Will Hutton delivers election postmortem and wonders How Good We Can Be at Swindon Festival of Literature

11 May

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Economist, journalist, and Oxford college principal Will Hutton is angry. He bangs the lectern with his glasses, and gesticulates madly. He even uses profanities with clear intent.

The man who wrote The State We’re In now thinks we’re just “in a mess”. The audience laps it up. He has good reason to be angry. He was last at Swindon Festival of Literature in 2012, when he told us Toryism was on its last legs, and that the Conservatives needed to rethink their strategy, because a party that puts looking after the minority ahead of getting the majority out of mire won’t get re-elected: the electorate aren’t daft.

Clearly, thought pretty much everyone in the room during yesterday evening’s performance, the populace is more stupid than it looks. It’s up to Hutton to conduct a postmortem on the election.

The Conservatives, he said, “won by default. There was no great outpouring of love.”

Labour “didn’t manage to sell a compelling vision. There was too much about sharing what wealth there was, and too little about the creation of new wealth.”

The Liberal Democrats? “I’m not sure they’re ever going to come back.”

On UKIP: “One in eight of our fellow countrymen and women voted UKIP. I really don’t believe that leaving the EU and banning immigrants would solve our problems, but three-and-a-half million people don’t agree with me.”

The SNP? “1.4 million people voting in 56 MPs have become the tail that wags the dog.” A second independence referendum after the Holyrood elections in 2016 is “the most likely result”.

And the poor Greens? “One million votes and one MP raises big questions about how much longer our democracy can throw up results like that.”

Hutton – Newsnight’s economics correspondent during the height of Margaret Thatcher’s power, who went on to become editor-in-chief of the Observer – has observed the rise of the right-wing press.

“The Times, our national paper of record, came out for the Conservatives on its front page. That would never have happened – comment and news were always kept separate.

“This is the first whiff of what life would be like in a one-party state.”

He also fears for the future of our broadcast media. The Conservatives have already said they will freeze the licence fee – ostensibly to save the taxpayer money – and will decriminalise non-payment of the tariff. It also wants to sell off Channel 4. By 2020 we’ll have a smaller BBC and, probably, a Channel 4 and an ITV owned by an American cable operator. This will make it more difficult for non-Conservative views to be heard.”

Enough mourning. There are, says Hutton, things we could do to make the UK dynamic, fair, and a model for other countries to follow.

In his latest book – How Good We Can Be – Hutton writes:”There are successes on which a different government and a new policy agenda could build. Young people are more entrepreneurial. There are clusters of new hi-tech companies.

“Some of our great companies are trying to be more purposeful in their business strategies, and demonstrating a commitment to innovation and high performance – judged by criteria other than rising share prices. There are great universities sponsoring frontier research of global significance.

“There is a willingness to embrace the new: the possibilities of the internet are more quickly seized in Britain than almost any other leading industrialised country.

“If our people were allowed to capitalise on today’s enormous possibilities – which would require a rediscovery of national purpose, and reconfigured institutions to match – Britain could quickly turn itself around.”

Hutton gets very cross when talking about the Tories’ ambition to abolish the deficit at the expense of public services. “National debt has been proportionally higher for the last 220 years than it is now, and interest rates are at their lowest for 300 years. The deficit is a non-problem.”

We’re sailing towards a fuck you society, and fucking each other over in the name of individualism is the wrong attitude.

After issuing a profanity warning to the audience, he says: “We’re sailing towards a fuck you society, and fucking each other over in the name of individualism is the wrong attitude.”

He latches on to zero-hours contracts, and on to the growing army of reluctant self-employed contractors, forced to take on the risk of sick pay, holiday pay, and pensions. He thinks the answer is in a new kind of trade union, a mutual that employees pay into, and which underpins the employment of all. If a company can’t afford to keep on a worker, the union pays the wages and perks, keeping that employee in a job.

It’s a fine idea in theory, although I do wonder whether big corporations can be trusted not to use this to their advantage; to further drive up directors’ bonuses and shareholder dividends. As a nation we already pay more to support those in work whose wages are too low, than we pay to those who have no job.

Hutton wonders where we’ll be in 2020. He calls the EU a “noble, noble cause” and hopes Scotland will still be part of the Union. “If islanders don’t get along,” he notes, “it spells trouble. England shrinking from Britain will turn on itself, and be hostage to UKIP and darker forces on the right.” There are tough times ahead, he says, but we’re going to get through them.


A quite extraordinary thing happens at the end of the event. In thanking his guest, Festival director Matt Holland observes that Hutton is the “most animated leather jacket-wearing, four letter word-using Oxford principal” he’s ever met, and wonders if he has ever considered going into politics.

Hutton protests that he is now too long in the tooth, and that he doesn’t think he’ll be any good at it, then says: “Maybe I should.”

And with the audience rising to their feet in ovation, Hutton turns to a camera trained on him to capture his performance for his wife, who is being treated in hospital for leukaemia, smiles broadly, and raises two thumbs aloft.

Words by Peter Davison. Images by Richard Wintle, Calyx Pictures 

One Response to “Will Hutton delivers election postmortem and wonders How Good We Can Be at Swindon Festival of Literature”


  1. Public Intellectual is not a dirty name – Suzannah Lipscomb at Swindon Festival of Literature | Festival Chronicle - 17th May 2015

    […] – at this Festival, some enjoyed hero-worship from their audiences, some were unexpected: Will Hutton, Shami Chakrabarti, Alan Johnson, Roman Krznaric, AC Grayling, Daisy Christodoulou, Danny Dorling, […]

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