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Business as usual: how we are dominated by the language of markets

Rowan Williams reviews Mammon’s Kingdom by David Marquand and wonders if Britain has lost all sense of moral purpose.

These little piggies went to market. Photo: Corbis

 

Mammon’s Kingdom: an Essay on Britain, Now
David Marquand
Allen Lane, 276pp, £20

The titles of this book’s chapters tell us baldly that it is a story of decline and corruption: “Britain, Now” (listen to the effect of that comma) is a culture that has moved away from any effective commitments to honour, to intelligent collective memory, to ideals of public life and reasoned public debate. “Hedonism Trumps Honour”, “Charismatic Populism Smothers Democratic Debate”; this is our story, and it leaves us disturbingly at sea when we try to answer the question posed in the last chapter: “Who Do We Think We Are?”

It is not an unfamiliar story, and a groundswell of articulately angry books has raised comparable questions, from Will Hutton, Richard Hoggart and Nicholas Boyle in the Nineties to Michael Sandel and Robert and Edward Skidelsky in the past couple of years. Marquand, like all of these, insists that we have, in effect, lost the very idea of public morality; he argues that we are increasingly condemned to live in a world not only of self-interested individuals but of stupid self-interested individuals; and it is perhaps his acute awareness of this stupidity that makes him distinctive in this group of writers.

Deprived of most of the resources of intelligent scepticism, irony and perspective, even humility, which in a more functional culture would give us a bit of critical distance on our dreams – and on those who fall over each other in claiming to realise our dreams for us – we are at the mercy of those whose self-interest is served by exploiting our self-interest.

But, in turn, those cunning and resourceful enough to exploit our self-interest also have to be stupid enough not to be distracted from the profitable business of managing our interests by any larger considerations of long-term effects, whether social, environmental or whatever. As Marquand says, “free choice” has become “a self-validating mantra”, from which we can’t escape because we cannot act collectively in a purposeful way. The relation between producer and consumer, now the norm for every imaginable human interaction, locks us in to a devil’s pact of collective foolishness with no long-term outcome except disaster and universal impoverishment.

The paradox Marquand might have flagged up even more clearly is that we are an increasingly mistrustful society (for the pretty obvious reason that we lack robust social bonds and tangible commitments to the common good) and yet, at the same time, an increasingly credulous society, apparently vulnerable to being swayed by various forms of populist manipulation. Marquand is unsparing on the corrupting effect of leadership (whether putatively right or left, Thatcher or Blair) that seeks to appeal to a mass public while bypassing the mediating structures and networks that allow patient critique and scrutiny.

The “marketisation” of politics, signalled so eloquently in presidential-style televised debates and the hectic analysis of opinion polls, not only erodes our political health, it actually makes us worse people; and Marquand has no qualms about such fierce judgements of value. A properly open society – one in which there is pluralism, honest public debate, social mobility and controls on spiralling inequality – requires certain virtues: “fortitude, self-discipline, a willingness to make hard choices in the public interest and to accept responsibility for them”. We cannot survive without a moral image of ourselves as individuals. Such a moral image is the only thing that will allow us to be sceptical without being cynical, critical without being destructive – the only thing that will allow the possibility of genuine social trust and a shared social goal. Anyone who has read Fred Inglis’s admirable biography of Richard Hoggart, published last autumn, will recognise the apostolic succession here, the elegy for a political consciousness in which solidarity and irony could flourish together.

But Marquand goes further than Hoggart, further than the Keynesian/Orwellian land of lost content, in insisting that a new “public philosophy” must locate human beings in an environment of finite adaptability: we have to be taught that we are “tenants rather than freeholders of the earth”. The truth is that the mythology of the independent person, self-endowed with illimitable will and inalienable claims – the myth that dominates populist rhetoric, from advertising to electioneering – goes hand in hand with an attitude that sees the natural order as a bit of a menace to human “freedom”.

