Fantasists spawn nightmare vision

In: Uncategorized

10 Sep 2007

There follows my review of Fantasy Island by Larry Elliott and Dan Atkinson (Constable & Robinson 2007) in the 10 September issue of Fund Strategy.

Larry Elliott and Dan Atkinson see Tony Blair as having turned Britain into a “fantasy island” during his decade in office. The two economics editors, Elliott at the Guardian and Atkinson at the Mail on Sunday, argue that Britain’s apparent economic and social health is largely illusory. New Labour has, in their view, simply disguised problems and stored them up for the future.

Fantasy Island sees New Labour as responsible for five minor fantasies and two master fantasies. The minor fantasies relate to inflation, the knowledge economy, the public sector, work and defence. The master fantasies relate to debt and the environment. Behind all these fantasies is a common theme of excess. As Elliott and Atkinson argue: “There is a surfeit of consumption, a surfeit of speculation and a surfeit of deceit”.

Before examining these fantasies in more detail it is important to note that this is a broadly sympathetic critique of New Labour. The two authors, who are not members of any political party, praise the organisation for its record on civil partnerships and the minimum wage. They also endorse its overseas record in relation to the Good Friday agreement, Kosovo, Sierra Leone and African development.

What they object to is Labour’s habit of pretending two opposites are not opposite. For example, on the one hand New Labour preaches the virtue of people living within their means. On the other hand, it has presided over a huge build-up of household debt. Yet New Labour denies there is any contradiction between the two.

It is certainly possible to sympathise with Elliott and Atkinson’s charge of self-delusion against New Labour. Its pronouncements are riddled with inconsistencies. Fantasy Island’s strength is that it outlines many of these contradictions well. For instance, New Labour says it is against privatisation but, in its own covert way, has played a big role in privatising welfare services. The Private Finance Initiative has involved private companies in welfare provision at the cost of saddling the public sector with a heavy debt burden.

But the characterisation of New Labour’s outlook as “fantasy island” in a way misses the point. If anything defines the party it is a lack of a broader vision of how to run society. It is the Ideas Lite party. To the extent it believes in anything it is regulating individual behaviour and imposing restraint on society. Labour has given up on taking control of the “commanding heights” of the economy and instead wants to tell people how to recycle their rubbish or what food to eat.

It is New Labour’s lack of any principles that helps explain why it can take up apparently contradictory positions with such ease. Beyond its avid belief in social regulation it is highly pragmatic. All its leaders care about are the perpetuation of their own cliques and the survival of the party’s electoral machine.

What Elliott and Atkinson are really saying is that Labour should be more consistent in its campaign against excess. Their starting point is the old environmentalist canard of limited resources: “living within our means has to start with acknowledging what the planet can and cannot bear.” From this premise they go on to argue that it is necessary to start planning for a more frugal future.

Yet this underlying assumption is false. There is no finite amount of resources on the planet or limit to the extent to which humanity can exploit the Earth. The richer and more advanced we are the better able we are to utilise the planet to our advantage.

The pattern is clear in relation to energy but it could equally apply to other natural resources. Pundits have for decades predicted the exhaustion of oil supplies yet new sources of crude keep on being discovered. New fields are found, extraction technology improves and new sources, such as tar sands, are utilised. When oil does eventually run out there is no reason why it cannot be replaced with other sources of energy such as nuclear power or hydroelectric power. There is no fixed amount of energy in the world.

The same approach can be applied to climate change. For Elliott and Atkinson, as with so many others, this is seen as the ultimate factor limiting consumption. But much of the technology needed to tackle the problem already exists. There are already many sources of energy that do not emit greenhouse gases. There are also other technologies, such as modern flood defences, that can protect humanity against the impact of rising sea levels. What is missing is the resources for this technology to become widely used. More economic growth and prosperity should provide us with such resources.

No doubt technology will improve further still as long as science and experimentation are encouraged. One way to see the history of humanity is of ingenuity enabling it to overcome what were previously seen as insurmountable problems. In the longer term it may even be possible to use advanced technologies to control the climate.

Yet Elliott and Atkinson’s starting point is the mistaken idea of natural limits rather than having a positive vision of creating a better society. Although they are reluctant to spell out the consequences of this world view it presumably means more austerity and restraint. It means curbing the growth in living standards and perhaps even cutting them in absolute terms.

From this perspective it is possible to see the true content of the authors’ critique of New Labour. For them its problem is that it is not New Labour enough. It should not just preach austerity but follow it through in practice. Gordon Brown, until recently known at the “Iron Chancellor”, does not have enough mettle.

What Elliott and Atkinson propose in place of Fantasy Island could be called Nightmare on Fleet Street. Their vision is even more bleak and limited than that of New Labour. In that sense Fantasy Island is a remarkable achievement.