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A last chance

Leaders meet in Washington on 15 November for a summit to attempt to resuscitate a world finance sys

The giant video screen at 745 Seventh Avenue, in Manhattan, is still lit up: only now, instead of the old Lehman Brothers promo, with its tossing oceans and desert sunsets, it projects the ice-blue bling of Barclays Capital, five-storeys high. The problem is, though the lights are still on for finance capital, ideologically there’s nobody home.

Lehman's bankruptcy marked the end of a 20-year experiment in financial deregulation. But it was Alan Greenspan's congressional testimony, a month later, that marked the collapse of something bigger: the neoliberal ideology that has underpinned it all.

It was Greenspan who had begun ripping away restrictions on financial speculation and investment banking in 1987. Last month, he said: "I have found a flaw. I don't know how significant or permanent it is. But I have been very distressed by that fact . . . Those of us who have looked to the self-interest of lending institutions to protect shareholders' equity, myself especially, are in a state of shock and disbelief."

The belief in self-interest as the guiding principle of commerce is as old as Adam Smith. What happened with the Anglo-Saxon model of capitalism was something different: the principle of rational self-interest was elevated to replace regulation and the state. Selfishness became a virtue. Inspired by Ayn Rand's credo - "I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine" - the giants of global finance revelled in amoralism. Morgan Stanley boss John Mack's legendary trading-floor motto - "There's blood in the water, let's go kill somebody" - sums up the era.

But the theory was flawed. Instead of safeguarding the property of shareholders, self-regulation drove the system to the point of collapse. Trillions of dollars worth of capital has been destroyed. "My view of the range of dispersion of outcomes has been shaken," Greenspan conceded. That's a logical response when the range of outcomes is clustered around the collapse of the savings system, the evaporation of global credit and the bankruptcy of most banks.

But selfishness was not the only tenet of neo-liberalism. Any definition of the term would include: a belief in the market as the only guarantor of prosperity and democracy; the futility of state intervention in pursuit of social justice; the creative destruction of cherished institutions and stable communities; the shrinkage of the state to regulatory functions only, and then as minimal as possible.

And the problem for the G20 leaders who will assemble at the Washington summit on 15 Nov ember is this: every single one of them has, to a greater or lesser extent, bought into the neoliberal ideology. It has dictated the direction of travel even in economies such as Brazil, India, Indonesia and China, classified as "mostly unfree" on the neoliberal league table.

The summit's most pressing task is to come up with a co-ordinated crisis response: for all the rhetoric, this is a firefighting operation not a second Bretton Woods. In the end, the route to a Bretton Woods-style settlement may be impassable for the weakened, multi-polar capitalism represented by the G20. But, even to begin that journey, there must be an honest reckoning with neoliberalism.

An ideology does three things: it justifies the economic dominance of a ruling group; it is transmitted through that group's control of the media and education; and it describes the experience of millions of people accurately enough for them to accept it as truth. But it does not have to be logical. For this reason, picking logical flaws in neoliberalism has been an exercise with diminishing returns.

For example, Milton Friedman's assertion that free-market capitalism and democracy are mutually reinforcing always looked a non-sequitur after he hotfooted it to Chile in 1975, personally urging General Pinochet to inflict a neoliberal economic "shock", even as the secret police were administering electric shocks to the genitals of oppositionists. But his theories continued to inspire policymakers.

Instead of logic, any balance sheet of neoliberalism has to begin from its outcomes. I will list five negative outcomes for countries following the Anglo-Saxon model:

In the first place, rising inequality. Between 1947 and 1973 the income of the poorest fifth of US families grew 116 per cent, higher than any other group. From 1974 to 2004 it grew by just 2.8 per cent. In the UK, the share of national income received by the bottom 10 per cent fell from 4.2 per cent in 1979 to 2.7 per cent in 2002.

Second, the replacement of high wages by high debt. The real wages of the average American male worker are today below what they were in 1979; and for the poorest 20 per cent, much lower. In 1979, personal household debt was 46 per cent of America's GDP; now it is 98 per cent. In the UK, real household incomes grew, but slower than in the postwar boom, until early this decade, since when they have fallen. The debt pattern, however, followed the US; 30 years ago British households were in debt to the tune of 20 per cent of GDP, now it is 80 per cent.

Third is the redistribution of profits from non-financial companies to the finance sector. In 1960s America, the pretax profits of financial firms made up 14 per cent of corporate profits; now they make up 39 per cent. Most of this profit is not generated from financing productive business: the world's total stock of financial assets is three times as large as global GDP. In 1980, it was about equal to GDP.

The new power of finance capital not only creates asset bubbles, as with the dotcom, housing and commodity bubbles of the past decade, but it allows speculative capital to descend on individual companies, countries and industry sectors, smash them and move on. I present the current economic plight of Hungary as Exhibit A.

