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The Osborne audit: what have we learned?

Ahead of this week’s budget, the economic historian Robert Skidelsky examines how four years of austerity have affected Britain.

George Osborne by Ralph Steadman

On Wednesday, for the first time in four Budgets, George Osborne will be able to claim plausibly that Britain has come out of the Great Recession. Growth was 1.8 per cent in 2013 and is expected to be between 2.4 and 2.8 per cent in 2014. That’s the good news. The bad news is that the economy is still 1.4 per cent smaller than it was in 2008 and 14 per cent smaller than it would have been had the recession not struck.

That lost output, amounting to £210bn, is gone for ever. Every household is almost £2,000 poorer on average than it would have been; the government’s revenue is £70bn less – that is (say) 70 hospitals, 1,000 schools and 250,000 housing units not built. Or, to take another number: 650,000 people now unemployed would have been in employment.

This is not all. Every year of the recession has reduced our growth potential. Economists use the word “hysteresis” to describe the rusting away of economic resources through misuse or underuse. Hysteresis has to do not just with the output lost during the slump but with the potential output lost in the subsequent period of near-zero growth. Headline unemployment is an incomplete measure of such rusting, because it also occurs when people work less than they want to, or are in jobs below their skill level, or just leave the workforce. A physics graduate may be able to find employment as a taxi driver or waiter. But how much physics “potential” will he retain after years of doing such jobs?

These are heavy costs. Just as George Osborne did not cause the recession, he has not caused the recovery. Intertwined economies usually fall and rise together, and Britain has been lifted off the rocks by the global upturn. Yet policy does make a difference – to the speed of recovery, its strength and its durability. On all three counts, the Chancellor’s policy is open to severe criticism.

Fiscal austerity slowed and weakened the recovery; monetary looseness ensured that it would be highly unbalanced and therefore fragile. Significantly, the official independent watchdog, the Office for Budgetary Responsibility (OBR), in its December 2013 Economic and Fiscal Outlook, judged the “surprising” growth surge of the past year to be “cyclical . . . rather than indicating stronger underlying growth potential”. That the bank rate needs to be kept near zero shows that the economy is still on life support. 

Missed budget targets

Let’s start with the targets Osborne set himself in his first Budget of June 2010. He inherited a prospective deficit for 2010-2011 of £149bn, equivalent to 10.1 per cent of GDP. He promised to get this down to £20bn, or 1.1 per cent of GDP, in 2015-2016, mainly through spending cuts. By 2013-2014 the deficit should have been £60bn. In fact, it is projected to be £111bn, or 6.8 per cent of GDP this year. Now the Chancellor must cut spending by another £62bn over the next four years to meet his original target, two years later than promised.

There were no growth targets – those were abandoned years ago – but there were growth forecasts. Fulfilment of Osborne’s budgetary targets depended on the economy growing at 2.3 per cent in 2011, 2.8 per cent in 2012 and 2.9 per cent in 2013. In fact, the growth rates achieved were 0.9 per cent in 2011, 0.1 per cent in 2012 and 1.8 per cent in 2013. In other words, Osborne’s failure to meet his deficit targets was caused by the failure of the economy to grow to expectation.

The official explanation for this failure is “bad luck”. In familiar language, policy was “blown off course” by unexpected events. Chief of these was said to be the eurozone sovereign debt crisis, which started with fears of a Greek default in March 2010 and then spread, by contagion, to Ireland, Spain, Portugal and Italy. For the next three years the eurozone slumped almost as badly as Britain. The eurozone slump, it is argued, stymied the British recovery.

There are two things wrong with this. First, with its own currency and control of its exchange rate, Britain should have done better, not worse, than the members of the eurozone. Second, although the eurozone financial crisis undermined confidence, and hit British exports, the European slump arose in part because European finance ministers were pursuing exactly the same policy as was George Osborne. So it makes more sense to say that the coincident slumps of the eurozone and Britain between 2010 and 2013 were the effects of a single cause: the policy of cutting public spending. The “unexpected” element in the situation was the failure of so-called fiscal consolidation to deliver growth.

Why should anyone expect a policy of cutting public spending in a recession to produce growth? It is counterintuitive. A recession is caused by businesses and households spending less. If the government also spends less, one would expect this to worsen, not reverse, the recession. This, I think, is exactly what happened.

Making the case: George Osborne on his first Budget Day, 2010

Primitive economics

Over the past four years, I kept asking myself: what did Osborne have to believe to convince himself that cutting government spending was necessary to “get the economy moving again”? His core belief, I concluded, is ideological. This is that state spending is heavily wasteful. From this, it follows that the smaller the share of GDP spent by the state, the larger GDP will be, because the private sector allocates resources more efficiently. It’s as simple as that.

This ideological fundament generates three seemingly common-sense, short-run propositions, which I call “primitive economics”. The first, known by the cognoscenti as “real crowding-out”, states that if the government commandeers an extra quantum of “real” resources such as workers and factories this will deprive the private sector of their use.

Second, there is the idea of “financial crowding-out”. If the government borrows additional financial resources (money) to fund its spending, this will force up interest rates and oblige businesses to pay more for their money.

Finally, there is “Ricardian equivalence”. This says that government borrowing is just deferred taxation. Expecting to pay more taxes tomorrow, people increase their savings today. So increased government consumption “crowds out” an equivalent volume of private consumption.

Eighty years ago, John Maynard Keynes pointed out that this trade-off view of the relationship between public and private spending may be valid at full employment, but is quite wrong in a severe recession.

In such a situation, extra government spending does not necessarily “crowd out” real resources. Where there is slack in the economy – the labour supply exceeding labour demand as today – extra government spending can bring into use the idle resources by creating more employment. There is no displacement; the public spending is not done at the expense of private spending. Rather, the public spending compensates for a lack of private spending.

Second, it is not true that whatever the government borrows is a subtraction from a fixed pool of savings that would otherwise be invested by the private sector. Many savings are just lying idle in bank accounts, because the private sector lacks the confidence to invest them. By offering investors a risk-free rate of return, the government can put these savings to active use. And by generating employment, this “crowds in” additional savings.

Finally, “Ricardian equivalence” ignores how government spending can pay for itself, not just by increasing national income (and therefore government revenue) but by investing in projects that create value for the economy, such as schools, houses, transport infrastructure, green energy, and so on.

Probably few policymakers today believe these “crowding-out” stories literally. I doubt whether even George Osborne does. But they believe that governments need to behave as though they believe these ideas in order to retain the “confidence” of the markets.

So, the question is: why do the markets believe them? Why do they scream “Default” whenever government borrowing goes up? Why did Osborne feel that unless he got the deficit under firm control, he would be spooked by the markets?

The reason is that, for the past 30 years, all economically literate or market-savvy persons (who do not generally include politicians) have been slaves to “models” of the economy which ruled out severe recessions by assumption. Even social democrats, who wanted to use the tax system to redistribute the wealth created by the private sector, bought in to the dominant view that, on average, markets do not make mistakes. This was the tragedy of Gordon Brown; it is also why Labour under Ed Miliband has been unable to deploy a convincing case against Osbornite economics.

Consequently, it is not surprising that governments and central banks failed to take precautions against a slump happening; more surprising that they did not thoroughly revise their beliefs when it did happen. To some extent, they did. When the world economy crashed in the winter of 2008 all the main governments came in with bank bailouts and stimulus packages. But as soon as the danger of another Great Depression was removed, the old orthodoxies reasserted themselves. In particular, as it was bound to do, the slump left a legacy of rising deficits and taxpayer liabilities. In this kind of climate, fears about the solvency of governments seemed reasonable.

And mainstream economics offered no help at all. What was going on, the economists said, was just a readjustment of economic life from one optimum equilibrium to another. Thus there was no “output gap” that needed to be filled by extra government spending. Rather, what needed to be done was to cut down state spending in order to make the existing output more productive. The Chancellor is no economist: but this presentation played to his ideological preconceptions. In a world-view of this type, there is no distinction between the short run and the long run. We always live in the long run, and if we leave the long run to the markets, all will be for the best. 

Delusions

A world in which beliefs and facts have come so far apart will be particularly prone to delusionary thinking. The delusion was that policies that made the recession worse would produce recovery. This delusion was abetted by reputable economists. Three years ago, the doctrine of “expansionary fiscal contraction” was all the rage and a huge research effort went into trying to prove its core proposition: that the less the government spends, the faster the economy will grow. The econometricians produced some striking correlations. One claim was that “an increase in government size by 10 percentage points is associated with a 0.5 to 1 per cent lower annual growth”. In April 2010, Alberto Alesina of Harvard University assured European finance ministers that “many even sharp reductions of budget deficits have been accompanied and immediately followed by sustained growth rather than recessions even in the very short run”.

An International Monetary Fund paper in 2012 brought Alesina’s hour of glory to an end. Going through the same data as he had examined, the IMF authors pointed out: “While it is plausible to conjecture that confidence effects have been at play in our sample of consolidations, during downturns they do not seem to have ever been strong enough to make the consolidations expansionary at least in the short run.” Fiscal contraction is contractionary, full stop.

George Osborne has said publicly that he was influenced by Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff. These two Harvard economists claimed that their data showed that countries’ growth slows sharply if their debt-to-GDP ratio exceeds 90 per cent. It turned out that their findings were skewed by the vast overweighting of one country in their sample. But a much more important error was their confusion between correlation and causation, also seen in the work of Alesina. High debt levels may cause lack of growth but a lack of growth may cause high debt levels; or both may be due to some other factor(s). How, one asks, can good statisticians make these kinds of mistakes? Only, I think, because their theory or model already tells them that this is the way the causation has to run, so that their only task is to establish a correlation.

Quantitative easing to the rescue?

With the failure of fiscal “consolidation” to revive the economy, the Chancellor increasingly turned to monetary policy. This fitted his ideology. Orthodox monetary policy works by the central bank targeting short-term market interest rates, providing banks with the reserves needed to keep the rates on target and, by varying the rates (or expectations of future rates), influencing the volume of private-sector lending and borrowing. It bypasses fiscal policy, which is why it is attractive to those who dislike state intervention. Since 2008, monetary policy has been ultra-loose or “unorthodox”. Not only has the bank rate been kept at 0.5 per cent for a record length of time, but the Bank of England has injected £375bn of “new money” into the economy, £225bn of it before Osborne became Chancellor. This is known as “quantitative easing” (QE).

How big a part has QE played in producing a recovery? The quick answer is that no one knows for sure. Unlike government spending, which has a direct effect on the economy, monetary policy works indirectly by inducing private households and businesses to change their behaviour – to save more or spend more. QE is supposed to work through two “transmission channels”: the bank lending channel and the portfolio rebalancing channel.

The central bank activates both channels by buying government bonds (gilts), mainly from non-banks. The sellers of the bonds receive cash; they deposit their extra cash with the commercial banks. In the first transmission channel, this is supposed to increase bank lending. The banks have more cash to lend out, causing them to lower their interest rates. As a result, more money is borrowed by businesses and households; the spending of the loans raises total spending, and therefore output, in the economy.

Early experience of QE showed that this was not happening: the banks were hoarding their cash, not lending it out. The architects of QE had underestimated the damage that banks had suffered as a result of the collapse of their assets in the crash, and therefore their desire to rebuild their reserves. What Osborne then did was to start subsidising bank lending. The Funding for Lending scheme, introduced in July 2012, was supposed to stimulate bank loans to businesses. It failed to do this – business lending is still well down from its pre-crash levels.

Desperate to get something in the economy going up, the Chancellor switched to Help to Buy in April and October 2013, which insured banks for a 15 per cent loss on 95 per cent mortgages. This has certainly contributed to the recent surge in house-buying and the rise in house prices.

It should be noticed, however, that both attempts to boost bank lending are fiscal policy by the back door, as the contingent subsidies are liabilities for the taxpayer.

Because of the disappointing results of bank lending, the Bank of England came to rely more on the second transmission channel, portfolio rebalancing, to stimulate the economy. Bond purchases by the Bank swell the cash deposits of the sellers, encouraging them to spend. Simultaneously, they reduce the supply of gilts in the market, which causes the price of gilts to rise and their yields to fall. The “search for yield” then induces investors to switch from gilts to stock-market securities and other assets, making it easier for businesses to raise capital. The increase in the price of these assets also expands the net wealth of the asset-holders, causing them to spend more. These various effects will result in growing GDP. Certainly the rise in stock-market and house prices has contributed to a “feel-good” factor, which is bolstering the current optimism about future prospects.

Set against these benefits are two costs. By encouraging excessive risk-taking, QE may reignite the pre-crash asset bubble, against which the new governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, has warned. The second is the increase in inequality. Of this, John Kay wrote in the Financial Times: “In the modern financial economy, the main effect of QE is to boost asset prices . . . the one certain outcome of QE is that those with assets benefit relative to those without . . . these policies may not benefit the non-financial economy much, but they are helpful to the financial services sector and those who work in it.”

The trouble with unorthodox monetary policy was that it is not unorthodox enough. Rather than try to increase private-sector cash balances, the Bank should have lent the money directly to the government to spend on public investment. We can be sure the government would not have hoarded the cash! But this operation would have blurred the line between monetary and fiscal policy, and thus the sacred ideological divide between the private and public sectors.

To put the matter crudely: a recovery based on stuffing the mouths of bankers with gold will be weaker and less durable than a recovery based on an upsurge of mass spending power. 

Conclusions

Wealth and income have been growing more unequal in Britain since the 1980s. George Osborne has not created the inequality; but he has exacerbated it by dragging out the slump and using lopsided means to bring about the recovery. Britain may well emerge from the recession with a problem of structural underconsumption. Investment is driven by consumption, so when consumption falls off, so does investment. A tendency to domestic underconsumption – unless offset by a buoyant demand for exports – will result in what economists such as Larry Summers have started to call “secular stagnation”. The chief symptom of this will be rising structural underemployment: a slackening of demand for labour which does not reverse itself with recovery.

This brings us back to the ideological fundament. It is the Chancellor’s firm belief that the government’s share of total spending should be reduced as much as possible. Spending financed by deficits is twice cursed, not just because government spending is wasteful, but because it enables governments to pass on the cost of waste to future generations. Hence Osborne’s pledge to eliminate the Budget deficit entirely. This is tantamount to saying that the government expects to pay out of taxes for all the schools, hospitals, housing and transport systems that it builds. Because all Conservative governments want to reduce taxes as well, this amounts to a vast programme to privatise virtually all public services.

At this point, the ideology destroys sane economics. A sensible view of public spending would distinguish between capital spending and current spending. It would enable one to say that deficits resulting from excessive current spending are bad because they do not generate any revenue and add to the national debt, but deficits that are incurred on capital spending can raise productivity, improving the country’s long-run potential. A sensible Osborne policy would have been to confine cuts to the current account and offset these fully by expanding public investment in green projects, transport infrastructure and social housing, as well as export-oriented small and medium-sized businesses (SMEs). The Business Secretary, Vince Cable, has been arguing this case inside the government; lip-service is paid to the principle, but public investment is still 35 per cent down from the pre-crash levels.

What George Osborne has done is to bring an ideological fervour to a defective theory of macroeconomic policy: the theory that additional government spending can, under no circumstances, move the economy to a better-equilibrium growth path. What may be rational to believe when the economy is fully employed is palpably wrong when resources stand idle.

Moreover, it is not Osborne and his friends and bankers and Top People who suffer. It is the ordinary people of this country, whose lives and prospects are wrecked or diminished. Four years of George Osborne have been four years too many.

Robert Skidelsky is a cross-bench peer and a leading biographer of J M Keynes. His most recent book is “Five Years of Economic Crisis” (Centre for Global Studies, £5)

This article first appeared in the 12 March 2014 issue of the New Statesman, 4 years of austerity

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?