Putting us back into the natural order as a participant not a proprietor is an essential move in breaking away from what currently enslaves us. Hence Marquand’s interest in the resources of religious language: he is crystal-clear that we cannot write off religious traditions because they have some toxic manifestations; but this makes it all the more important to grasp what matters most in them, which is the way in which they affirm simultaneously a human dignity that is not dependent on status or productivity or political convenience and a human finitude that demands to be taken seriously. We are not our own creators; we are not magically protected from what happens to the material world we live in. We are more dependent than we might like to be. And far from this pushing us towards passivity, it intensifies the weight of taking responsibility for each other.

This is a good deal more than just a general appeal to “religious values” as part of our social capital (lots of goodwill to make volunteer organisations work, and so on).Marquand, who has no confessional axe to grind, has actually done some of the necessary reflection on religious doctrine that so many commentators find too taxing. Readers will doubtless disagree about whether these themes outweigh what they see as the less constructive elements in communities of faith. But at least there is the material here for informed argument.

It is interesting that he uses the word “honour” to encapsulate some of what has been lost. It’s a word that many will find uncomfortable; it has suffered from associations with patriarchy (the nightmare world of “honour killings”), with status obsession and the hypocrisies that go with it – with a world of artificial conventions, thin-skinned rivalries and murderous repressiveness. Yet Marquand boldly sets out to reclaim it as an essential aspect of reinstating public virtue, and his case deserves to be taken seriously.

Stripped of some of its cultural deformations, what is this about? Basically, “honour” is what makes it possible to look into your eyes in the mirror without shrinking too much. It does not have to be self-congratulatory; in its simplest form, it is just a matter of knowing what questions you need to be asking yourself for the sake of staying honest and consistent. It is being faithful to that “moral self-image”, which is emphatically not the image of yourself-as-moral (self-congratulation) but the image of what would make a morally coherent story out of your uneven and varied experience (honour can demand the clear expression of shame or remorse). Marquand would say, I think, that matters such as MPs’ expenses and bankers’ bonuses are troubling because they suggest a dishonourable mindset, a habit of avoiding difficult questions, dismissing the significance of being or feeling shamed, walking away from a moral challenge.

We don’t much like using the language of shame these days, because we are rightly sensitive to its horrible abuses, especially in the treatment of women; and increasingly, “naming and shaming” has become a way of trivialising and personalising issues and feeding an appetite for cynical gossip. Yet what has happened if we are never able to say of some behaviours that (even when they do relatively little damage) they are something to be ashamed of? Something that ought to mean that you are taken less seriously as a person to be relied on? Honour is to do with meeting our own gaze in the mirror, but it is also to do with meeting the gaze of others.

All this depends on the one obstinate theme at the centre of this book’s argument. Do we or don’t we believe that the public realm has an appropriate moral significance and solidity? Is it something for whose service people can be trained as a fulfilling, not to say “honourable”, professional career? If the fundamental deciding categories of your culture are rooted in financial transactions (if we are all producers and consumers), “public life” is an afterthought: you can sort it out with the skills and habits of other fields of activity, ideally commercial ones, so that the involvement of businesses with schools or hospitals will guarantee “efficient” outcomes, the greatest good for the greatest number at the lowest cost.

Marquand is not arguing for clinical separation between impure commerce and pure public service, a seductive model for the left, the voluntary sector and many more. The issue is whether public service and public good can be so completely translated into the language of market provision that nothing remains that cannot be rendered in business models, no goals without measurable profitable outcomes. If we believe in that non-translatable dimension, we have some theoretical work to do – in reframing concepts of honour, in insisting on an education that makes us familiar with where we have come from (not to reinforce a national myth but to remind us that we depend on the words and acts of others), in restating that we are part of a sensitive ecology of interdependent physical processes. We need an answer to the question of Marquand’s last chapter: what sort of life is human life?

Like Robert and Edward Skidelsky’s How Much Is Enough?, this book challenges us to think whether we have any coherent idea of a good or desirable life at all. In Isaiah Berlin’s terms, it seems that all we have left is negative liberty. Given Marquand’s severe convictions about our collective stupidity, that isn’t a very promising resource for the middle-term future.

The prospect is not unrelieved; Marquand notes the persistent energy in grass-roots politics, in co-operative movements and green activism. He might also take some comfort from noting that, despite his anxieties about stupidity, it is perfectly clear that what people read or consume in the populist media does not automatically shape how they act; scepticism survives, and Middle England is less Mail-clad in conviction than our politicians often assume (a significant test is the levels of generosity in response to aid or emergency appeals, international as well as local, even in times of “austerity”). Social media (rather a deafening absence, for a book about Britain now) presents problems, yet it can function extraordinarily effectively in assembling younger citizens around positive campaigns: I am writing this a few hours after speaking in south London with the gifted teenage organisers of a major electronic-forum discussion on youth crime.

There are aspects of Mammon’s Kingdom that some readers will regard as just a little rose-coloured – and the irritable dismissal of late-Sixties radicalism, especially R D Laing and Edmund Leach, is not entirely fair: there were oppressive family structures, violent domestic arrangements and corrupt habits to be challenged, even if some of the challenges ended up generating new and equally corrupting follies. But overall, Marquand has given us a crisp and serious essay to stand alongside all those others mentioned earlier.

That, though, is one of the disturbing issues we are left with. How many such essays does it take to shift the sluggish bulk of political muddle and evasion? “They have Moses and the prophets; let them listen to them,” as one authority observed; and if they will not listen to them, “they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead”. Essays, yes, by all means; but also the sheer practice of other kinds of life.

Rowan Williams is a lead book reviewer for the New Statesman. His new collection of poetry, “The Other Mountain”, will be published by Carcanet in September

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 21 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Peak Ukip

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The humbling of Theresa May

The Prime Minister has lost all authority. The Tories will remove her as soon as they feel the time is right.

Being politicians of unsentimental, ruthless realism, the Conservatives did not linger in the grief stage of their collective disaster after the general election. Disbelief, too, was commendably brief.

Currently, their priority is to impose some sort of order on themselves. This is the necessary prelude to the wholesale change that most see as the next phase in their attempt at recovery, which they all know is essential to their career prospects – and believe is vital to a country whose alternative prime minister is Jeremy Corbyn.

For that reason, talk of Theresa May enduring as Prime Minister until the end of the Brexit negotiations in two years’ time is the preserve of just a few wishful thinkers. Some sort of calm is being established but the party is far from settled or united; there is a widespread conviction that it cannot be so under the present leader.

Elements of the great change have been executed, as Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, May’s former advisers, will testify.

However, this is only beginning, as shown by the debate in the media about how long May can survive in Downing Street. There is dissatisfaction about elements of her recent reshuffle, but it is quieted because few believe that some of the more contentious appointments or reappointments will last more than a matter of months. Her colleagues are also alarmed by the meal she has made of doing what was supposed to be a straightforward deal with the DUP.

The climate in the party at the moment is one in which everything – jobs, policies and, of course, the leadership – will soon be up for grabs. Debate over “hard” and “soft” Brexits is illusory: anyone who wants to be Conservative leader will need to respect the view of the party in the country, which is that Britain must leave the single market and the customs union to regain control of trade policy and borders. That is one reason why the prospects of David Davis, the Brexit Secretary, are being talked up.

Some of May’s MPs, for all their hard-mindedness about the future, speak of feeling “poleaxed” since the general election. Even before the result changed everything, there was dismay about the bad national campaign; but that, it was felt, could be discussed in a leisurely post-mortem.

Now, instead, it has undermined faith in May’s leadership and credibility. “The social care disaster was key to our defeat,” an MP told me. “It wasn’t just that the policy damaged our core vote, it was the amateurishness of the U-turn.” A more seasoned colleague noted that “it was the first election I’ve fought where we succeeded in pissing off every section of our core vote”.

The limited ministerial reshuffle was inevitable given May’s lack of authority, and summed up her untenability beyond the short term. Most of her few important changes were deeply ill judged: notably the sacking of the skills and apprenticeships minister Robert Halfon, the MP for Harlow in Essex, and a rare Tory with a direct line to the working class; and the Brexit minister David Jones, whose job had hardly begun and whose boss, Davis, was not consulted.

