Allen Lane, £20. Order at the discounted price of £16 inc. p&p from the Independent Bookshop

Mammon's Kingdom: An Essay on Britain, Now by David Marquand, book review

An excoriating examination of modern Britain offers little in the way of solutions

In a long and brilliant career, David Marquand has played many parts. He has been a journalist, historian, Labour MP, Brussels Eurocrat, University professor, Oxford head of house and contributor to think tanks galore. Most importantly, he has been for many decades our foremost centre-left public intellectual, taking up arms against the corruption of our society by unprincipled, uncaring, neo-liberal marketisation and the resulting decline of the public realm. No one has voiced the anxiety of the progressive citizen with greater passion or power, or with more compelling scholarship.

But the weapons deployed against this encroaching enemy seem to have been somewhat randomly selected. At various times, Marquand has pursued all sorts of lost or struggling causes – the SDP, the Lib Dems, proportional representation, English regionalism, Milton's republicanism, "stakeholder society", European federalism. He has consistently veered between moderate Labour and social-market Liberalism. This new volume is therefore absorbing both in and of itself and for the light it sheds on his current approach towards combating today's evils.

His theme is the commercialisation of our culture and institutions. This has been most destructive since the Thatcher years, but, fine historian that he is, he shows that the roots lie much earlier, with the close link between finance and the state since Hanoverian times. There was a sharp reversal during and after the Second World War, when a new clerisy, variously composed of social critics like George Orwell, progressive civil servants like William Beveridge, working-class patriots like Aneurin Bevan and the Communist Arthur Horner recaptured the public ethic of Ruskin, Mill and Arnold. The rot set in with disciples of economic individualism after 1944, pursuing the mirage of a free-market utopia along with (Marquand believes, perhaps more contentiously), a destructive moral individualism. Since then, the cohesion and self-belief of Britain as a comity have been undermined.

Marquand analyses superbly the implications of this. A sense of history has been replaced by a glib, uncomprehending journalistic "presentism". A humane Keynesian-style economics has been supplanted by a dogmatic cult whose followers uphold an unthinking, unjustified faith in the impregnable rationality of the market, and the abstract "choices" allegedly open to a rational calculating individual. Communal institutions such as local authorities or the civil service are degraded by a market state. Public values are driven out by an all-encompassing commercialism, as shown variously in the debasement of our universities, the sacrifice of sanity on the environment, and the undermining of the welfare state. The Gini coefficient marches ever upwards, the increasing poor are isolated and humiliated, mass inequality is inescapable. Our democracy is relentlessly eroded by lobbying corporate capitalism, resulting in a tax structure skewed in favour of the rich and a political structure debased by invasion by private wealth. Marquand describes the "revolving doors" through which ex-politicians glide effortlessly into the capitalist utopia, a process most notoriously symbolised by Tony Blair.

Worst of all, society is being atomised, riven by class division, its language of cohesion debased by the cheap slogans of media commentators, its sense of belonging, neighbourhood and human sympathy shredded everywhere, from the church to the public library to the bus queue. We no longer seem to know each other. And so we no longer trust each other. Public goods and services, long taken for granted, are withering into commercialised decay. We have made a cheap, corrosive society, a world fit for Fred Goodwin to shred in. And the tragedy is, as Marquand shows, that much of this is due to moral surrenders by those previously in authority – the "flunkeyism" of civil servants, the avarice of professions (look at current vice-chancellors), the "charismatic populism" of politicians from Margaret Thatcher to David Cameron who have destroyed the values they inherited.

The manifold evils of the process are beyond dispute. But wherein lies the remedy? Here the book is rather more disappointing. The answer, it seems, is "a wide-ranging national conversation", in which the ideas upheld by philosophers past, notably Burke, Mill, Tawney, are proclaimed anew. The themes for this kind of nationwide seminar are of unquestionable value. Burke, for long an improbable hero for conservatives, is rightly rescued as a celebrant of the social roots of living communities, and a prophet of cultural pluralism whether in Ireland or India. They are to be backed up by two less likely camp-followers – Karl Marx and Jesus Christ, the greatest prophet of the inexorable advance of monopoly capitalism, alongside the prophet of the priesthood of all believers.

But donnish dominion, like patriotism, may not be enough. We need action as well as conversation. We have now a contrasting critique of the inherent inequalities of the capitalist order from Thomas Piketty, in Capital in the Twenty-First Century. He prescribes specific radical policies – global action on higher incomes and tax avoidance, annual taxation on wealth and property, help for working-class victims like a stable minimum wage, a restoration of labour unions. The difference between Piketty and Marquand may be one of national culture. Piketty, a Frenchman, offers us Berlioz, Marquand proposes Vaughan Williams. It is Gallic rage versus Anglo-Saxon sweetness and light. But Marquand has the roots within him to go much further. The book is dedicated to his father, Hilary and his great-grandfather, Ebenezer Rees. They were very different kinds of Welshmen – Hilary an economics professor at Cardiff, Ebenezer a journalist who founded the first Welsh socialist newspaper, Llais Llafur (Voice of Labour). What they had in common was that both were full of radical ideas on how to repair their fractured society. Perhaps Marquand's next work could recapture the values of the land of his fathers, to rebuild that "richer, deeper democracy" which our poor, corrupted country so desperately needs.

Kenneth O Morgan's "Revolution to Devolution" will be published in September (University of Wales Press).

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Feeling all at sea: Barbara's 18-year-old son came under the influence of a Canadian libertarian preacher – and she had to fight to win him back
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Living the high life: Anne Robinson enjoys some skip-surfed soup
TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
Doctor Who and Missy in the Doctor Who series 8 finale

TV
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
    Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

    Why are we addicted to theme parks?

    Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
    Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

    Iran is opening up again to tourists

    After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
    10 best PS4 games

    10 best PS4 games

    Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
    Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

    Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

    Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
    Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

    ‘Can we really just turn away?’

    Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

    ... and not just because of Isis vandalism
    Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

    Girl on a Plane

    An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent