At the End of the Day

More decades ago than I care to enumerate, I was a politics student at Liverpool University. They were heady days in more ways than one: psychedelia, Purple Haze, and the Counterculture. Forty-six years on, I’m more Delia Smith, Purple Sage and counterproductive, but one thought among many has remained with me since that time.

It is this: that core Britishers generally don’t do politics. They vote because they think it’s their duty – and occasionally to rid themselves of an abnormally dysfunctional government – but in the sense of polemics, philosophy and debate, on the whole they’d rather not get involved. It’s all vaguely effete and alien, like that moment when the happy-clappy vicar tells you to hug the person in the next pew, and you wish you could die. The Church of England is not a place to express emotions, any more than a bank is the place to pop out a tit and express milk.

I write ‘core’ Britishers, and of course these folks are dying off like in the plague called Old Age. Britain is evolving – and the process has been accelerating ever since that insouciant Sixties decade. As a result, two dayglo extremities of a colour spectrum have been added to the blandness that is Middle England: hard pc feminist Labour at one end, and hard neocon economist Conservative at the other. But between these two there remains, as ever, indifference.

Indifference has three fathers: tradition (upmarket), distraction (middle to downmarket) and desperation (underclass). The first of those three typologies votes out of familial habit, while the other two represent the 40% who don’t vote at all. Two in five: a disgraceful statistic for any healthy democracy. But there I go again, y0u see – writing words like ‘democracy’, ‘underclass’ and ‘statistic': how unBritish is that?

Stick with me on this, and think on: political philosophy in Britain is essentially seen as foreign. It’s what French Jacobins, German Nazis, Spanish Falangists and Russian Communists got into, and my God did they not learn to regret having done so? I should say so.

Because of this ingrained, cultural belief system, it was crucially important for the Left in Britain to use terms like ‘Fabian’. Foolishly, Oswald Mosley in the 1930s called his organisation the British Fascist Union. Equally stupid was Arthur Scargill’s openly admitted espousal of crypto-Russian collectivism: it gave Margaret Thatcher the side of a barn at which to aim her collaterally damaging musket.

Overall, we British do not like the extreme. We like it even less than political philosophy. Orwell recognised this, and his insight resonates in the title of (for me) easily his best book, Keep the Aspidistra Flying. The everyday for Brits is infinitely more important than one day. And perhaps that’s the kernel of it: we are justifiably suspicious of inflexible belief in the Utopian.

Applying this rule to our contemporary situation makes for interesting analysis. Neocon Friedmanism is, without any doubt at all, an American import. It is an American interloper in the same way that shock-and-awe in Iraq, gun rampage on campuses, and Ricki Lake are: embraced by the few, but ignored by the majority. So too is Europeanist Social Democratic EU superstate aspiration: ultimately, we don’t get them, and they don’t understand why we won’t join in. We’re very happy on our own thank you very much: in 2012, we love being cosmopolitan, but hate unions where everyone must march in sequence. “I am an individual. My home is my castle. Italian food is marvellous, but I don’t pinch lady’s bottoms”.

All that said, there is one peculiarly British socio-economic tradition which – along with Methodism – had a lasting effect on the politics of the United Kingdom: and that is the idea of mutuality. What in America was adopted as the Savings & Loan had, since the late eighteenth century in Britain, been developing as the mutual society in which all those saving were Members, and all those at the top were answerable to them.

It’s a movement that, in the best tradition of British culture, is almost apolitical. Nobody saw the Building Societies, for instance, as Tolpuddle Trade Unionist martyrs and activists: rather, they were philanthropic groups helping people to become nice middle-class property owners. They were like the cooperative movement, minus only the banners and the marches at Whitsuntide. Nobody used that nasty foreign word collectivist. Why should they? This was a form of mutual help on the road to community and familial independence. It is, at heart, what the Capra classic A Wonderful Life was about.

Not only do I think we should be proud of this very Anglo-Saxon evolution, I think we should recognise our mistake in relegating it to a minor role in our economies. Practically every experiment in converting mutuals into plcs led to disasters that became very expensive for taxpayers.

For me, the mutual idea is an essential feather in the capitalist cap. We are ridiculously overdependent on the vagaries and insane bonfires of bourses and megabanks for our seed capital. Community councils, mutual bodies and private philanthropists need to be a bigger part of the equation that dictates capital + shared risk + creativity = cultural and economic growth.

There…you see? A penultimate paragraph devoid of the word ‘political’. I am, to be sure, British through and through.

 

14 thoughts on “At the End of the Day

  1. On the whole I agree, but…. the Co-op funds the Labour party, and have you seen just how the Nationwide Board behaves when someone has the termerity to challenge. I just hope these tendencies mean that the worms are not changing the structure of these mutuals.

  2. Much of the mutual structure of society was destroyed by the welfare state, long before doctrinaire Thatcherism destroyed completely worthy organisations like the Trustee Savings Bank and encouraged the demutualisation of building societies. Not that mutual status was a guarantee. Equitable Life had been going for two hundred years on mutual principles and really couldn’t go wrong until it fell into the hands of sharp practice by directors and managers who created a new class of policy with superior guarantees to those of earlier investors – and rewarded their salesmen handsomely for selling them aggressively. That was a negation of mutuality – and nobody went to jail as they deserved.

    Prior to the NHS there were a variety of local hospital schemes – charitable, municipal and so on. The NHS was created at time when the big state was thought to be the answer to everything and the trustees of these hospitals were, in effect, expropriated by Whitehall without compensation. Continental systems seem to have preserved more of that structure with the local hospitals contracting to the national insurer. Many people feel that the health service is better organised with less bureaucracy there – and because the hospitals do not belong to the government, they cannot easily be sold off to asset strippers.

    All sorts of local enterprise, self-help groups and friendly societies withered away in the face of tax-funded, state competition. Schools are a case in point. Literacy was rising rapidly in the 19th century and the introduction of Board Schools was originally intended to supplement and not to replace the existing provision. Now, for all except the most wealthy , only state provision exists – subject to PC dumbing down, concealed by grade inflation. ( I wish Mr Gove well in his efforts here but his predecessors were always stymied by the producer monopoly of the educational establishment)

  3. Not entirely British, here in the antipodes we once had a wonderful collection of ‘mutuals’ ; collectively owned and managed mutuals were active in banking, insurance, marketing farm produce, motorists and state owned mutuals covered power supply, roads etc. All gone and the orderly cooperative and effective manner they built our society and smoothed out economic excess has gone as well. Instead we have irrational markets, predatory corporations and pay twice as much for most of life’s necessities and have exported or destroyed the community wealth and cohesion mutuals provided all for the sake of neocon monetarism and globalisation.

    Could not agree more JW.

  4. I did read somewhere that Building Societies nowadays behave virtually the same as banks. (They don’t lend money funded from members’ savings, but just create the amount in the account because they are underwritten by the Bank of England.)

    If they went back to only lending money out that members had saved, the members themselves would (theoretically) have some say in how much was lent and what proportion of a property’s value could be financed.

  5. As a teenager and twentysomething, I remember that most large towns had their own Building Society named after the place. The smaller ones offered good rates of return to local people to attract investment and in many cases the manager often knew the family of the son or daughter who was now asking for a mortgage. In hindsight, the The Building Societies Act of 1886, did all of us a considerable dis-service here in the UK. Most were swallowed up by huge banks, went playing fast and loose casino style on the money markets, or ran into severe trouble the moment that the post 2008 defaults began, after lending to anyone and everyone.

    The last time that my family needed a mortgage was 1983 and I recall being led into a small office in Croydon at the back of an Estate Agents. They were very surprised indeed that I asked for a Repayment rather than an Endowment mortgage…( I later discovered that ours was the only Repayment that Britannia B/S sold from that office all that year )…….but my point is that although they obviously received less commission….there was no bludgening us, nor any refusal of our request if we did not choose their highest kick back product………..and when all our Endowment mortgaged friends were frantically trying to top up their under-performing loans, we were all done and dusted….A lucky guess perhaps…but at least WE could get what WE wanted back in those good ole’ mutualised days.

  6. Absolutely spot on.

    And at the regional and maybe even national level, Public Banks funded solely by taxes a la North Dakota work brilliantly too. And that is pure capitalism also!
    Online @ Ellen Brown, for North Dakota’s economic miracle.

    And who knows, politics would probably actually work if we took a leaf out of (eek) Switzerland’s book.

    • Robert,
      As far as I can see in the EU the sovereignty seems to be shared amongst the senior officials rather than the demos.
      The Uk has had a shared sovereignty for a couple of hundred years. The government we choose is up to us and if the 40% who currently don’t vote actually voted we might, just might, see a different complexion of government. It is up to us.

  7. It is nice to have rose tinted glasses and to think that the past was all great and long hot summers.
    Unfortunately, if you are honest, it was because we [most of us] was younger and fitter. We are now all older, not necessary wiser, but we are no longer young and fit. Just older with aching bones and bits breaking down, and that is not just the wife.

    I am not looking forward to another damp cold winter [so much for global warming] do we pack up and go to a] Cyprus. b] Malta, c] Spain answers please.

    Keep up the good work John, I know you like France.

  8. Gosh that takes me back. I used to have several Building Society accounts. Now I have none since they sold out to Mamon. Saving, a word mostly forgotten since 2008, is now in lumps of gold but I do missing the once a year letter telling me what interest I’d earnt.

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