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John Rees


Blair’s road to revolution

(March 1995)

From Socialist Review, No. 184, March 1995, pp. 29–30.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The State We’re In
Will Hutton
Jonathan Cape £16.99

This book has caught the mood of the hour. It has already been reprinted four times since its publication a few weeks ago.

Hutton has used his perch as The Guardian’s economic correspondent to assemble an impressive indictment of the Tories’ market mania. If you want a coherent argument about why creating mass unemployment and increasing inequality is simply self defeating for a government which is supposed to be reducing public spending; if you want the economic proof that the internal market is wrecking health care; if you want the statistics which prove how great a fraud pension funds are or what a disaster the privatisation bonanza has been, The State We’re In has it all.

Since only 11 percent of the population trusts the government, even if a rather higher percentage intend to vote for them, the book was always likely to find an eager audience.

But what has assured its popularity is not just its damning indictment of the Tories. Hutton’s book is also an intellectual manifesto for Tony Blair’s ‘modern’ Labour Party. So he curses Tory privatisation, but approves of ditching Clause Four; he condemns the undemocratic nature of Tory rule, but wouldn’t repeal the anti-union laws, he hates poverty, but believes that the Tories’ picture of the unions ‘as greedy and stupid vehicles of militant shop steward power, solely responsible for running down the country ... had sufficient truth to sustain the Conservatives’ political position.’

In one respect Hutton is to the right of Tony Blair. he still believes in the desirability of an electoral alliance between the Liberals and Labour.

In place of ‘a tradition of purely oppositional working class culture, concerned only with conditions on the shopfloor and old memories of exploitation’ – Hutton’s description of the British Leyland unions in the 1970s – he holds out the old social democratic model of business, union and government cooperation.

Hutton’s only originality is to weld this old Keynesian cliché on to an old constitutional cliché. He insists that what undermined the old welfare state consensus was Britain’s archaic political setup – the monarchy (although he does not necessarily think it should be abolished), House of Lords, first-past-the-post voting system and the lack of a written constitution. Above all Hutton blames Britain’s decline on the economic predominance of the City – the demand for quick profits by southern coupon clippers undermines the efforts of those sterling John Bull figures who run manufacturing industry in the Midlands and the north.

The State We’re In therefore confirms not just what the vast majority of people feel about the Tories, but also the particular prejudices of what a section of the middle classes and some capitalists think should be done about the decline of Britain.

Such ideas also spill over into the working class – through the channel of the Labour Party and trade union bureaucracy, and papers like The Guardian and the New Statesman. So the left has to take them seriously.

The most obvious point to make is that the postwar consensus did not fall apart because Britain is not a republic, does not have a written constitution, an elected second chamber or proportional representation. Italy has had all these for most of the postwar period and yet it would be hard to prove that the political crisis engulfing Italian society is less severe than that in Britain.

Hutton’s reheated Keynesianism suffers from a similar objection – it has been tried before and it has failed. Indeed, anyone who lived through the 1970s will experience an intense sense of deja-vu as they read how much better things would be if the ‘two sides’ of industry were to sit down with the government and work things out.

Hutton seems oblivious of the fact that it was precisely this Social Contract which ended in the defeat of both the unions and the Labour government in 1979. People did not desert Labour because the unions were too powerful, they did so because they were disillusioned not only with Labour’s inability to deliver the promised reforms, but with its increasingly frantic attacks on their living standards.

Towards the end of his book Hutton seems to sense that the scale of the economic and political problems that have accumulated in more than 20 years of stagnation and crisis are not amenable to his kind of reform, ‘the country is at a turning-point like that of the 1630s, 1680s, 1830s, 1900s and 1940s.’ These are significant dates. They all, with the arguable exception of the 1940s, were years which contained or were soon followed by years of massive class struggle. In three of the five cases revolution or revolutionary movements were a palpable reality.

Hutton hopes that reformist change may win the day, but admits that ‘the political base for change is still weak, and the hysterical reaction of the highly politicised business and financial community, allied with the conservative media, to reform of what they consider to be “enterprise” can easily be imagined.’ And he notes, ‘no state in the 20th century has ever been able to recast its economy, political structures and society to the extent that Britain must do, without suffering defeat in war, economic collapse or revolution.’

No Keynesian economist of the 1960s talked in such despondent or apocalyptic terms about their own project. It is a mark of how far the crisis has developed and how much more real the prospect of revolution has become.

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