Imagine for a moment that the financial crisis never happened. What would be said and written about capitalism now? Would Chancellors still laud bankers – as Gordon Brown once did, proclaiming “the beginning of a new golden age for the City of London”? Would distinguished academics still announce “the end of history”?
There is good reason to believe, ten years on from the crash, that they wouldn’t – and that the optimism of the Clinton and Blair years would still be long gone. For most of the post-war period in north America and western Europe, incomes for different groups grew at much the same rate. This began to change in 2004 (see above) – three years before the turbulent events of the summer of 2007. The explanation may be that the third industrial revolution (based on computers, the web, and mobile phones) is less productive that the second one. “Many of the original and spin-off inventions of [the second industrial revolution] could happen only once,” Robert J.Gordon has written. “Urbanisation, transportation speed, the freedom of females from the drudgery of carrying tons of water per year, and the role of central heating and air conditioning in achieving a year-round constant temperature”. In short, capitalism is not creating well-paid white and blue collar jobs on the same scale as it was during most of the post-war period. Welcome to the gig economy.
So while there would probably have been no Great Recession, the odds are that many voters would no longer be “intensely relaxed” about capitalism, as Peter Mandelson famously was about people “getting filthy rich” (that he added “as long as they pay their taxes” is sometimes forgotten). This has three big consequences for the centre-right.
First, it divides over big issues. The classic example is immigration. Some people will always oppose mass migration because they don’t like mass cultural change. Others will do so because they believe that it brings no durable economic benefit: the tax receipts coming in to government from work are cancelled by the public spending going out – on new roads, rail, schools, hospitals and houses in what is already, in the greater south-east at least, a relatively crowded country. But, either way, protests will be less loud when there is a sense of job security, hope that the next generation will fare as well as the last one, and growing opportunity. When these fray, the gap between what prosperous and poorer parts of the country feel about immigration becomes wider. If you want to see the political consequences, look no further than the growing divide between how London and the provinces vote in general elections. Walsall North goes one way; Enfield Southgate the other.
It may be that the Party can square this voting circle, as Robert Halfon has argued on this site. But there is cause to be chary about the Conservatives being able to ride these two electoral horses at once.
Second, and more profoundly, the effect of this pressure on median incomes is that pulling the same levers and pushing the same buttons no longer works – at least, if you want those jobs to return on the same scale. You can shrink the state as small as you like, cut taxes as low as you like, and slash regulation as much as you like, but the effect will be more limited. If a man has an alcohol or drug dependency problem, reducing his tax bill won’t help him. If a mother can’t get proper childcare, she won’t be able to work in the labour market if she wants to. If someone is mired in debt, his debts will be no less small if the state is no less big. In other words, a rising tide no longer lifts as many boats. Even when growth returns, there is no gain to those crushed by Iain Duncan Smith’s five giants – failing schools, crime, sub-standard healthcare, problem debt, and drug and alcohol dependency. The consequences of long-term change in the way we work and live catch up with us, as more fractured families struggle to give the same support to those in need.
That claim may sound diffuse, but the consequences are concrete. Look no further than the Tory manifesto debacle in May over social care. It did more to lose the Prime Minister her majority than any other event in the election campaign. Older people moving out of their homes and into institutional care is a consequence of changing family life.
Finally, it becomes harder to defend inequality of outcome. Again, this isn’t simply a matter of politics junkies debating economic theory – the merits or demerits of Thomas Piketty, say. When younger people can’t buy homes until their early thirties, or are saddled with student debts that their elders didn’t have, or grasp that defined benefit pensions are a past relic, there are political consequences – of which what happened in Canterbury last spring was the most eye-grabbing example. There might have been no Momentum without the crash, but it is very doubtful. Home ownership is the biggest single stake that many people have in the capitalist system. So if more of them are denied having one, it shouldn’t surprise when the system is questioned. This becomes especially pressing when the free market solution to the housing logjam – tearing up the planning framework altogether, and simply letting housing growth rip – would be an election-loser on a scale that would make that social care pledge look like a landslide provider.
So it’s a good thing that the centre-right family is always up for a challenge. But as debate about the state, inter-generational fairness and markets rolls on, one thing is certain. The crash didn’t “change everything”. What emerged in 2004 was less visible than what happened in 2007. But it did even more to shape our times.