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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

BRIAN ADCOCK FOR NEW STATESMAN
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Divided Britain: how the EU referendum exposed Britain’s new culture war

The EU referendum exposed a gaping fault line in our society – and it’s not between left and right.

There are streets in Hampstead, the wealthy northern suburb of London, where the pro-EU posters outnumber cars. A red “Vote Remain” in one. A “Green Yes” in another. The red, white and blue flag of the official campaign sits happily next to a poster from the left-wing campaign Another Europe Is Possible proclaiming that the world already has too many borders.

If you were looking for an equivalent street in Hull, in the north of England, you would look for a long time. In the city centre when I visited one recent morning, the only outward evidence that there was a referendum going on was the special edition of Wetherspoon News plastered on the walls of the William Wilberforce pub in Trinity Wharf. Most of the customers agreed with the message from the chain’s founder, Tim Martin: Britain was better off outside the European Union.

“Far too much Hampstead and not enough Hull” – that was the accusation levelled at the Remain campaign by Andy Burnham in the final weeks of the campaign. He wasn’t talking about geography; Remain’s voice is persuasive to residents of Newland Avenue in Hull, where I drank a latte as I eavesdropped on a couple who were fretting that “racists” would vote to take Britain out of the EU.

Rather, Burnham was talking about an idea, the “Hampstead” that occupies a special place in right-wing demonology as a haven of wealthy liberals who have the temerity to vote in the interests of the poor. The playwright and novelist Michael Frayn, in his 1963 essay on the Festival of Britain, called them “the Herbivores”:

“. . . the radical middle classes, the do-gooders; the readers of the News Chronicle, the Guardian, and the Observer; the signers of petitions; the backbone of the BBC . . . who look out from the lush pastures which are their natural station in life with eyes full of sorrow for less fortunate creatures, guiltily conscious of their advantages, though not usually ceasing to eat the grass.”

For Hampstead then, read swaths of Islington, Hackney, Brighton, Bristol, Cambridge, Edinburgh and Oxford today – all areas that were most strongly in favour of Remain and where Jeremy Corbyn is popular. But Remain never found a tone that won over the other half of Labour England; the campaign struck as duff a note among the diminishing band of pensioners on Hampstead’s remaining council estates as it did on Hull’s Orchard Park Estate.

The rift between “Hampstead and Hull”, in the sense that Andy Burnham meant it, is one that has stealthily divided Britain for years, but it has been brought into sharp focus by the debate over Europe.

Academics use various kinds of shorthand for it: the beer drinkers v the wine drinkers, or the cosmopolitans v the “left behind”. “It’s not just that [Britain] is div­ided between people who buy organic and people who buy own-brand,” says Philip Cowley, a professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London, “but between people who wouldn’t understand how anyone could buy own-brand and people who wouldn’t buy organic if you put a gun to their head.” Equating political preferences with shopping habits might sound flippant, but on 21 June the retail research company Verdict estimated that “half of Waitrose shoppers backed a Remain vote, against just over a third of Morrisons customers”.

The referendum has shown that there is another chasm in British politics, beyond left and right, beyond social conservatism v liberalism, and beyond arguments about the size of the state. The new culture war is about class, and income, and education, but also about culture, race, nationalism and optimism about the future (or lack of it). This divide explains why Ukip’s message has been seductive to former Labour voters and to Tories, and why Boris Johnson, an Old Etonian, led a campaign that purported to despise “elites” and “experts” and spoke of “wanting our country back”.

***

At the start of the campaign, the question that most accurately predicted whether you would back Remain or Leave was consistently: “Are you a graduate?” (Those who answered yes were much more likely to vote in favour of staying in the EU.) Stronger In never found a way to change that and win over those who left education at 18 or earlier. Pollsters also suggested that the much-vaunted Euroscepticism of older voters reflects generations where only one in ten people went to university.

This fissure has been growing for the best part of a decade and a half, but Britain’s first-past-the-post system, which deters newcomers and maintains entrenched parties, has provided a degree of insulation to Labour that its European cousins have lacked. Yet even here in the UK the mid-Noughties brought the brief rise of the British National Party, powered by voter defections from Labour in its strongholds in east London and Yorkshire, as well as the election of the Greens’ first MP on the back of progressive disillusionment with the governments of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.

In office, both Blair and Brown calculated, wrongly, that Labour’s core vote had “nowhere else to go”. In opposition under Ed Miliband, the party calculated, again wrongly, that discontent with immigration, and the rise of Ukip powered by that discontent, was a problem for the Conservative Party alone.

In a 2014 pamphlet for the Fabian Society, ­Revolt on the Left, the activist Marcus Roberts, the academic Rob Ford and the analyst Ian Warren warned that Labour had “few reasons to cheer about the Ukip insurgency and plenty to worry about”. When the votes were cast in the general election the following year, that prediction turned out to be dispiritingly accurate. Defections from Labour to Ukip led to Labour losing seats to the Conservatives in Gower, Southampton Itchen, Telford and Plymouth Moor View.

