Back when I was 13, the Saturday ritual went like this: first, the record shops, then the bookshops. The crossover came at WH Smiths, which provided both. They stocked a few books that sparked my interest in economics: J K Galbraith was the Thomas Piketty of the time, but there were also titles discussing the death of Keynes and the rise of monetarism. Back then, I would have loved Robert Peston’s WTF? which discusses both economics and politics in a refreshing and accessible way. That I loved it now, having since dabbled in both subjects a little bit, is a mark of Peston’s range as a commentator.
I’m irritated, early on: Peston’s letter to his dad seems a little contrived and the swearing overdone for effect. He does this self-flagellation thing, whereby he thinks his views aren’t legitimate and authentic because he’s from north London. And at first I’m not happy that despite describing Brexit and Trump as unbenign and poisonous he suggests that their backers were on the right side of the argument. Someone can prevail without being right. But Peston’s argument is rather more subtle. His point is not that the extremes have a case, but that their victory made it impossible to ignore that mainstream politicians had been dangerously complacent. The centre has not done its job. His specific beef with centrists is that they have not realised the imperative to re-make and win the argument for what moderate politics offers – and for the avoidance of doubt, given that everyone claims that it is they who represent the centre and that it is the others who are extremists, this means that they must argue for a key role for the state. Many of the current cabinet, if not Johnson himself, would be uncomfortable with such a position – and yet without a role for the state the claim to be a ‘one nation’ government cannot hold. Arguably the government of Cameron and Osborne should not have been able to set claim to the description either.
But Peston’s centrist beef is primarily with Blair, Brown, and their daughter Prudence. Such was Blair and Brown’s obsession with winning a second term that they wasted the majority of their first term. In running to Kenneth Clarke’s outgoing fiscal targets (which, as we are often reminded, Clarke had had no intention of keeping to himself), they made the case for the small state. What was the point of a whopping Labour majority if the prudent thing to do was to follow the Tories? Labour had ceded ground with consequences that would be seen after the global crash. And it had disappointed its followers, with profound consequences for the subsequent Labour leadership.
We are now in an election based on a dishonest framing in which the government regards necessary scrutiny by the legislature as illegitimate. But for all the portrayal of betrayal that Johnson/Farage and their cronies like to conjure up, I am more drawn to Peston’s analysis of the crisis:
My response to the crisis of legitimacy of established politicians is to see it as a manifestation of how millions of poorer people were stripped of their optimism that the economy works to give them better lives and livelihoods.
Or, if you tell people that things can only get better, and they put their trust in you, they had better.
Peston has some genuinely interesting ideas, including a devolved monetary policy, as well as some ideas for the welfare state that are delightfully, joyfully Keynesian. And – flagellation aside – there’s a moral theme to the book that is compelling. It’s thoughtful and lively.
WTF? predates the rise of Johnson, though Peston predicts it, saying, ‘don’t laugh, anything is possible these days’. So it provides good perspective on the current wretched election without simply becoming a long contemporary comment piece. Read it yourself, and then give it to a bookish 13 year-old: recommend it to them and see what happens.