Fourth is the growth of personal and financial insecurity, the destruction of social capital and the resulting rise in crime. If you want data, then the four stark pages of membership graphs at the end of Robert Putnam's celebrated book Bowling Alone show the decline of almost every voluntary association in America during the neoliberal age. If you prefer qualitative research, walk the streets of any former industrial city at night.

Fifth is the relentless commercialisation of all forms of human life: the privatisation of drinking water that provoked the people of Coch abamba, Bolivia to revolt in 2000; the creation of a private army of 180,000 military contractors in Iraq, unaccountable to international law. In these and many other instances, the functions of the state have been turned over to private companies to the financial detriment of taxpayers, the material detriment of consumers and the loss of democratic accountability.

But there is a plus side. Since 1992, there has been stability and growth across the OECD countries and beyond, albeit lower than the average growth achieved during the postwar boom years. There has been a marked fall in absolute poverty, with the number of people living on less than $2 a day falling by 52 per cent in Asia, 30 per cent in Latin America (though rising by 3 per cent in Africa) between the years 1982-2002. And though the data is mixed, many of neoliberalism's critics accept that inequality declines as per-capita GDP growth improves.

There has been a huge movement of humanity from the farm to the factory, and 200 million people have migrated from the poor world to the rich. Access to the financial system has brought rising liquidity: access to homeownership and overdrafts for families on low pay was real, whatever its macroeconomic outcome. And above all, the musty cultural and institutional barriers that made life a misery for the young in the 1960s and 1970s are largely gone; the flipside of commoditisation has been the decline of dependency and paternalism in social life.

And this has been the source of neoliberalism's strength as an ideology: borrow big-time, negotiate your own salary, duck and dive, lock your door at night. That is the new way of life for the world's workforce. My father's generation, the generation of organised workers which saw industry and social solidarity destroyed in the 1980s, could never really accept it. But hundreds of millions of people under the age of 40 know nothing else. And if you live in a Kenyan slum or a Shenzhen factory, you have seen your life chances rise spectacularly higher than those of your father's generation, even if the reverse is true in, say, Salford or Detroit.

Until 15 September 2008 (the day Lehman Brothers filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, the largest bankruptcy in US history), the left and the right were engaged in a political debate that revolved around the balance of these positive and negative impacts. Today that debate is over: we now know that neoliberalism nearly crashed the whole financial system. I will repeat, because the adrenalin rush has subsided and it is easy to forget: neoliberalism brought the world to the brink of an economic nuclear winter. Not by accident but because of a flaw in its central mechanism. It is for this reason that President Sarkozy (once labelled "Monsieur Thatcher" by the French left) declared it dead - not flawed - but dead. "The idea that markets were always right was mad . . . The present crisis must incite us to re-found capitalism on the basis of ethics and work . . . Laissez-faire is finished. The all-powerful market that always knows best is finished," he said.

S o what comes next? Though governments are scrambling to deploy Keynesian anti-crisis measures - from George Bush's tax cut to Gordon Brown's borrowing hike - it is axiomatic that the developed world cannot return to the way things were before the 1980s: the Keynesian model broke down spectacularly, and could cure neither high inflation nor economic stagnation.

It is clear, from the sheer level of pain and trauma inflicted by the changes of the past 20 years, that we have lived through the birth of something. Its founding ideology was neoliberalism; its most tangible result was globalisation; and it was achieved through class struggle by the rich against the poor. But none of these facts can encompass the scale of change.

Because none of them allows for the most fundamental change - that information has become a primary factor of production. C omputing power has doubled every 24 months; the internet and mobile telephony have, in the past ten years, altered the patterns of human life more profoundly than any single economic policy. Info-capitalism has been inadequately theorised: call it "post-Fordism", techno-capital or the knowledge economy, whatever the label it remains the central fact of the early 21st century.

If you accept this, then the experience of neo- liberalism looks less like the dawn of a free-market empire, more like the period between the invention of the factory system and the passing of the first effective factory legislation: between the establishment of Arkwright's mill at Cromford in 1771 and the Factory Act of 1844.

For much of that period, the pioneers of industrial capitalism believed that any regulation would kill the dynamism of the system. They too had a celebrity economist to justify their actions, namely Nassau Senior, the author of the theory that all profits were made in the last hour of the working day. The fate of capitalism, quipped reformer William Cobbett, depended on 300,000 little girls in Lancashire: "For it was asserted, that if these little girls worked two hours less per day, our manufacturing superiority would depart from us."