George Bridges, another Brexit minister, who resigned, apparently did so because he felt May had undermined the government’s position in the negotiations so badly, by failing to win the election comprehensively, that he could not face going on.

Much has been made of how Philip Hammond, the Chancellor, was marginalised and briefed against, yet reappointed. Patrick McLoughlin, the party chairman, suffered similarly. Conservative Central Office was largely shut out from the catastrophic campaign, though no one got round to briefing against McLoughlin, who kept his head down – unheard-of conduct by a party chairman in an election.

As a political force, Central Office is for now more or less impotent. It has lost the knack of arguing the case for Conservatism. MPs are increasingly worried that their party is so introspective that it just can’t deal with the way Corbyn is spinning his defeat. “An ugly mood is growing,” one said, “because militant leftism is going unchallenged.” That cannot change until May has gone and the party machine is revived and re-inspired.

***

Nobody in the party wants a general election: but most want a leadership election, and minds are concentrated on how to achieve the latter without precipitating the former. One angry and disillusioned ex-minister told me that “if there were an obvious candidate she’d be shitting herself. But most of us have realised Boris is a wanker, DD isn’t a great communicator and is a bit up himself, Hammond has no charisma, and Amber [Rudd] has a majority of 346.”

On Monday a group of senior ex-ministers met at Westminster to discuss next steps. It was agreed that, with the Brexit talks under way, the most important thing in the interests of restoring order was securing the vote on the Queen’s Speech. Then, May having done her duty and steadied the proverbial ship, the party would manage her dignified and calm evacuation from Downing Street.

Those who agree on this do not always agree on the timing. However, few can make the leap of imagination required to see her addressing the party conference in October, unless to say “Thank you and goodnight” and to initiate a leadership contest. Many would like her out long before then. The only reason they don’t want it this side of securing the Queen’s Speech is that the result, as one put it, would be “chaos”, with a leadership contest resembling “a circular firing squad”.

That metaphor is popular among Tories these days. Others use it to describe the ­apportioning of blame after the election. As well as Timothy and Hill, Lynton Crosby has sustained severe wounds that may prevent the Tories from automatically requesting his services again.

Following the Brexit referendum and Zac Goldsmith’s nasty campaign for the London mayoralty, Crosby has acquired the habit of losing. And then there was Ben Gummer, blamed not only for the social care debacle, but also for upsetting fishermen with a vaguely couched fisheries policy. These failings are becoming ancient history – and the future, not the past, is now the urgent matter – yet some Conservatives still seethe about them despite trying to move on.

“I haven’t heard anyone say she should stay – except Damian Green,” a former minister observed, referring to the new First Secretary of State. Green was at Oxford with May and seems to have earned his job because he is one of her rare friends in high politics. He is regarded as sharing her general lack of conviction.

Older activists recall how the party, in 1974, clung loyally to Ted Heath after he lost one election, and even after he lost a second. Now, deference is over. Most Tory activists, appalled by the handling of the campaign, want change. They would, however, like a contest: annoyed at not having been consulted last time, they intend not to be left silent again.

That view is largely reflected at Westminster, though a few MPs believe a coronation wouldn’t be a problem, “as we don’t want a public examination of the entrails for weeks on end when we need to be shown to be running the country effectively”. Most MPs disagree with that, seeing where a coronation got them last time.

With the summer recess coming up, at least the public’s attention would not be on Westminster if the contest took place mostly during that time: hence the feeling that, once the Queen’s Speech is dealt with, May should announce her intention to leave, in order to have a successor in place before the conference season. It is then up to the party to design a timetable that compresses the hustings between the final two candidates into as short a time as compatible with the democratic process, to get the new leader in place swiftly.

Some letters requesting a contest are said to have reached Graham Brady, the chairman of the 1922 Committee of backbenchers. One MP told me with great authority that there were eight; another, with equal certainty, said 12. Forty-eight are needed to trigger the procedure. However, engineering such a contest is not how most Tories would like to proceed. “She has had an international humiliation,” a former cabinet minister said, “and it is transparently ghastly for her. Then came the [Grenfell Tower] fire. There is no sense our rubbing it in. I suspect she knows she has to go. We admire her for staying around and clearing up the mess in a way Cameron didn’t. But she is a stopgap.”

MPs believe, with some justification, that the last thing most voters want is another general election, so caution is paramount. None doubts that the best outcome for all concerned would be for May to leave without being pushed.

Her tin-eared response to the Grenfell disaster shocked colleagues with its amateurishness and disconnection. “I’m sure she’s very upset by Grenfell,” someone who has known her since Oxford said. “But she is incapable of showing empathy. She has no bridge to the rest of the world other than Philip.” Another, referring to the controversial remark that torpedoed Andrea Leadsom’s leadership ambitions last year, said: “You would get shot for saying it, but not having had children hasn’t helped her when it comes to relating to people. Leadsom was right.”

***

May was quicker off the mark on Monday, issuing a statement condemning the appalling attack at Finsbury Park Mosque swiftly after it occurred, and going there shortly afterwards to meet community leaders. No one could fault her assurance that Muslims must enjoy the same protection under the law as everyone else, or the speed and sincerity with which it was made. She is learning what leadership entails, but too late.

Her administration has become unlucky. This happened to John Major, but, as in his case, the bad luck is partly down to bad decisions; and the bad luck that comes out of the blue simply piles in on top of everything else. Grenfell Tower, lethal and heartbreaking for its victims and their families, was merely more bad luck for the Prime Minister because of her slow-witted response and failure – presumably because shorn of her closest advisers – to do the right thing, and to do it quickly.

But then it turned out that her new chief of staff, Gavin Barwell, had in his previous incarnation as a housing minister received a report on improving fire safety in tower blocks and done nothing about it. That is either more bad luck, or it shows May has dismal judgement in the quality of people she appoints to her close circle. Form suggests the latter.

The idea aired last weekend, that May had “ten days to prove herself”, was a minority view. For most of her colleagues it is too late. It was typical of Boris Johnson’s dwindling band of cheerleaders that they should broadcast a story supporting Davis as an “interim” leader: “interim” until Johnson’s credibility has recovered sufficiently for him to have another pop at the job he covets so much.

They also sought to create the impression that Davis is on manoeuvres, which he resolutely is not. Davis has been around long enough to know that if he wants to succeed May – and his friends believe he does – he cannot be seen to do anything to destabilise her further. It is a lesson lost on Johnson’s camp, whose tactics have damaged their man even more than he was already.

Andrew Mitchell, the former international development secretary and a close ally of Davis, told the Guardian: “. . . it is simply untrue that he is doing anything other
than focusing on his incredibly important brief and giving loyal support to the Prime Minister. Anyone suggesting otherwise is freelancing.” That summed up the contempt Davis’s camp has for Johnson, and it will last long beyond any leadership race.

There is a sense that, in the present febrile climate, whoever is the next leader must be highly experienced. Davis qualifies; so does Hammond, who before his present job was foreign secretary and defence secretary, and who has belatedly displayed a mind of his own since May was hobbled. Hugo Swire, a minister of state under Hammond in the Foreign Office, said of him: “He’s got bottom. He was very good to work for. He is an homme sérieux. I liked him very much and he would calm things down.”

But, as yet, there is no contest. Calls for calm have prevailed, not least thanks to Graham Brady’s steady stewardship of the 1922 Committee, and his success in convincing the more hot-headed of his colleagues to hold their fire. Yet MPs say the 1922 is not what it was 20 years ago: ministers have become used to taking it less seriously.

However, many MPs expect Brady, at a time of their choosing, to go to Downing Street and deliver the poison pill to Theresa May if she is slow to go. Some who know her fear she might take no notice. If she were to play it that way, her end would be unpleasant. As the old saying goes, there is the easy way, and there is the hard way. Remarkably few of her colleagues want to go the hard way but, like everything else in the Tory party at the moment, that could change.

Simon Heffer is a journalist, author and political commentator, who has worked for long stretches at the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. He has written biographies of Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Enoch Powell, and reviews and writes on politics for the New Statesman

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

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