Saturday, February 28, 2015

Will'll fix it

Only the wealthiest and most pigheadedly selfish could deny that in Britain capitalism is broken - but how to go about fixing it? Unlike many, who are content merely to diagnose the problem, Will Hutton actually attempts to outline a solution in his new book How Good We Can Be, an edited excerpt of which was recently published by the Guardian. It makes for interesting reading.

Hutton is rightly perturbed by the current SNAFU and is adamant that things have to change, with a new focus on measures of value other than profit and share price, and a long-term rather than myopically short-term approach. What's needed, he argues, is a fundamental reshaping of the economy - more specifically:

* a new Companies Act detailing the responsibilities of companies to their workforce, to innovation, to the environment and to society generally, rather than merely to shareholders;

* a diverse range of ownership models, including (yes) some nationalised businesses;

* the creation of a "British sovereign wealth fund" and the revival of an "Industrial and Commercial Finance Corporation, that for decades worked well as a provider of equity and debt to small and medium-sized business" (presumably because the bailed-out banks, despite their promises, aren't delivering);

* a shift in focus from investment in property to investment in innovation, which would be stimulated by amending existing intellectual property law, ensuring wider dissemination of university research, and increasing spending and grants for research;

* the rebirth of trade unions in the form of guilds ("guarantors of skills and fair wages");

* less top-down governance, and a corresponding increase in devolved power;

* improvements to public infrastructure, education and housing.

All sensible suggestions, it seems to me, and Hutton is quite frank that they would necessitate substantial (but justifiable) tax increases. Even if the measures were economically feasible, though, it still seems sadly far-fetched to imagine that they might ever be implemented.

Partly this is because of globalisation. Our government isn't in complete control of our economy and so isn't free to do exactly what it wants (and even if it was, the changes may not have the desired effect due to external forces and pressures).

But partly it's also because of political will and appetite. Capitalism in its current broken form seems deeply entrenched, and to make changes on the scale proposed by Hutton would be like turning around the proverbial oil tanker.

What's curious is that Hutton is pinning his hopes on Labour, currently "in transition", to seize the initiative in taking forward these proposals, on the grounds that "it is a party for the mass of Britain, with roots that must remain in the workplace and the day-to-day life of ordinary people", and must surely come to its senses and start seriously working towards social justice. The truth is that Labour, still somewhat under the shadow of the Blair years, would never have the courage to adopt such policies, and that Hutton (in this excerpt, at least) refuses to acknowledge the fact that it's actually the Greens who come closest to advocating his suggestions.

So, a shame about the political bias (presumably evidence of a commentator desperately clinging on to the last vestiges of his faith in Labour), but here's hoping that Hutton's recommendations don't prove to be complete pie in the sky.

(Thanks to Simon for the link.)

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