Child labour was abolished; minimal standards of order and humanity were imposed on the factories. But capitalism did not die - it took off. It is no accident, incidentally, that 1844 was also the year Britain, traumatised by recurrent financial panics, enshrined the supremacy of the central bank and the gold standard in legislation. If the parallel is valid, then the new regulations and institutions under discussion in Washington stand a chance not of killing info-capitalism but of unleashing it.

What are the intellectual sources for the system that will replace neoliberalism? Most of the prophets of doom in advance of the credit crunch were survivors from the Keynesian era: Paul Krugman, Joseph Stiglitz, George Soros, Nouriel Roubini, Morgan Stanley economist Stephen Roach. But with the partial exception of Stiglitz, they remain dislocated from the grass-roots opposition to neoliberalism. In turn, this opposition, dominated by the principles of anarchism and charity, has revelled in its own diversity and lack of engagement with state-level solutions.

As for the world's policymakers they, for now, resemble the Hoover administration in 1930, or if you are feeling really unkind, Chamberlain's British government in 1940. They are confronted by a crisis they did not think would happen. They are approaching it with the only tools they have - but they are the old tools: the old alliances, the old experts, the unreconstructed ideas and plans: Doha, Basel II, the Lisbon agenda. The IMF's conditions for bailing out eastern Europe - public spending cuts, interest-rate rises, privatisations - confirm the pattern.

The aim, made explicit during a speech on 28 October by Catherine Ashton, the EU's new trade commissioner, is to enact crisis measures while explaining to the public that "interventions and excessive use of public subsidies - while attractive today, will damage us tomorrow". This does not match the rhetoric coming out of Paris and Washington about the "end of trickle-down" and the death of laissez-faire; and it tends to ignore the fact that the most fundamental problem created by neoliberalism was not deregulation but the replacement of high wages by high debt. In other words, it is not the policy framework that is in trouble, it is the growth model.

There are three possible ways out. First, the revival of neoliberalism in a hair shirt: less addicted to the celebration of greed; with government spending temporarily replacing consumer debt as the driver of demand; and with some attempt at co-ordinated re-regulation. That is the maximum that can come out of the Washington summit.

Second, the abandonment of a high-growth economy: if it can't be driven by wages, debt or public spending then it can't exist. And if it can't exist in America, then Asia's model of high exports and high savings does not work, either. In previous eras the proposal to revert to a low-growth economy would have been regarded as simply barbarism and regression. Yet there is a strong sentiment among the anti-globalist and deep-green activists in favour of this solution, and it has found echoes in mass consciousness and micro-level consumer behaviour as the world has come to understand the dangers of global warming. Even a mainstream corporate economist, such as Morgan Stanley's Roach, has called for "a greater awareness of the consequences of striving for open-ended economic growth . . . This crisis is a strong signal that [high-growth] strategies are not sustainable."

The third alternative is the Minsky option. Hyman Minsky (1919-1996) was the godfather of modern financial crisis theory: his works, while largely ignored by politicians, are revered by both Marxists and hedge-fund managers. The "Minsky Moment" - a systemic financial crisis that crashes the real-world economy - was not only predicted in his work but theorised as a natural and intrinsic feature of capitalism. What we are going through now, Minsky argued, is the normal consequence of achieving growth and full employment through an unfettered private financial system.

But he had a solution - outlined in the chapters the hedge-fund managers skip and the Marxists dismiss: the socialisation of the banking system. This, he conceived, not as an anti-capitalist measure but as the only possible form of a high- consumption, stable capitalism in the future.

Minsky argued: "As socialisation of the towering heights is fully compatible with a large, growing and prosperous private sector, this high-consumption synthesis might well be conducive to greater freedom for entrepreneurial ability and daring than is our present structure."

Minsky never bothered to spell out the details of how it might be done. But there is no need to, now.

Stumbling through the underground passageways of 10 Downing Street on the morning of 8 October, I saw it done. Tetchy and bleary-eyed, fuelled by stale coffee and takeaway Indian food, British civil servants had designed and executed it in the space of 48 hours. Within days, much of the western world's banking system had been stabilised by massive injections of taxpayer credit and capital.

The problem is, though they have now been there, done that, the G20 politicians have no desire to get the T-shirt.

The G20 summit will meet in the context of a global finance system on life support. Their impulse is to get it off the respirator as quickly as possible; to put things back to normal. But the ecosystem which sustained global finance in its previous form is also in crisis: easy credit and speculative finance were the oxygen, and they have gone.

The policy challenge, in short, is much more fundamental than is being recognised in the run-up to the G20 summit. Gordon Brown speaks of a "new global order" emerging out of Washington. But in reality he is talking about multilateral crisis-resolution mechanisms, not a rethink of the relationship between finance capital, growth and debt.

If the world's leaders seriously intend to "refound capitalism on the basis of ethics and work", there is plenty of source material to start brainstorming from.

