“You’ll have to excuse me,” said Tim Montgomerie as he dabbed a tissue on his nose, “I’m fighting a little bit of a cold.” But our former editor is also fighting in another sense: for capitalism, for its betterment, and against people’s misperceptions of it.
This was the launch of Tim’s new report for the Legatum Institute, Prosperity for All: Restoring Faith in Capitalism. It took place in the caffeinated hours of yesterday morning, at the institute’s tremendous offices in Mayfair. The report itself will be published chapter-by-chapter on their website.
Tim wasn’t the only speaker on the day. Introducing him, with added remarks of their own, was someone who knows capitalism rather well. The Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne.
If Osborne has been left bruised by the battle over tax credits – and, what is more important, by his descent in ConservativeHome’s future leader poll and Cabinet league table – it didn’t show. He came across how he always does nowadays: sleek, assured, imperial. He was quick with jokes. He seemed to delight at an aside he made about The Wealth of Nations and our banknotes.
But there was a seriousness to the Chancellor too. It was present in his two “great paradoxes of our age”. The first of these is that, despite experiencing “a spectacular failure of capitalism” in 2007, the world has continued to stick by capitalism and elect centre-right governments. The second is that, even though free trade has done much to lessen poverty around the globe, people are “for protectionism and sceptical about the benefits of free enterprise”.
“A spectacular failure of capitalism.” It isn’t surprising to hear Osborne talk like this, but it is still striking. He recognises, as Tim does, that capitalism needs guarding from itself. It needs constant rehabilitation. I rather wanted to test the Chancellor’s boundaries on this front. What is the greatest single improvement that British capitalism could make now? Is free trade as free and easy as he would like? But he didn’t stay for the Q&A.
Osborne’s remaining remarks were less interesting, although they had their quotable moments. “We’ve accepted that there’s a bigger role for government in trying to rebalance our economy,” he admitted, amidst an itemised description of just what the government is doing.
He finished by thanking Tim for, among other things, “all the thought-provoking columns,” which Tim queried as soon as he took to the lectern. “When you thanked me for all of those columns, did you really mean all of the columns?” A response came from the Chancellor’s seat in the audience: “No, not all of them!”
That determined, Tim continued by citing the opinion polling that he and the Legatum Institute commissioned for the report. You might have seem some of it in the papers. YouGov surveyed people from seven nations – Britain, the US, Germany, Brazil, India, Indonesia, Thailand – about their views on capitalism. They were not entirely generous.
“In Britain and America, you find that large majorities of people find that the free enterprise system has made not just the rich richer – which it has – but the poor poorer.”
“Three-quarters of people in most of the jurisdictions we surveyed felt that big business was in some way unethical; that it had cheated, polluted or bought its way to prosperity.”
“The country where pessimism was greatest was the United States.”
Proving this pessimism wrong, which it often is, is capitalism’s principal challenge. This is partially a matter of PR. As Tim put it, “Capitalism, an idea which sells soap powder, cars and gadgets, cannot sell itself.” Even a change of branding might help. Apparently, people responded more favourably to the phrase “free market” than to that loaded word “capitalism”. Freedom is a positive thing.
But Tim emphasised that branding is not enough, which is why he still refers to “capitalism” in his text. Business needs to be good, not just look good. What does this mean in practice? There are hundreds of ideas contained within the report, although many of them are summed up by a description that Tim used yesterday: “voluntary redistribution.” This passage from his talk got underlined and starred in my notebook:
“When the moral and cultural sphere is weak, redistribution is not happening in society, so the state becomes involved and tries to do that redistribution itself. And when the state does it, it does it much less well.”
That’s as much as I’m going to write about yesterday’s launch, not least because there’s a video of the whole thing on the Legatum Institute website, and you should also head over there to read the report as it’s published in parts. We shall have more on the theme on ConservativeHome tomorrow.
As for our former editor’s next project, he’s off to America to write about that nation and its presidential election for The Times. Good luck to him. Good luck to capitalism.