Will Hutton: Old Nag

Will Hutton has written weekly for the Guardian/Observer for 15 years. Sooner or later anyone that prolific must drift from wisdom to self-parody

15 years of ideological noises
Charles Crawford
On 18 February 2013 09:08

Will Hutton has written a weekly column for the Guardian/Observer for 15 years. Sooner or later anyone that prolific must drift from wisdom towards self-parody.  His offering to a weary world on February 17th (“The meat scandal shows all that is rotten about our free marketeers”) shows us that in his case the tragic tipping-point has been reached.

Let the fisking begin.

“The collapse of a belief system paralyses and terrifies in equal measure. Certainties are exploded. A reliable compass for action suddenly becomes inoperable. Everything you once thought solid vaporises.”

Thank goodness! Will rises to the challenge and looks at the appalling fact that in some hospitals the NHS is killing its own patients on an industrial scale, and then suppresses the facts. State-imposed collectivism once again plunges into an abyss of black horror.

“As the horsemeat saga unfolds, it becomes more obvious by the day that those Thatcherite verities – that the market is unalloyed magic, that business must always be unshackled from "wealth-destroying" regulation, that the state must be shrunk, that the EU is a needless collectivist project from which Britain must urgently declare independence – are wrong.”

What? Isn’t this article all about the NHS killing its patients? Is he saying that that’s …OK?

“No Tory would say that now, not even Paterson, one of the less sharp knives in the political drawer. He runs the ministry that took over the FSA's inspecting function at the same time as it was reeling from massive budget cuts, which he also joyfully cheered on. He finds himself with no answer to the charge that his hollowed-out department, a gutted FSA with 800 fewer inspectors and eviscerated local government were and are incapable of ensuring public health.”

Hmm. A good point here. If the FSA is serious about ‘ensuring public health’ it should shut down many NHS hospitals and prosecute for manslaughter dozens of top NHS bureaucrats.

“Businesses owned by footloose "tourist" shareholders whose sole purpose is profit maximisation in transactional markets have an embedded propensity to degrade. Consumers and suppliers alike become no more than anonymised numbers to be exploited to hit the next quarter's profit target.”

Another good point! As he argues so eloquently, sprawling state bureaucracies such as the NHS likewise have a propensity to degrade. Patients become anonymised numbers, exploited for this year’s Brownian centrally-imposed performance norms. Wait …

“An alternative world – in which consumers were genuinely served and where it is understood that suppliers need adequate profit margins in the supermarkets' interests as much as the suppliers' own – has to be created by stakeholders, including by government.”

This curious idea of ‘stakeholders’ is a fascinating example of collectivist language-creep. Stakeholders turn out to mainly parasitic pressure groups. See DFID and the international aid industry, passim. Note too that in Will-land ‘government’ is a stakeholder in everything. It’s meant to be the other way round!

“There is a codependency between state, society, business and business supply chains, anathema to Paterson with his undeviating obeisance to the virtues of a "private sector" free from such "burdens".”

What can the eight words “codependency between state, society, business and business supply chains” possibly mean? In his long 15 years pecking at the Guardian and Observer keyboards has Will Hutton ever written a phrase as outlandishly confused as this?

“Capitalism does not organise itself to deliver best outcomes, whatever rightwing American thinktanks might claim. There has to be careful thought, law and regulation about the obligations that accompany incorporation and ownership, how supply chains are organised and how companies are managed and financed. Otherwise disaster awaits.”

And lo! Will Hutton and his friends are just the people to do all that thinking and regulating! Then everything will be fine. Just like in the NHS, one of the world’s biggest statist employers.

“The horsemeat crisis is not confined to our food chain. It reveals the existential crisis in contemporary Conservatism. British democracy needs a functioning, fit for purpose party of the centre-right.”


Will! Enough already. Please pay attention.

The stunning reality of our time is that thanks to our ever-growing inventiveness and creativity (as handily summed up by the word ‘capitalism’) we all have access to a fantastic range of excellent foods sourced from all round the planet. The truly staggering fact is that every day this impossibly complex and ever-changing supply chain works almost perfectly, thanks precisely to suppliers wanting to maximise profits and so respecting consumers by striving to deliver good products. The food chain does not ‘degrade’. It improves!

More. No sort of state-imposed ‘organisation’, be it at the national, EU or (God forbid) global level, will ever work 100 percent. How could it, even in theory?

On the contrary, this Stalinist attitude to regulation is dying on its feet.  It won’t be long before ‘capitalism’ invents cheap sophisticated food-testing devices so that every shop and home can see for itself what is in these myriad products without any state intervention or regulation whatsoever. A mass global crowd-sourced approach to food quality is more likely to catch sneaky ad hoc abuse than a tiny army of centralised food safety apparatchiki.

In short, this horsemeat issue ‘reveals’ nothing whatsoever, other than the trite fact that some people occasionally play fast and loose with whatever system  is set up to make a quick buck.

In this case, no-one has died from eating tasty nutritious horsemeat. In successive NHS disasters hundreds of people have died if not been killed in sheer misery, arguably unlawfully. What does that ‘reveal’ about state regulation?

Moral? If you want to make splenetic ideological noises for 15 more years, please at least write about something that matters.

Charles Crawford is a Contributing Editor to The Commentator. A former British Ambassador in Sarajevo, Belgrade and Warsaw, he is now a private consultant and writer. Visit his website and follow him on Twitter: @charlescrawford

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