A little bit of politics at LitFest

14 May
Newspaper pundit and author Will Hutton

Newspaper pundit and author Will Hutton

Mid-festival Monday at the Swindon Festival of Literature, and the punters are getting antsy. They had their fun in the sun at Lower Shaw Farm on Sunday, now they’re ready to have a moan about the government.

They’re in good company. Will Hutton is a Guardian pundit and was formerly editor-in-chief of The Observer. He’s written a clutch of books, the best known of which is The State We’re In, which – when it was published in 1995 – was hailed as a manifesto for the next Labour government.

Clearly Messrs Blair and Brown didn’t get their complimentary copies, while Cameron and Osborne could probably have found a copy if they hadn’t shut all the libraries.

Anyway, Hutton is here to discuss his new book. Them and Us is about creating a fair society, a phrase that David Cameron uses a lot. And Hutton is performing to a full house at Swindon Arts Centre, following a sell-out show at the smaller Town Hall a few years back.

The trouble is, says Hutton, both the left and right have different opinions of what fair means. To the extreme left, it’s an egalitarian world where everyone is paid the same: an idea roundly denounced by none other than Karl Marx.

To the right, it’s the ‘I eat what I kill’ mentality of the caveman who takes his club, goes into the jungle, kills a mammoth, drags the beast back to his cave, makes the fire on which to cook it, and feeds himself and his family. The rest of the tribe are welcome to the scraps.

To the right, fairness means the ‘I eat what I kill’ mentality of the caveman who takes his club, goes into the jungle, kills a mammoth, drags the beast back to his cave, makes the fire on which to cook it, and feeds himself and his family. The rest of the tribe are welcome to the scraps.

To illustrate the point, he tells a true story about a banker who is in dispute with his partners, because he believes he deserves an annual renumeration of £52 million, determined by the success of the company, while his partners think he’s only worth a paltry £40 million. The banker has a sense of what is fair, and what is deservedly his – albeit a skewed one.

He also talks about Mark Elms, the Lewisham head teacher who was blasted by the Tory press, the education secretary and the GMB Union over his £200,000 pay packet. The problem for Elms’ detractors was that they couldn’t find a single parent who thought the man who single-handedly turned around five primary schools and improved the chances of hundreds of inner city kids as a result didn’t deserve his salary. “Worth every penny” was a phrase which cropped up again and again.

Anyway, “capitalism has failed” and Toryism is, according to Hutton, on its last legs. The Conservative Party are going to have to rethink their strategy, because a party that puts looking after the minority ahead of getting the majority out of the Even Bigger State We’re In (my pun, not his) won’t get re-elected: the electorate aren’t daft.

Hutton spends some time exploring fairness, challenging both the left and the right. He introduces the concept of Good Capitalism and says that fairness will underpin it. He talks about inheritance tax, which George Osborne has described as death tax. Hutton prefers to call it a ‘we share in your good luck tax’ (presumably the good luck being inheriting something you didn’t have to work for, rather than losing your parents).

So what is fair? Hutton, who was hired by David Cameron to look at (or, in common parlance, ‘cut’) the salaries of public sector executives as part of the Fair Pay Review he led, reckons he has a devised a scale where the pay at the top of an organisation is compared to pay in the middle. If pay at the top drifts too far from pay in the middle, questions need to be asked.

The formula, he admits, doesn’t work for both public and private sector, so each needs a separate calculator.

Hutton clearly knows his onions and has an idea about what constitutes ‘fair’. But the simple answer to ‘what is fair?’ is ‘it’s really, really complicated.’ No doubt, Hutton would tell you, you’ll have to read the book.

Kerry-anne Mendoza

Kerry-anne Mendoza

Another bunch of people who are concerned with fairness are the Occupy London activists. Three of them joined Swindon Festival director Matt Holland for an on-stage discussion and, as Matt pointed out, they were unusual festival fare as they didn’t have a book to promote. “They do however,” said Matt, “have a movement.”

The next half an hour or so offered a fascinating insight into the minds of people who would give up their home comforts to spend winter in a tent on the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral.

We met Kerry-anne (with a small a – her choice) Mendoza, whose disillusionment with the political classes was sparked not by the Tories, but by Labour.

She marched against the looming war in Iraq, Tony Blair ignored millions of voters, and she got angry. But it wasn’t until the Occupy movement crossed the pond from Wall Street to the London Stock Exchange that she felt a “calling” to get involved.

Kerry-anne is a well-paid management consultant, who feels privileged to be able to pick projects which allow her to spend time on the front line. She thinks it’s quite funny when bankers shout “get a job” at her. In her anger at Blair’s war she voted LibDem at the last election. “I have regretted that decision every day of my life since,” she admits.

Daniel Ashman

Daniel Ashman

Daniel Ashman has a good job too, when he’s not taking shows to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival or being named as a litigant in person in the court case for the eviction of the Occupy London camp. Dan is disappointed, but not surprised, that the authorities at St Paul’s Cathedral conspired to have the protestors removed. “It’s not what Jesus would have done,” says the grandson of a vicar.

Eviction of the protestors from St Paul’s Cathedral ‘is not what Jesus would have done’.

And Tammy Samede, the named defendant for Occupy London Stock Exchange in the City of London Corporation eviction proceedings, became politicised not over the ills of the banking system, but by the lack of care available to an 88-year-old friend.

Tammy Samede

Tammy Samede

It took some time for Tammy to appreciate why the bankers were showing so much antipathy towards her. “I remember thinking that I will never have all the nice things they have,” she said, “but then I realised they were angry because I have something they don’t – freedom.”

The effects of the protest, which it’s worth remembering started only just over half a year ago, have been immense, they reckon. At first it was about very publicly raising awareness about anger over the capitalist system. But soon the language of occupy started to permeate into mainstream politics. “Now all the party leaders talk about ‘the one percent’,” says Kerry-anne.

So, short of pitching a tent in Havelock Square, what can angry Swindonians do to make their voices heard? “Find a way to engage and participate in your world and the things that are important to you,” says Kerry-anne, adding “This is just the start. This is the next step in our social evolution.”

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