At the weekend, I was in the audience for a talk by Will Hutton, formerly of the Guardian and now Principal of Hertford College, Oxford – but, more importantly, for a generation a critical and powerful voice on the centre-left. The talk was part of the Cardiff Book Festival and was linked to the book Saving Britain, which Hutton has co-written with former Labour Cabinet Minister Andrew Adonis, which considers how Britain must change while remaining within the EU.
Obviously the principal topic was Brexit; Hutton’s arguments would have been familiar to anyone who had read the book. People had voted for Brexit because they were angry with the failures of the British political and economic model; and they were right to be angry, but the reasons for that anger were nothing to do with the EU, and everything to do with domestic UK politics. Hutton reminded us of the damning statistics used in the book about life outside the prosperous pockets of metropolitan England; for example how 331 of every thousand people in Blackpool are on antidepressants; how life expectancy in the poorer parts of England was declining for the first time in more than a century. And these were precisely the areas that had voted for Brexit – which on any credible analysis would make those problems worse, and widen inequality further.
It’s worth pointing out that this was not a dry academic talk; Will Hutton is clearly angry. He was passionate and acerbic, saying a couple of times that the only reason why anyone would believe much of the nonsense being spread around by Brexiteer politicians was because they wanted Boris Johnson as Prime Minister. He ridiculed Theresa May’s view that a referendum on the deal would be a betrayal of democracy – arguing that she knew it was nonsense, and she was desperately trying not to split the Conservative Party.
But the point that I took away from this talk was what Hutton referred to as “the Corbyn problem”. He argued that the lesson he took from the 2017 General Election was that the ideas that had dominated British political discourse since Margaret Thatcher was in her pomp – the worship of free markets, the denigration of the state – the collection of attitudes often referred to as “neoliberalism” – were no longer election winners. The IPPR had recently published the findings of its Commission on Economic Justice; its recommendations for fundamental economic reform based on fairness and justice had been endorsed by, of all newspapers, the Daily Mail. The intellectual tide was clearly turning.
And Hutton argued that the Corbyn Problem, as he called it, was essentially this: that the debate over Brexit was coinciding with a fundamental intellectual shift, recognising how deeply damaging inequality is and examining seriously ideas about how to deal with the economic and social inequality endemic in Britain. There was therefore an open door for an imaginative Labour leader to build a new consensus for a modern, fairer, more productive economy and to reverse the little-Englandism of Brexit; and that every Labour leader from Attlee onwards would have had the imagination to grasp it. But not, in his view, Corbyn; his political background, his support base and his apparent belief that his mission was to build a social movement rather than build consensus for a Government that would effect real, practical change, meant that he was simply the wrong person for the job. And he called this a tragedy.
I find Hutton’s analysis compelling. I’ve written in my book about how, deep down, Corbynism is a politics of privileged hobbyism, almost a form of anti-politics. And it seems to me that history may well judge that at the time when Britain most needs a resurgence of social democratic politics – and has been given a once-in-a-generation opportunity to lead a resurgence of social democratic values – Corbyn is, quite simply, blowing it.