I would throw this into the mix, from Franklin Roosevelt's Oval Office in January 1934: "Americans must forswear that conception of the acquisition of wealth which, through excessive profits, creates undue private power over private affairs and, to our misfortune, over public affairs as well. In building toward this end we do not destroy ambition . . . But we do assert that the ambition of the individual to obtain a proper security, a reasonable leisure, and a decent living throughout life is an ambition to be preferred to the appetite for great wealth and great power."

Paul Mason is economics editor of BBC Newsnight; his book "Meltdown: the End of the Age of Greed" is published by Verso in April 2009

Road to the summit

The summit, due to start in Washington DC on 15 November, was first proposed by President Nicolas Sarkozy of France at the United Nations General Assembly debate on 23 September. He urged reform of international institutions, warning that "the 21st-century world cannot be governed with institutions of the 20th century".

On 3 October the US enacted its $700bn bank bailout. EU leaders had initially been confident that their economies would be sufficiently resilient, but the world stock-market collapse now convinced them otherwise. The next day, France, Britain, Germany and Italy agreed to work together to support financial institutions, and issued a joint call for a G8 summit.

On 8 October Gordon Brown announced a rescue package for UK banks. Leaders of the G7 countries (the US, Japan, Germany, Britain, France, Italy and Canada) met in Washington on 11 October, issuing a five-point plan. On 12 October, in Paris, Sarkozy held an emergency meeting of the 15 eurozone leaders, the first such meeting since the launch of the euro. Unusually, Gordon Brown was also invited to attend, and a rescue plan based on the UK model was agreed. The following week, George Bush went to Italy, Germany and the UK in a bid to coordinate response to the turmoil, and on 14 October announced crisis talks to be held between Bush, Sarkozy and President José Manuel Barroso of the European Commission at Camp David four days later. Here, plans for the summit were unveiled.

Attending will be leaders of the G20, which includes the G7 and major developing nations such as China, India and Brazil, along with the head of the IMF and other international institutions. Of the African nations, only South Africa, the continent's biggest economy, will attend; on 27 October the African Union announced it would hold its own summit in response to the crisis.

Alyssa McDonald

This article first appeared in the 10 November 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Change has come

LAURA HYND FOR NEW STATESMAN
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Rebel with a realist cause

Michael Winterbottom, Britain’s busiest film-maker, discusses cinema, social mobility and how we are returning to the 19th century.

In the early 1960s, Lindsay Anderson was enjoying the power and esteem that he had always thought the English would be too philistine to grant him. His Free Cinema movement, launched in February 1956 with a series of modest, hand-held documentaries and a strident manifesto, had mutated into “kitchen-sink realism”, a series of popular feature films that included Tony Richardson’s Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, Karel Reisz’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and his own This Sporting Life. Anderson seemed dangerously close to becoming the  leading spokesman of mainstream British cinema. But then, as he recalled, “Realism gave way to the myth of Swinging London. The Americans, God bless them, put up a lot of money and the British made a lot of bad films.”

When, bored and broke, the Americans went home, taking many of his colleagues along with them, Anderson stayed behind. He made if . . ., which won the 1969 Palme d’Or at Cannes, and a sequel, O Lucky Man!, and then – nothing. For most of the 1970s, British cinema was virtually an oxymoron. But when the industry came back to life at the start of the next decade, with GandhiChariots of Fire and the formation of Channel 4 Films, he refused to celebrate or capitalise, preferring to tut and clutch his brow.

In November 1985, the month when his former protégé Stephen Frears first startled a general British audience with My Beautiful Laundrette, which updated kitchen-sink realism with new causes (multiculturalism, gay rights) and villains (Thatcher, the National Front), Anderson was making gentle progress on a backward-looking endeavour – a television documentary about Free Cinema, to form part of an initiative he despised called British Film Year. A born dawdler, equally petrified of success and failure, he was having trouble with the stills and inserts. “I finally get the operation organised,” he wrote in his diary, “by insisting that the attractively cherubic Michael Winterbottom be my assistant.”

When I spoke to Winterbottom last year, he told me, “Lindsay Anderson was a director I really admired and I wondered why he had made so few films. Then I met him. There was a lot of messing around” –bickering, procrastination, mischief. And perfectionism: “Even on the Free Cinema documentary, he ended up reshooting ­everything.” Winterbottom wanted to emulate Anderson’s work – the intransigence, the looseness – but he realised that in order to follow those examples and still have a career, he needed to make peace with prevailing industrial conditions and devise a plausible, even hard-nosed working method.

