy that also includes the minimum wage, tax credits, Sure Start, devolution and civil partnerships.

Former leaders can ordinarily rely on their parties to act as a last line of defence. In Blair’s case, however, much of the greatest opprobrium comes from his own side. Jeremy Corbyn inclines to the view that Iraq was not merely a blunder but a crime. In last year’s Labour leadership election, Liz Kendall, the most Blair-esque candidate, was rewarded with 4.5 per cent of the vote. The former prime minister’s imprimatur has become the political equivalent of the black spot.

Yet outside of the Labour leadership, Blairism endures in notable and often surprising forms. Sadiq Khan won the party’s London mayoral selection by running to the left of Tessa Jowell, one of Tony Blair’s closest allies. But his successful campaign against Zac Goldsmith drew lessons from Blair’s election triumphs. Khan relentlessly presented himself as “pro-business” and reached out beyond Labour’s core vote. After his victory, he was liberated to use the B-word, contrasting what “Tony Blair did [in opposition]” with Corbyn’s approach.

In their defence of the UK’s EU membership, David Cameron and George Osborne have deployed arguments once advanced by New Labour. The strategically minded Chancellor has forged an unlikely friendship with his former nemesis Peter Mandelson. In the domestic sphere, through equal marriage, the National Living Wage and the 0.7 per cent overseas aid target, the Conservatives have built on, rather than dismantled, significant Labour achievements."They just swallowed the entire manual," Mandelson declared at a recent King’s College seminar. "They didn’t just read the executive summary, they are following the whole thing to the letter."

Among SNP supporters, "Blairite" is the pejorative of choice. But the parallels between their party and New Labour are more suggestive than they would wish. Like Blair, Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon have avoided income tax rises in order to retain the support of middle-class Scottish conservatives. In a speech last August on education, Sturgeon echoed the Blairite mantra that "what matters is what works".

Beyond British shores, political leaders are similarly inspired by Blair – and less reticent about acknowledging as much. Matteo Renzi, the 41-year-old centre-left Italian prime minister, is a long-standing admirer. "I adore one of his sayings,” he remarked in 2013. “I love all the traditions of my party, except one: that of losing elections."

In France, the reform-minded prime minister, Manuel Valls, and the minister of economy, Emmanuel Macron, are also self-described Blairites. Macron, who in April launched his own political movement, En Marche!, will shortly decide whether to challenge for the presidency next year. When he was compared to Blair by the TV presenter Andrew Marr, his response reflected the former prime minister’s diminished domestic reputation: “I don’t know if, in your mouth, that is a promise or a threat.”

The continuing attraction of Blair’s “third way” to European politicians reflects the failure of the project’s social-democratic critics to construct an alternative. Those who have sought to do so have struggled both in office (François Hollande) and out of it (Ed Miliband). The left is increasingly polarised between reformers and radicals (Corbyn, Syriza, Podemos), with those in between straining for relevance.

Despite his long absences from Britain, Blair’s friends say that he remains immersed in the intricacies of Labour politics. He has privately warned MPs that any attempt to keep Corbyn off the ballot in the event of a leadership challenge would be overruled by the National Executive Committee. At Methodist Central Hall, he said of Corbyn’s supporters: “It’s clear they can take over a political party. What’s not clear to me is whether they can take over a country.”

It was Blair’s insufficient devotion to the former task that enabled the revival of the left. As Alastair Campbell recently acknowledged: “We failed to develop talent, failed to cement organisational and cultural change in the party and failed to secure our legacy.” Rather than effecting a permanent realignment, as the right of the party hoped and the left feared, New Labour failed to outlive its creators.

It instead endures in a fragmented form as politicians at home and abroad co-opt its defining features: its pro-business pragmatism, its big-tent electoralism, its presentational nous. Some of Corbyn’s ­allies privately fear that Labour will one day re-embrace Blairism. But its new adherents would never dare to use that name.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad