Book review: Them & Us, by Will Hutton

This sharp critique of unfairness in modern Britain is important and often compelling but too wide-ranging and undisciplined, says the MT editor.

by Matthew Gwyther
Last Updated: 25 Oct 2010

Them and Us: Changing Britain: Why we need a fair society
Will Hutton
Little, Brown £20.00

With Will Hutton now well on the way to being a National Treasure, the arrival of this latest tome will be a big event for consumers of Big Ideas. With his oeuvre including the best-selling The State We're In, Hutton doesn't shrink from approaching the big questions head on.

He has always been one for the broad brush: a big character, once described by The New Statesman as 'a shambling bear of a man, always late, always enthusiastic, always brimming over with ideas that pour out faster than he can form the words, compelling and exasperating in equal measure'.

This is a lengthy, angry book about how unfair Britain is in the first decade of the 21st century, how this unfairness has increased in recent times and how this should be put right. Hutton wants nothing less than a 'Truth And Reconciliation Commission for British capitalism' to explain the wrongs of the past decade.

His narrative brims with wide research - and many of the stats make gory reading. 'Base pay of CEOs in the FTSE 100 has risen from 47 times an average worker's salary in 2000 to 81 times now, typically with the opportunity for at least a 100% bonus and a long-term incentive.'

Such excess is dwarfed by the greed and malfeasance of the investment bankers and it is at them that Hutton directs his most effective venom. The densely argued narrative on how those miscreants got us all into this shocking mess are as powerful as anything I've read on the subject. Hutton once worked as an equity salesman for a stockbroker and he knows the finance game with its dodgy rules very well.

But ...

there are a lot of buts. Just because the multiple between the wealthiest and the poorest in society is so large does not mean that we are currently at an apogee of unfairness. The NHS - however it functions - means Britain is a fairer place than it was before 1948. Even state education is supposed to be better than it was in 1997.

If things are so direly unfair at the moment, Hutton has to look back to find a time when capitalism had a less harsh face and the playing field was even. He has to track the fall from grace. He seems to find capitalism's Eden in the 18th century, when, he says, 'the country could claim to be Europe's leading open access society ...

it has not done well since. It (the UK now) is a social dinosaur with a long tail of underperforming, disadvantaged people and a tiny head on the top.'

This is all very well, but wasn't the sort of open-access entrepreneurialism of which he approves aided by the kind of society that tolerated slavery, granted only the most privileged the vote and sent kids up chimneys? We may have our problems with social mobility but a peasant from 1760 might look quite enviously on our set-up.

The range of individuals and organs who come in for a jolly good kicking is broad and lengthy: Philip Green, the Daily Mail, hedge funds, private equity, Lloyd Blankfein, Damien Hirst, Guy Hands. By contrast, the acceptable face of 21st-century commerce, according to Hutton, is someone like easyJet founder Stelios Haji-Ioannou.

Hutton has a hungry and passionate mind that goes foraging off in all directions. He's rarely able to resist a diversion in search of more nose-bag content.

He has also, for this volume, been assisted by a researcher who 'consecrated nearly two years of his life to the book'. It shows - and not entirely to the reader's benefit.

We go flying around on a whistle-stop tour through more than a thousand years of global social and economic history, stopping off for a quick sniff at everything from three-masted Portuguese sailing ships of the mid-15th century, Network Theory as exemplified by temperature control in a beehive, and Afghanistan's 2010 opium crop.

Some of Hutton's opinions are way off the money. Why on earth does he thinks state intervention by the independent testing of secondhand Vauxhall Insignias is going to make life fairer? It's a book that really needed a bold editor to give Hutton a 12-hour session with the blue pencil. As a 180-page extended pamphlet, it might have been a very powerful tome indeed.

Nevertheless, one does get swept along by the passion of his argument. He's a non-doctrinaire socialist believing that 'freedom of choice in a genuinely competitive market is enduringly attractive'. But he contends: 'We have a hard-wired moral belief in due dessert. That we should rightfully get our due in terms of either punishment or reward.'

Yet life isn't always fair, however hard well-meaning governments try to level the playing field. And it will be most interesting to see if the Government gives Hutton a fair hearing when he produces his Fair Pay Review.

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