Three decades later, he is constantly in work. Alongside Frears, he is Britain’s busiest film-maker. At any given moment, he occupies two or more points in a process that goes something like: development, financing, casting, filming, editing, festival circuit, domestic release. But where Frears has graduated to working with Hollywood studios, Winterbottom relies on independent financing and employs a no-fuss, often hand-held, digital shooting style. David Thompson, the former head of BBC Films who is now an independent producer, told me, “Michael pioneered a way of working that we tried and failed to get other directors to adopt: if you can’t get the crew in a minivan, then you’ve got too many people.”

The results so far have included 24-Hour Party People, a comedy about the Manchester music scene that captured Winterbottom’s own philosophy of productive chaos, and 9 Songs, in which a climatologist recalls a relationship through nights at rock concerts and uncensored days in bed. Winterbottom’s most recent film, The Emperor’s New Clothes, a documentary about inequality, presented by Russell Brand, was his 28th. And that doesn’t include The Trip, the BBC2 comedy series starring the comedians Steve Coogan – a Winterbottom regular – and Rob Brydon, which was released outside Britain as a pair of films, The Trip and The Trip to Italy: to date, his only sequel.

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Working alongside the producer Andrew Eaton, Winterbottom has established an atmosphere of rigour and determined focus that allows him to take risks. Eaton, who has known Winterbottom for more than 30 years, told me that “no other director comes to set with such a strong sense of what he’s trying to get combined with a complete openness to what could happen in the day”. When Winterbottom was making the family drama Wonderland in the late 1990s, he took his skeleton crew into London bars that were open for business. Punters became extras. “The people in a place are so much part of the environment,” Winterbottom said. “We were trying to get a different texture, to let the characters interact with the real world.”

Winterbottom and I were having breakfast in a London hotel restaurant. When I arrived, he had just finished a television interview about The Face of an Angel, a rumination on the Amanda Knox trial starring Daniel Brühl and Cara Delevingne, which opened in 2014 to baffled reviews. Winterbottom, who turns 55 in March, still looks like a cherub, but a cherub going grey at the sideburns. He is affable, even happy-go-lucky, but also remote – withdrawn. His gaze carries a slight air of wistfulness, as if he is distracted by some opportunity five yards beyond your shoulder. And though he talks very quickly, he is a specialist in prevarication and reversal. Assertions are parried, questions dodged. But when he’s comfortable, he’s fluent.

Winterbottom continued to tell me about the thinking behind Wonderland, which many consider his greatest film. He compared it to Notting Hill, which was being shot further west around the same time. “As soon as you go in and control everything, you’re destroying the essence of what London is. If you want to catch what normal life is like, you have to work in quite a small way, a hand-held way, in real places.”

Yet Wonderland is never dowdy. Shots of, say, an average night at the Slug and Lettuce or the bingo hall, or yet another frustrating afternoon at Selhurst Park, are offset by the lithe, buzzing images (a 16mm negative blown up to 35mm), the restlessly inquisitive editing and Michael Nyman’s soaring symphonic score. The result far exceeds anything made during the kitchen-sink period in the breadth of its humanism and the range of its social portraiture, and deserves to be recognised as one of the great achievements of British cinema.

The Scottish actress Shirley Henderson said that working on Wonderland, the first of six collaborations, wasn’t like being on a film set, with “caravans” and co-stars. “You were just waiting on a pavement somewhere.” To help Henderson research her role as the working-class Londoner and single mother Debbie, one of three troubled sisters, Winterbottom sent her on what she called “errands”: going clubbing in character, or visiting the sort of hairdresser at which Debbie worked. Henderson added the details garnered on these field trips to a screenplay, written by Laurence Coriat, that was treated as far from sacrosanct. Speaking generally of her work with Winterbottom, she said: “You know the lines – and you might get to say them, you might not. He might run the scene another five minutes after your lines are finished.”

I asked Henderson how Winterbottom’s toss-the-script-aside approach compared with the process favoured by Mike Leigh, who directed her in Topsy-Turvy. With Leigh, she said, “You improvise for hours to find a honed scene that you shoot the next day. With Michael, it’s a quicker process. You don’t rehearse as such. You’re improvising on film. If he’s not got enough, he’ll just go again and again and again.” At breakfast, Winterbottom, who recoils from analysis, defined his ambitions with a shrug: “Try to keep it simple, get as close to the characters as possible, encourage actors to be spontaneous.”

Wonderland was Winterbottom’s sixth feature film and marked a breakthrough for him, in particular a turn away from the professionalism of Welcome to Sarajevo, his polished, starry account of TV journalists covering the Bosnian War, in favour of a realist aesthetic. He told me that he doesn’t see himself as part of any movement – “What, like Free Cinema? No, no” – but his desire to find an alternative to conventional dramatic narrative connects him to a loose group of artists and writers intent on bringing more “reality” into their work. Prominent among them are the authors David Shields, who mentions Winterbottom in his manifesto Reality Hunger, and Karl Ove Knausgaard, whose My Struggle series Winterbottom has been reading (“I’m very impressed”). But where Shields and Knausgaard have turned away from the novel in favour of more direct, less dissembling forms such as the memoir and the essay, Winterbottom’s desire to get as far away from artifice and as close as possible to hectic, complex, undramatic life has resulted not in a choice of one form that solves all the problems but a sensibility that he brings to a range of genres.

Winterbottom’s war against tidy artifice has taken various forms. Sometimes it is built in to a project’s conception: he made 9 Songs because he thought that his previous love story Code 46 had been timid in the way it presented sex. It has determined his approach to source material. When he was adapting Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles as Trishna, he combined the roles of the “spiritual” Alec and the “sensual” Angel because, he told an interviewer, “most people are a combination of both”. But with Jim Thompson’s novel The Killer Inside Me, he took the opposite approach: he found Thompson’s portrait of psychosis so complete, so convincing, that he treated the book “like the Bible”.

Winterbottom’s widely acknowledged formal innovations are a means to an end. I mentioned the editing in his 2008 film, Genova, which constantly prevents exchanges and encounters from settling down into a set piece. He dismissed the idea that he was consciously experimenting. “When you’re making a film, you’re worried about the specifics of what you’re trying to do and then building out from that,” he said. The starting point of Genova is the dynamic between the dad and the two daughters. “I have two daughters [from his 13-year relationship with the teacher and novelist Sabrina Broadbent] and one aspect of the film, like with Wonderland and London, was to portray a relationship that I would recognise. The aim was to not make it dramatic, because your relationships at home aren’t very dramatic.”

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In his diary, Lindsay Anderson – who often quoted the ancient maxim “Character is destiny”– marvelled at Winterbottom’s ability to attend to things that mattered and ignore the things that didn’t. Where Anderson was an idealist and a perfectionist, Winterbottom was “wholly unsentimental” – “conscientious” in tracking down stills, his assigned task, but “quite happy to absent himself from crucial, if routine stages of finishing”.

It was partly a product of breeding. Where Anderson, scarred by boarding school, loved to defy those with power (having a private income helped), Winterbottom attended the local grammar school in Blackburn and grew up in kitchen-sink territory; a scene in John Schlesinger’s 1962 film A Kind of Loving was shot at the factory where his father worked. When he was a teenager, his favourite book was Jude the Obscure, Hardy’s novel about a farm labourer who dreams of going to Biblioll College, Christminster. Winterbottom made it to the real-world version – Balliol College, Oxford – where, in a desultory, distracted way, he studied English. (In 2012 he returned to Oxford to become the first Humanitas Visiting Professor in Film and Television.)

Winterbottom likes to say that he’s simply attracted to good stories and interested in the same things as “everybody else”, but The Emperor’s New Clothes, which came out in April last year, emerged from his personal history. A product of grammar schools and grants, he considers himself a beneficiary of the “social mobility and access” that burgeoned after the Second World War. (He campaigned for Jack Straw in Blackburn in 1979.) “The idea that to be ‘modern’, you need an unregulated free market that helps the rich get richer is bullshit,” he said, adding that its widespread acceptance has been “one of the triumphs of that ideology”. He continued, “We had a phase of about fifty years where what was ‘modern’ was the idea that things will get fairer – there will be a narrowing of the gap, maybe not in a radical way, but at least a general trend in that direction.

“It’s fairly hard to believe that we used to collectively own the water, gas, coal, trains, telephone. People were being taxed at 98 per cent on unearned income, 83 per cent on earned income. Instead, we’ve returned to the 19th-century idea that if you’re born poor, you’re going to stay poor.”

After his English degree, he completed a one-year course in film-making in Bristol. Then he needed a job.

“There was no way I would have been able to hang around and do ‘internships’,” he told me. “I became a trainee assistant film editor at Thames Television” – which is how he came to work for Anderson and where he was given his first professional directing job, on a pair of documentaries about the Swedish director Ingmar Bergman, from whom he learned that if you establish fruitful partnerships and retain a clear sense of what you’re trying to achieve, film-making is “not that hard”. (Bergman may have been “just as complicated psychologically” as Anderson, “but when it came to the work, he was disciplined”.)

In 1993, after the Bergman documentaries and then a run of commissions in television drama, including the opening episodes of Jimmy McGovern’s ITV series Cracker, Winterbottom was itching to make his first feature film. Frank Cottrell Boyce, a friend from Oxford, had written a script entitled Delirious, about car thieves in Liverpool, but it was failing to attract a backer, so they moved on to a new idea: another crime thriller set in Lancashire, but with a difference – it could be done cheaply, with money cobbled together from public funding bodies. “All our anger and frustration about not making the other one went into it,” Winterbottom recalled. “We did it for nothing. It was a very stressful phase. And that was Butterfly Kiss” – in which a pair of chalk-and-cheese lesbians cause havoc on the M6.

