Paul Collier: “Move left on the economy and talk the language of belonging”

The Oxford University professor and author of The Future of Capitalism on how to heal deep rifts in society.

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Buried deep within Paul Collier’s latest book, The Future of Capitalism, beneath the building blocks of economic analysis and policy proposals, is a fascinating and poignant personal story. Born into a working-class family in Sheffield in 1949, the young Collier went to a grammar school and from there on to Oxford and a storied career as an academic and development economist – he was knighted in 2014. His cousin Sue, by contrast, to whom the book is dedicated, was not so lucky. She became a teenage mother and has had a life of hardship and struggle.

A decade ago, after much tortuous bureaucratic obstruction, Collier and his wife adopted Sue’s grandchildren, a boy and a girl. They were aged one and two and had been taken into care.

“There’s a legal category called special guardianship introduced to permit adoption within the family,” Collier told me when we met one recent afternoon in London. “If it hadn’t been for that we would never have got them out. Everyone in the family was in complete agreement, including the natural parents, but it took eight months, thousands of pounds. It was excruciating, shaming… 40 pages of questionnaires. ‘Do you unplug your electric plugs every night?’ We had to replace the glass in our windows, install fire extinguishers all over our house in Oxford. At no stage did anybody actually ask whether we were decent human beings who would love these little children.”

The story of the children’s adoption is told only incidentally in The Future of Capitalism, in a short postscript to a chapter on the “ethical family”. Collier, who is confident in his views but reticent in person, was reluctant to be a character in his own book but chose to mention his family story, with its cast of fortunates and unfortunates, because he believes we in Britain are “living a tragedy”.

I asked him to explain what he meant by this assertion. He pondered for a while, stirred his tea, and then said: “We have two vicious rifts in our society – one is a spatial rift between newly booming conglomerations and broken provincial cities and towns, exemplified by [the Financial Times commentator] Janan Ganesh’s remark that being in London feels like being shackled to a corpse. That seems to me to be a profoundly desolate view. Spatial divides were getting narrower until about 40 years ago, so this is new. The second rift is the new class divide between the more educated and the less educated.”

For Collier, the period of social democratic hegemony that lasted, broadly, from 1945 to 1970 was “glorious”.  “It was when it all came together,” he said. “We inherited a huge asset – a shared sense of purpose coming out of the Second World War, a sense of common endeavour. But it was a wasting asset that needed to be renewed. And both left and right failed to renew it.”

He rightly values reciprocal obligations – the founding ideal of the welfare state, which was lost when we moved from having a benefits system based on contribution to one based on need – and wants us to transcend our differences and recreate a common sense of national purpose. But is he too nostalgic for the politics of an era that, in this age of globalisation and mass migration, are irrevocable?

Politically, Collier occupies what he calls the “hard centre”. He believes ideologues of both left and right have failed Britain. But he is no Blairite liberal and his policy solutions to our polarised politics and weakening social trust are communitarian and attractively radical. He writes of the need to break vested interests, challenge rent-seekers and use the interventionist, indeed the ethical, state to encourage productive activity and correct regional imbalances. “I’m a pragmatist, which means you recognise there are no permanent solutions, there is no brave utopia. Marx, Friedman – forget it. You’ve got to learn from context and work out what’s best in the context.”

Our stark social divergences have for too long been unaddressed and as a consequence, Collier said, “they are producing mutinies – such as Brexit and Trump, Af D in Germany, Le Pen in France. They are all manifestly mutinies that are happening at the same time. Think of the most famous mutiny: on the Bounty. What happened to those sailors was that they ended up on an island in the middle of nowhere. That wasn’t their objective when they mutinied. They didn’t mutiny with a view to the future but because the conditions they were living in had become intolerable. Mutinies are angry reactions to neglect.”

The highly educated elites have an overwhelming sense of entitlement, he continued. “I’ve lost count of the times people have said to me: ‘Not only do I not know anyone who voted for Brexit, I don’t know anyone who knows anyone who voted for Brexit.’ In America, I hear exactly the same refrain about Trump.

“The elite peeled off from the rest of the population. The elite has lived in this social and intellectual bubble and didn’t notice or care about the divide – and was contemptuous.”

Is the future of capitalism more of the same? 

“There’s hope… we will have to have mutinies within the parties rather than fusions across them. Both parties are aware that whichever party gets there first will win for 20 years.” And what do they have to do to arrive at where they need to be?

Professor Collier’s answer is nicely succinct: “Move left on the economy and talk the language of belonging.”

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article appears in the 28 November 2018 issue of the New Statesman, How the Brexit fantasy died