Modern Britain is a mean-minded place, in the grip of economic extremists. But there is an alternative, says Joyce McMillan
To Pitlochry Festival Theatre, earlier this week, to see this year’s Christmas show, a festive musical version of Frank Capra’s much-loved 1946 film It’s A Wonderful Life. Those of you who have seen the film a few times will recall that the story begins with its small-town hero George Baillie – played by the great Jimmy Stewart – preparing to kill himself by jumping from the local bridge, following the accidental loss of a whole week’s takings from his small family savings and loan company, which specialises in building decent, affordable housing for working families – “Four walls and a ceiling”, as one of the show’s best songs puts it. George’s company has been under attack for years by the local big-shot capitalist, Potter, who prefers to buy up ramshackle properties and rent them out at high prices; and he naturally hates George for providing the people with a better option.
The story, in other words, is about a conflict between two models of capitalism, the one aggressively focused on maximising short-term profit at any social cost, the other operating within a firm framework of social decency and responsibility; and I thought about these two models again as I listened yesterday to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, delivering his Autumn Statement.
The statement, to put it briefly, outlines what you might call a “joyless recovery”, for the 99 per cent majority of us in Britain. We are told that the UK economy is now showing the strongest return to growth of any in the western world; and yet we are also told that “austerity” remains a permanent necessity, and that we will never again be able to afford basic social goods like a living wage for all workers, old age pensions at 65 and free tertiary education.
The statement emphasises once more, in other words, how far our current political masters have committed themselves to what is, historically, an extreme model of capitalism, one that sees the accumulation of profit as the main goal of policy, and a high level of human welfare as some kind of regrettable cost, to be reduced wherever possible. To say that this view is unusual in the history of political thought is to understate the case; almost every substantial thinker on political economy from Adam Smith onwards has seen the free market as a hugely creative phenomenon that should nevertheless be firmly contained within a framework of laws designed to ensure that it serves the interests of the whole community.
Now, though, we appear to be living under a regime so unwilling to confront or restrain major market players that they effectively exist beyond the law, and are allowed to dictate the conditions of life for the rest of us. This, week, for example, the failed Royal Bank of Scotland – now largely owned by the long-suffering British public – was convicted of involvement in a massive scam of fixing interest rates, and was fined £325 million; yet no individual involved has been made to pay any public price at all for this staggering piece of misconduct, or indeed of any misconduct related to the near-catastrophic 2008 financial crash.
Nor, alas, do you need me to tell you who is paying the price, and being told that they must “make sacrifices”; it’s the ordinary people of Britain, the kids forced into lifelong debt if they want a university education, the disabled people robbed of benefits they desperately need, the unemployed forced to beg at food banks because of our draconian benefits system and, above all, the millions – proudly trumpeted by Osborne yesterday – being forced into insecure work at poverty wages because that is all there is. It is estimated that four out of five of the new jobs created in Britain since 2008 do not even pay the living wage of just under £8 an hour.
Well, enough. The smallest glance across the nations of northern Europe – towards, for example, a Germany where the maximum state old age pension is £26,000 a year, more than three times the British equivalent – should be enough to tell us that there are alternatives, and that it is not true that the UK now “cannot afford” social goods that Britain could and did afford in the 1940s, at a time when our national debt was proportionally higher than it is today.
The grip of the far economic right on UK public debate is now so complete, though, that Ed Miliband has been called a “Communist” for calling for a modest two-year price freeze on energy companies already bloated by huge recent profits, and Alex Salmond dismissed as a dangerous fantasist for suggesting that an independent Scotland might, in time, develop an economy and social system that aspires to the levels of liberty, equality and public service considered normal among our Nordic neighbours. And, in the end, this relentless negative propaganda about any possibility of change comes to seem less like real political debate and more like a kind of organised bullying by the tiny group who are actually benefiting from the present system, designed to browbeat the rest of us into believing that there is no alternative.
In George Baillie’s little fictional town of Bedford Falls, the future without his kind of decent, enlightened capitalism turns out to be an unpleasant place, full of frightened, angry people living insecure and undignified lives, amid an atmosphere of simmering social violence; it seems strikingly familiar, to anyone now living in the mean-minded, victim-blaming Britain of Cameron and Osborne.
And my advice to the political friends of capitalism would therefore be this: that they should wake up and recognise that the extreme brand of capitalism their leaders have been embracing for the past generation has run its course, both ethically and economically; and that if they want to protect the system they love, they are going to have to start searching – through history, and across continents – for more modest and sustainable models of an enterprise economy, capable of delivering a better life not only to the few, but also to the many.