For the most part, however, first-past-the-post papered over the cracks in Labour’s broad coalition: cracks that, in the harsh light of the EU referendum, have become obvious. The divide isn’t simply one of class, or income. The social profile and culture of voters in Cumbria are no different from that of voters on the other side of the border – but Scots in the Borders backed a Remain vote while their English peers in the border areas opted for Brexit. Inhospitality towards Brexit proved a stronger indication of city status than a mere cathedral: Vote Leave generally found Britain’s great cities more difficult terrain than the surrounding towns and countryside.

The problem of the fracturing vote is particularly acute for the Labour Party, which for much of the 20th century was able to rely on the Herbivores. In concert with Frayn’s “less fortunate creatures”, they have been enough to guarantee Labour close to 250 seats in the House of Commons and roughly one-third of the popular vote, even in difficult years. But Britain’s EU referendum placed Hampstead and Hull on opposing sides for the first time in modern British political history.

It was Tony Blair who, in his final speech to the Trades Union Congress as Labour leader in September 2006, said that the new debate in politics was not left against right, but “open v closed” – openness to immigration, to diversity, to the idea of Europe. Driven by their commitment to openness, Blair’s outriders dreamed of reshaping Labour as a mirror of the US Democrats – though, ironically, it was Ed Miliband, who repudiated much of Blair’s approach and politics, who achieved this.

At the 2015 election Labour’s coalition was drawn from the young, ethnic minorities and the well educated: the groups that powered Barack Obama’s two election wins in 2008 and 2012. The party was repudiated in the Midlands, went backwards in Wales and was all but wiped out in the east of England. (Scotland was another matter altogether.) Its best results came in Britain’s big cities and university towns.

The Remain campaign gave Labour a glimpse of how Miliband’s manifesto might have fared without the reassuring imprimatur of a red rosette. Britain Stronger In Europe has been rejected in the Midlands and struggled in the east of England. But it also failed to inspire passion in Sunderland, Oldham and Hull – all areas that, for now, return Labour MPs.

***

In appearance, Hull’s city centre is built on blood and sandstone, dotted with memorials to a lost empire and postwar replacements for bombed buildings, all ringed by suburban housing built by the private sector in the 1930s and the state in the 1950s and 1960s. It could be Bristol without the excessive hills, or a smaller Glasgow with a different accent. Unlike in Glasgow or Bristol, however, the residents of Hull are largely hostile to the European Union. Unlike Glasgow and Bristol, Hull is a post-imperial city that has yet to experience a post-colonial second act.

The William Wilberforce is named after a native son who helped destroy the British slave trade, the engine of Hull’s prosperity in the 18th century. The destruction of another local industry – fishing – drives resentment among the pub’s ageing clientele, who were there for breakfast and a bit of company when I visited. They blame its demise squarely on the EU.

Although the Labour Party now has only one MP in Scotland, the back rooms of the labour movement host an outsized Scottish contingent. For that reason – and the continuing threat that the loss of Labour’s seats in Scotland poses to the party’s chances of winning a majority at Westminster – the Scottish independence referendum of 2014 loomed large for Labour throughout the EU campaign.

From the outset, Britain Stronger In struggled to replicate the success of the Scottish No campaign, in part because the price of victory was one that Labour regarded as too high to pay a second time. In Glasgow, in the week before the Scottish referendum, everyone knew where Labour stood on independence – consequently, many voters were already planning to take revenge. The proprietor of one café told me that Labour was “finished in this city, for ever”.

Predictions of this sort were thin on the ground in Hull. Alan Johnson, the head of Labour’s EU campaign, is one of the three Labour MPs whom Hull sent to Westminster in 2015. But even late in the campaign, in his own constituency, I found uncertainty about the party’s official position on the referendum. For that reason, if nothing else, it didn’t have the feeling of a city preparing to break with a half-century-plus of Labour rule, as Glasgow did in 2014. In Scotland, most people I spoke to believed that they were on the brink of independence, which made the eventual result a big blow.

Only among Hull’s pro-European minority could I find any conviction that Britain might actually leave the EU. In September 2014 Kenneth Clarke remarked that Ukip’s supporters were “largely . . . the disappointed elderly, the grumpy old men, people who’ve had a bit of a hard time in life”. To listen to Hull’s Leave voters is to hear tales of the same frustrated potential: they feel that politicians of all stripes have lives entirely removed from theirs. In their defence, they are right – just 4 per cent of MPs in 2010 were from working-class backgrounds.

As for Ken Clarke, he has carved out a second career as every left-winger’s favourite Tory, but that tone of indifference towards the “disappointed lives” of globalisation’s casualties recalls his younger days as a rising star of Margaret Thatcher’s government.

