DJ Taylor: Why not an economy that works for all?

There's a moral dimension to business, fresh scope for Ed Miliband and Lord Patten, and gratitude for long-lived inspiration

Share
Related Topics

One of the best pieces of journalism Martin Amis ever filed – it can be found in his 1993 collection, Visiting Mrs Nabokov – was some reportage from the 1988 Republican convention.

Backstage in the media lounge and hanging out with representatives of the pollster and consultant community, Amis was fascinated to discover that all their values were "expedient and professionalised". By this he meant that whatever a Republican contender did or said was judged simply in terms of brand promotion. Politics, consequently, was discussed "in strictly apolitical terms".

Much the same feeling arises from the spectacle of the modern economics or business correspondent at work. Again, the tone is nearly always narrowly expedient. Our chief responsibility as a nation, the argument runs, is to secure economic growth. Any government policy that assists this laudable aim is ipso facto a good thing, and any suggestion that an economic system is only as good as the political (and by extension moral) assumptions that underlie it is more or less irrelevant.

The practical consequences of this approach – in which most human activity is judged in terms of material benefit – can be glimpsed on every business page in the country. Only the other day, for example, The Independent's Hamish McRae was comparing the relative economic achievements of Derby, where the Bombardier engineering concern has just announced job cuts, and Plymouth, which is apparently making great strides in the luxury yacht market. There was no point in objecting to the Plymouth yacht boom on the grounds that the economy of the South-West needed a more reliable stimulus than the whims of a few jaded billionaires, Mr McRae insisted. If that was where the money lay, then go for it.

It was the same with the recent revelation that many UK employers prefer to hire Eastern European migrants rather than the native unemployed on the grounds that the former are better qualified and display a superior work ethic. Once again, expedience triumphed. No doubt it was all very sad that a million UK teenagers had no job and no conceivable chance of finding one, the columnists reflected, but business, alas, was business. Naturally, it would be wrong to criticise the nation's journalists for these brisk little exercises in commercial realpolitik, for they are only taking their lead from politicians. But it would be nice if one of the latter – Ed Miliband, for example – could introduce into the debate the moral element it so sorely needs by pointing out that the economic system that sustains our country is deeply injurious to about a third of the people who live in it.

****

It is not very often that a whiff of Old Labourism steals over the political landscape. Nevertheless, there was a terrific gust of it with the news that Mr Miliband had secured the backing of the Parliamentary Labour Party to institute a rule change that will allow him to choose his own Shadow Cabinet. To anyone under the age of 40 this will probably seem the most trifling of administrative adjustments. But to others it brings back the most lurid memories of a time when elections to the Labour front bench were one of the most high-profile events on the political calendar. Tight-lipped and grim-visaged, the pundits of the political weeklies would table their anxieties. Would Jim (Callaghan) hold the left? Would Reg Spart, MP for Rantworth North, convenor of so many incendiary mass-signature letters to the New Statesman, make the cut? Could the Manifesto Group (leadership-supporting right-wingers despised by the constituency delegates) fight its corner?

The passage of time has brought a 180-degree shift in my attitude to the Labour leader's choice of his frontbenchers. Thirty years ago one yearned for Michael Foot and Neil Kinnock to have a free hand as a way of excluding all the lefties bent on keeping the party permanently in opposition. Here in 2011, with centralisation the order of the day, you sometimes feel that the slightest scent of idiosyncrasy or maverick trouble-making ought to be warmly encouraged. In fact the sight of Reg Spart's spiritual heir, rising from the opposition benches to inform us that capitalism has failed, the Governor of the Bank of England is a crook and the City of London a spivs' charter, would probably do Mr Miliband the world of good. It would certainly cheer me up.

****

The BBC's occasional efforts to work out what viewers think of its programmes and the people who present them nearly always produce embarrassing results. At the time of the 2006 World Cup someone made the fatal mistake of designing an interactive website in which licence-payers could criticise the performances of individual pundits. This led thousands of people to complain about the commentating styles of John Motson and Mark Lawrenson. This year's Wimbledon survey revealed that a substantial percentage of viewers would have preferred more coverage of the actual tennis than the endless celebrity-spotting and the sound of Boris Becker plaintively enquiring (as the camera dwelt on yet another unrecognised notable) "Who is that?"

As the BBC Trust's new chairman, Lord Patten, begins his clearout of the Augean stable that is apparently Broadcasting House, it would be wonderful if he could extend these customer satisfaction surveys to the point where they mean business. Why not include a form to be returned with one's licence-fee payment in which the BBC's leading personalities could be marked out of 10 for their presentational skills, ability to adequately brief themselves, pronounce words correctly and so forth, with a promise that the results would go straight up to the director-general's office? It might not rein in the excesses of a Robert Peston or a Nick Robinson, but it would be a start.

****

There were several ways in which the novelist Francis King, who died last Sunday, was an inspiration to younger writers. The first was the sheer indefatigability of a man who published his first novel while he was still at Oxford and made a living from his pen for the best part of seven decades. Others included the consummate skill that he brought to the most trivial of professional tasks, and his ability to let an author who had written a less than coruscating book down gracefully. A third of a century later, I can still remember his review of a Kingsley Amis novel which ended with the deeply equivocal but nonetheless encouraging verdict: "Not many people could write a better novel than Jake's Thing, but Mr Amis is one of them."

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Mortgage Advisor - OTE £95,000

£40000 - £95000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Trainee Vehicle Inspectors / Purchasers

£20000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Trainee Vehicle Inspectors / Pu...

Recruitment Genius: Vehicle Broker / Purchaser

£18000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - OTE £45,000

£18000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Sales Executive is required t...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The possibility of Corbyn winning has excited some Conservatives  

Labour leadership: The choice at the heart of the leadership campaign

Jeremy Corbyn
Pablo Iglesias, the leader of Spain’s anti-austerity party Podemos  

Greece debt crisis: Trouble is, if you help the Greeks, everyone will want the same favours

Charlotte McDonald-Gibson Charlotte McDonald-Gibson
Greece debt crisis: EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

An outbreak of malaria in Greece four years ago helps us understand the crisis, says Robert Fisk
Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge: The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas

Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge

The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas
How to survive electrical storms: What are the chances of being hit by lightning?

Heavy weather

What are the chances of being hit by lightning?
World Bodypainting Festival 2015: Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'

World Bodypainting Festival 2015

Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'
alt-j: A private jet, a Mercury Prize and Latitude headliners

Don't call us nerds

Craig Mclean meets alt-j - the math-folk act who are flying high
How to find gold: The Californian badlands, digging out crevasses and sifting sludge

How to find gold

Steve Boggan finds himself in the Californian badlands, digging out crevasses and sifting sludge
Singing accents: From Herman's Hermits and David Bowie to Alesha Dixon

Not born in the USA

Lay off Alesha Dixon: songs sound better in US accents, even our national anthem
10 best balsamic vinegars

10 best balsamic vinegars

Drizzle it over salad, enjoy it with ciabatta, marinate vegetables, or use it to add depth to a sauce - this versatile staple is a cook's best friend
Greece says 'No': A night of huge celebrations in Athens as voters decisively back Tsipras and his anti-austerity stance in historic referendum

Greece referendum

Greeks say 'No' to austerity and plunge Europe into crisis
Ten years after the 7/7 terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?

7/7 bombings anniversary

Ten years after the terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?
Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has created

Versace haute couture review

Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has ever created
No hope and no jobs, so Gaza's young risk their lives, climb the fence and run for it

No hope and no jobs in Gaza

So the young risk their lives and run for it
Fashion apps: Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers

Fashion apps

Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers
The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'