No Mistakes This Time: How to Remake Britain – review

In This time there are no mistakes, Will Hutton examines the causes of Britain’s political and economic dysfunction and calls for a new public philosophy that combines social democracy and progressive liberalism to solve the current crises. Although in some places Hutton misses opportunities to develop his arguments further, but nevertheless sets out a compelling vision for a better Britain and the steps that could be taken to achieve it, he writes. Tom Stephens.

Will Hutton launched the book at the LSE in April. Watch it on YouTube.

This time without mistakes: how to remake Britain. Will Hutton. Apollo. 2024.

This time there will be no mistakes Cover of Will Hutton's bookWhat must be done to change the situation in modern Britain? How should the country be governed? And what philosophy could unite a broad spectrum of progressives around a shared vision? These are the questions at the heart of Hutton’s exceptionally timely book on the problems facing Britain today and how they must be solved.

This time there are no mistakes The book can be divided into two parts: half diagnosis (chapters 1–7) and half prescription (chapters 8–13). The central argument is that we need a public philosophy that combines social democracy with progressive liberalism if we are to solve Britain’s current problems and provide a bulwark against the resurgence of right-wing populism, which “only produces electoral results on the fertile ground of economic and social misery” (58).

The first six chapters take the reader through modern British history. Britain’s current problems, he argues, can be traced back to the incubation of a flawed system of government. let it be ideology on how to run the British state and economy. Despite having been roundly refuted and rejected in the late 1940s, this ideology was able to reinvent itself in the 1960s and 1970s through the coming together of “conservatives” and “true classical liberals” (37), before fundamentally reconfiguring British and American society in the 1980s.

The fatal adventurism of Truss’s six weeks in office is not presented as an anomaly but as the logical culmination of this damaging thinking.

Seen from this perspective, the fatal adventurism of Truss’s six weeks in office comes across not as an anomaly but as the logical culmination of this damaging thinking (ix). It has left Britain in a crisis that is “qualitatively more threatening” than any of the economic crises of the past century (3) and less well equipped than ever to deal with it because of our relegated status as a de facto “A developmental state, more like an emerging economy than a developed one” (255). It has pushed our public services to the brink and deprived the country of public investment and a coherent industrial strategy. It has left us with a distinctly damaging form of capitalism: overly reliant on banking services, short-termist in its approach to investment and with little interest in supporting the British economy (259-262) or its workforce (309-311).

Yet these chapters are also an account of the failure of British progressives to offer an alternative, effectively ceding the country’s rule to the right. He suggests that at various points in British history, both socialist and liberal thinkers have offered the right answers to the country’s problems, but vacillation and political divisions have prevented their actualization. For most of its history, “liberalism failed itself and the country” (125). In the 1930s, New Liberal thinkers—led by Keynes—had the tools to craft a British New Deal during the Great Depression, but Ramsay MacDonald’s Labour Party proved bereft of ideas and “lacked the self-confidence and will to make dysfunctional capitalism work better” (151). Only Atlee’s Labour Government brought these two traditions together, building a welfare state based largely on New Liberal thinking under the banner of socialism.

(Hutton) acknowledges that New Labour has delivered vital public investment, but criticises its hesitation to promote an alternative public philosophy, its weakness on electoral reform and other social issues, and its failure to reform capitalism.

These shortcomings have continued in various forms and across different sides of the progressive movement throughout the decades since the war. For example, he acknowledges that New Labour has achieved vital public investment, but criticises its hesitation to promote an alternative public philosophy, its weakness on electoral reform and other social issues, and its failure to reform capitalism, with the disastrous consequence, he argues, that most of its social policies were easily reversed between 2010 and 2024 (204).

The solution, Hutton argues (chapter 7), is a new “public philosophy” that brings together both progressive traditions (210). Such a philosophy must accept the importance of individual agency and aspirations (“the ‘I’”), while recognizing that we are all interconnected and interdependent (“the ‘we’”). Distancing himself from the “libertarian liberalism” of John Stuart Mill, he cites New Liberal thinkers such as Thomas Hill Green as his inspiration, arguing that “the common good and the capacity of individuals to live lives they value and find meaningful are interdependent” (130). He also frequently draws on Rawls’s conception of social justice (124, 131, 189, 228–9). From the left, he draws on R.H. Tawney and Evan Durbin’s critiques of British capitalism (164-168), while from the centre he draws on Keynesian economics (180-181). He suggests that this philosophy is paramount in the current age, driven by technology and artificial intelligence, as it provides a framework for ensuring that capitalism brings benefits to all rather than accumulating wealth for the few (213-220).

A (social justice-oriented) philosophy is paramount in today’s technology and AI-driven era as it provides a framework to ensure that capitalism brings benefits to all rather than accumulating wealth for a few.

Perhaps here Hutton’s book is weakest. He fails to articulate a comprehensive theory of well-being; the chapter on his philosophical vision of the “we society” is the shortest in the book. His philosophy seems to be remarkably close to Amartya Sen’s Capability Approach: his emphasis on “individual agency” (374) and the importance of people living “lives they value” (130) could be taken almost word for word from Sen’s writings. At points he argues that welfare state intervention could enhance freedom, suggesting that post-World War II reconstruction “did a better job of protecting essential freedoms” than the Tories (37). He misses the opportunity to develop this into a bolder, more coherent framework. Significantly, he ultimately places productivity at the heart of his strategy for turning Britain around (232), although he does argue that the Treasury’s fiscal rules should be changed to take account of social value and natural assets (250-51).

There are other issues. He stresses the role of the state in managing risks and suggests that Beveridge’s original design for social insurance could provide the basis for a politically sustainable welfare state (174-175), but he does not engage with thinkers who might add weight to this argument (e.g. Barr’s “Economics of the Welfare State”). Later in his book he discusses the importance of “social capital” and the vital role played by government in fostering it (280-282), but a sociologist might note his use of Putnam’s ideas (326) rather than, say, Bourdieu’s more radical conceptualization of capitals. He stresses the central need to reform capitalism rather than adopt a Croslandian approach of redistributing wealth from an unreformed private sector (98), but he could have engaged with debates about how to accomplish such a challenging and societal-wide task, as in the literature on the varieties of capitalism.

However, the reader can very clearly relate the diagnosis to the prescription. In addition to addressing poverty and inequality (chapters 11 and 12), progressives must recognize that “British capitalism certainly needs to change” (255) and understand the need for the state to boost investment and productivity. This means increasing public investment and spending. now Providing the foundation for a thriving audience and The private sector in the future (244, 367). The last five chapters are packed with policy. He calls, among other things, for unlocking new sources of finance, such as dormant defined benefit pension funds, and for the creation of a sovereign wealth fund in the UK (253, 267); radical reforms to create a purpose-driven private enterprise, so that companies are forced to deliver value only to society and not just to shareholders (271–274); a drive to deliver “good work,” which receives encouraging attention in his book (266–291); and a range of policy reforms to decentralise power and restore faith in politics, such as a statutory Standards Commission (357).

A rising far right in Europe and a possible Trump victory in the US risk undermining Hutton’s plan for a closer UK-EU relationship.

In short, Hutton lays out the intractable problems facing Britain very well, but this raises the obvious question: are we too far gone? Perhaps “things can only get worse”? Events may serve to constrain the new government in ways Hutton could not predict. A rising far right in Europe and a potential Trump victory in the US risk undermining Hutton’s plan for a closer UK-EU relationship (360-361) and making the world even less safe than when the book went to press. He also offers the new government little advice on how to reconcile all the policies he proposes, simply acknowledging that it is “a generational task” but that “improvements should be obvious by the end of the first Parliament” (367).

Hutton can, however, be forgiven for advocating hope rather than despair. The book succeeds in setting out a vision of what might be and how we might get there. His argument for a union of progressive thought – that “comradeship and individual initiative are not incompatible values” (374) – is compelling. Although understandably incomplete, it is a suggestive and powerful prospect, deserving careful consideration by politicians, policymakers and academics alike.

Note: This review reflects the views of the author and not the position of the LSE Review of Books or the London School of Economics and Political Science.

In May, Will Hutton wrote an article for LSE British Politics and Policy on whether the Starmer government can avoid the mistakes of the past. Read it here.

Image credit: Sean Aidan Calderbank on Shutterstock.

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