Hull’s residents have been dismissed, first as the regrettable but inevitable consequence of Thatcherite economics, and now as small-minded opponents of social progress and racial diversity. Unsurprisingly, people who feel that their wishes have been ignored and in some cases actively squashed by successive governments of left and right did not expect to wake up on the morning of 24 June to discover that this time, their votes really had changed something.

Equally unsurprisingly, the Remain campaign’s warnings of economic collapse lacked force for people for whom the world’s end had been and gone.

In Glasgow in 2014 Scottish independence was a question of identity in itself, whereas in Hull, hostility towards Europe is the by-product of other identities that feel beleaguered or under threat: fishing, Englishness and whiteness, for the most part.

In Hampstead, a vote for Remain feels more like a statement about the world as you see it. One woman, who walks off before I can probe further, tells me: “Of course I’m voting to stay In. I buy Fairtrade.”

***

Immigration, not the European Union, is the issue that moves voters in Hull. “Britain is full” was the most frequent explanation they gave for an Out vote. Knowing that immigration, rather than the abstract question of sovereignty, would be crucial to winning the contest, Vote Leave tried from the beginning to make it a referendum on border control. Leave’s main theme: the threat of Turkey joining the European Union and, with it, the prospect of all 75 million Turks gaining the right to live and work in Britain.

Although Turkey’s chances of joining the EU are somewhere only just north of its hopes of launching a manned mission to Mars, the tactic worked: according to an ­Ipsos MORI poll released on the morning of 16 June, 45 per cent of Britons believed that Turkey will be fast-tracked into the Union.

That same morning, Nigel Farage posed in front of a poster showing refugees – mostly from Syria and most of them non-white – on the border between Croatia and Slovenia, with a slogan warning that uncontrolled immigration was leaving Britain at “breaking point”. But the row over the poster came to an unpleasant halt just a few hours later as news began to break that Jo Cox, the Labour MP for Batley and Spen, had been shot and stabbed on her way out of a constituency surgery. She died of her injuries a little over an hour later. On 19 June Thomas Mair, who was arrested in connection with the killing, gave his name at Westminster Magistrates’ Court as “Death to traitors, freedom for Britain”.

The circumstances of the killing felt familiar. A little after midnight on 5 June 1968, Robert Kennedy was returning to the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles in high spirits. He had just won a crucial victory in the California primary and was well placed to secure the Democratic nomination to run in that year’s presidential election. Going through the kitchen in order to avoid cheering crowds and get straight to his press conference, he was ambushed by a man called Sirhan Sirhan, who fired six shots from a revolver. Kennedy was rushed to hospital, where he died early the following morning.

Five months later Richard Nixon was elected president. The American right held on to the White House for 20 years out of the next 25. Jo Cox’s killing, amid the nativist howling from Farage et al, felt like the beginning of a similar chapter of right-wing advance in the UK.

Labour’s problem, and that of its social-democratic cousins throughout Europe, is the same as the American left’s was in the 1960s. Its founding coalition – of trade unions, the socially concerned middle classes and minorities, ethnic and cultural – is united (barely) on economic issues but irrevocably split on questions of identity. Outside crisis-stricken Greece and Spain, the left looks trapped in permanent opposition, with no politician able to reconsolidate its old base and take power again.

***

When I arrive in Hull, preparations are under way for a vigil in Jo Cox’s honour, but it is the nation of Turkey that is weighing on the minds of undecided voters. On Park Street, residents are divided. Those who have exercised their right to buy and are concerned about their mortgages are flirting with an Out vote but are terrified about negative equity. Those who remain in social housing or the private rented sector are untouched by stories of soaring mortgages. To many residents, the Treasury’s dire warnings seem to be the concerns of people from a different planet, not merely another part of the country. As Rachel, a woman in her mid-fifties who lives alone, puts it: “They say I’d lose four grand a month. I don’t know who they think is earning four grand a month but it certainly isn’t me.”

As Vote Leave knew, the promise that an Out vote will allow people to “take control” always had a particular appeal for those with precious little control – of their rent, of next week’s shift, of whether or not they will be able to afford to turn the heating on next week. Never mind that the control envisaged by Vote Leave would be exercised by the conservative right: the campaign found a message that was able to resonate across class and region, at least to an extent that could yet create a force to be reckoned with under first-past-the-post in Britain.

Four grand a month isn’t a bad salary, even in leafy Hampstead, but in that prosperous corner of north London fears of an Out vote, and what will come after, gained a tight purchase. The worry was coupled with resentment, too, over what would come, should the Outers triumph.

The great risk for the left is that herbivorous resentment is already curdling into contempt towards the people of Hull and the other bastions of Brexitism. That contempt threatens the commodity on which Labour has always relied to get Hull and Hampstead to vote and work together – solidarity. The referendum leaves the Conservatives divided at Westminster. That will give little comfort to Labour if the long-term outcome of the vote is to leave its own ranks divided outside it.

 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics. 

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain