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 A sense of history has been replaced by a glib, uncomprehending journalistic "presentism".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).