In Icons in the Fire, an attack on “practically everyone in the British film industry”, in which Winterbottom is one of the few heads spared, the critic Alexander Walker recalled his surprise when the director followed up Butterfly Kiss with a “period drama”. But Jude – the first of Winterbottom’s three Hardy adaptations – was fast-moving and stark, not at all Merchant-Ivory. After Jude, there came, in swift succession, “Bosnia war reportage, period western, East End soap opera, Ulster social comedy, glam-rock clubland, overland asylum-seeking” – the films in question being Welcome to SarajevoThe ClaimWonderlandWith or Without You24-Hour Party People and In This World. (Walker forgot I Want You, which should probably be characterised as Hastings psychosexual noir – still, somehow, a genre of one.) “Bewildering,” Walker concluded: “at the same time, curiously courageous for a British director.”

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Winterbottom has continued in this bewilderingly courageous way, combining speed with variety, adding to his genre hoard and keeping the operation small. While former collaborators such as Rachel Weisz and Kate Winslet have been starring in globetrotting thrillers and 3D blockbusters, or, in the case of Christopher Eccleston, David Tennant and Peter Capaldi, playing Doctor Who, Winterbottom has carried on telling intimate tales about what he calls “home, family, things like that”; among them Everyday, a drama about a struggling mother (played by Shirley Henderson) that was shot over five years. Where his near contemporary Danny Boyle went off to make Slumdog Millionaire, Winterbottom made Trishna, an Indian adaptation of Tess, described by its star, Freida Pinto, who was also the lead actress in Slumdog, as “a hardcore independent project”.

Generally, his dealings with the US have been marked by resistance. On its release in 1997, Harvey Weinstein’s company Miramax distributed Welcome to Sarajevo – even screened it at the White House for Bill Clinton. But when Weinstein offered Winterbottom $1.5m to direct Good Will Hunting the director said the script wasn’t good enough. It took him months of conversations with the novelist John Irving to reach the same conclusion about another Miramax project, The Cider House Rules. (Each film won an Oscar for its screenplay.) Winterbottom didn’t make a film on American soil until 2009, when he went to Oklahoma to shoot The Killer Inside Me, a thriller whose violence against female characters prompted outrage and earned him a nomination for the Sexist Pig Award from the Alliance of Women Film Journalists. (He lost out to Mel Gibson.)

On two occasions – both before the sexist pig accusation – he had been approached by women bearing offers too good to refuse. In 2004 Angelina Jolie brought him A Mighty Heart, an adaptation of Mariane Pearl’s memoir about her husband, the murdered journalist Daniel Pearl. Then, a few years later, Naomi Klein approached him to make an archival documentary based on The Shock Doctrine, her book about disaster capitalism. (Klein later changed her mind about the format – she wanted something more topical and responsive – and the film was made without her input.) But on the whole, the ideas for Winterbottom’s films have emerged from Revolution Films, the production company he started with Andrew Eaton in 1994.

In 2001 Winterbottom and Eaton were developing a project about illegal immigrants but couldn’t decide on a starting point. Then the 9/11 attacks happened, and within a few weeks Winterbottom and the writer Tony Grisoni were wandering around a refugee camp in Peshawar, looking for young Afghan men willing to play a version of themselves and do the trip to London for real. (“I thought it was going to be in English,” David Thompson, one of the executive producers of the film that emerged from the trip, recalled. “I was somewhat surprised when it came back in Pashto.”)

The year 2003 marked the high point of Winterbottom’s acclaim. In February, barely a year after Winterbottom had touched down in Peshawar, In This World – the asylum film’s eventual title – was accepted to show at the Berlin International Film Festival, where it won three prizes, including the Golden Bear. When it was released in Britain, the critic Sukhdev Sandhu, who was born in 1970, called it the best British film of his lifetime. Soon afterwards, Winterbottom appeared in a Guardian critics’ poll of the best directors currently practising. The citation announced: “British cinema would be lost without him.”

Peter Bradshaw, the Guardian critic who wrote that citation, has been less impressed with the films he has made in the past decade. “It’s all very good letting narrative and all those traditional things go hang,” he said recently, “but it does make for a rather miscellaneous experience in the cinema.” He described the films’ “rough-and-ready quality”, which he identifies in all Winterbottom’s recent work except for The Killer Inside Me and The Trip, as “more lax than loose”, and added: “I often wonder whether he’s thinking about the next project.”

Eaton identifies misunderstanding in both criticisms. To the idea that Winterbottom’s work since around Wonderland has been lax or slapdash: “Do you have any idea how hard it is to make stuff as natural as that, to have that flow?” To those who say Winterbottom makes too many films: “If Michael was a plumber, and you asked him to do work on your house, he wouldn’t say, ‘Oh, I’m far too creatively exhausted, I couldn’t possibly do it.’ It’s just the next job.”

Thompson offered a more matter-of-fact reflection. “That’s just the way he works –he does these things in a white heat,” said. “He’s finished them before you realise he has shot them. It’s like writing a song. Some film-makers spend two years fiddling with a film. Michael would go crazy. And I don’t think the result would be any better.” (Bradshaw conceded that “part of his mojo is to keep moving – something we critics don’t understand”.)

Thompson added, “Some of his films work better than others – he knows that.” In 1997, when he had made four films, ­Winterbottom reflected on the benefit that Ingmar Bergman derived from a hefty back-catalogue: “There’s actually enough volume that if he does a comedy that doesn’t succeed, it’s merely a blip in the overall work.”

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A few days after I first interviewed Winterbottom, I went to the Revolution Films office in Clerkenwell, central London, to meet Melissa Parmenter, the composer who is now his regular producer (Eaton serves as an executive producer). Parmenter has a fondness for rhyme: “totes mahotes”, “okey-dokey”, “good plan, Stan”. Instead of “meltdown”, she says “granny panic”. She described Michael Nyman’s music for Wonderland, not inaccurately, as “an insane score – the best score ever”.

At first, Winterbottom and Parmenter, who live together and have a four-year-old son, seem an unlikely partnership. Where Winterbottom can be evasive, perhaps defensive, Parmenter is open and unguarded. She seems clearer about who Winterbottom is than he is. She is also more outwardly passionate. During my talk with Winterbottom, he used the word “love” twice – about Nyman’s music and Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs Miller. Parmenter, by contrast, said she “loves”, among other things, The Killer Inside MeGenova, “the melancholy bits of The Trip to Italy”, Nyman, and “the fact that Michael does what he wants”. But under the Noughties colloquialisms and granny-panic veneer, Parmenter is grounded and – to use a phrase that she might – on it, a total convert to Winterbottom’s heads-down ethos. She resembles her own description of Tracey Emin, whose 2004 film Top Spot she produced: “She looked like she had no idea what she was doing, but she knew totally what she was doing.”

“We make quite different films,” she told me. “It’s weird. What’s Michael’s most commercial film? But he doesn’t aim for that. He just makes what he wants to make.”

I asked Parmenter why he is so good at winning permission to do that. “Well, the idea of all his films is interesting. I mean, Road to Guantanamo: who wouldn’t want to see the story of the Tipton Three? It’s got to be made. Or 9 Songs – we’re going to show real sex. Filming Everyday over five years – that’s an amazing idea. We went to Tessa Ross at Channel 4 and said, ‘We’re going to film these people doing nothing.’ She said, ‘Here’s £1.1m. Bye!’ Obviously we reported back to them.”

It must help, I said, that there hadn’t been any disasters.

“That’s down to Michael. He’s so aware of all levels of the film-making process. He’s got his fingers in all the pies. It gets a bit much sometimes. [As Winterbottom told me, “When you’re a director, everything that happens is kind of your fault.”] But if you’re doing a small film, you can’t say, ‘Actors aren’t allowed trailers’ – if there’s a trailer even anywhere near, he goes mental – and then turn around and say, ‘I don’t want to know anything about the budget.’”

When I caught up with Winterbottom last summer, he expressed some frustration that The Emperor’s New Clothes – the documentary with Russell Brand – hadn’t been shown more widely, and that The Face of an Angel – the Amanda Knox drama– had been rounded on by British critics. Yet it was clear that his heart wasn’t really in it: both films were well on their way to becoming past obsessions. He’d been up at 6.30 that morning, doing rewrites for a new project, Russ and Roger Go Beyond, a comedy starring Will Ferrell, about the making of Russ Meyer’s camp musical Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. (I asked if Ferrell was someone he knew socially and he replied: “No, strangely not.”) Although the script originated in Hollywood and the production, based in Los Angeles, would almost certainly involve trailers, Winterbottom talked about Russ and Roger less as a necessary commercial compromise (“the money isn’t vastly better”) than as a much-needed break. He reminded me that “developing a film from scratch comes with a burden of effort”.

Still, it turned out that his heart wasn’t really in that one, either. Just before the end of the year, he quit. Someone muttered something about creative differences. Burdensome or not, it seems he prefers success – and failure – on his own terms: working under the Revolution banner with a small, familiar crew and room for improvisation with actors he calls friends. It is said he’s getting ready to shoot The Trip to Spain.

Leo Robson is the New Statesman’s lead fiction critic

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 28 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Should Labour split?