10 min read

The book Keir Starmer says you must read

Will Hutton’s This Time No Mistakes surveys the thinking that could solve Britain’s ills.

John Milbank is a theologian, philosopher and poet. A co-founder of the Radical Orthodoxy movement, he is an Emeritus Professor of the University of Nottingham.

Kier Starmer sits on a sofa, leaning forward and holding papers he is reading. Rachel Reaves sits and looks on.
Starmer and Reeves.
Labour Party

In the aftermath of a historic election, one could do worse than read Will Hutton’s second big ‘state of the nation book’, recently published. This Time No Mistakes is worth reading just for the succinctness and clarity of its politic-economic history of the United Kingdom since the industrial revolution, which it provides in its central chapters. Indeed, Keir Starmer says it is a ‘brilliant book... read it if you haven't already It may well take a sophisticated journalist to be able to do this so well: too often, even the best of academics cannot see the public wood for their private-obsessional trees.  

But it is doubly and mainly worth reading for Hutton’s prognosis of our ills and his recommendations for solving them. The new Labour government could do far worse than try to carry through Hutton’s proposals, which almost anyone of common sense and goodwill (including all Tories) ought readily to endorse. Indeed, if the next government managed to initiate even a half of what he suggests, this country could be placed back upon the right tracks.  

As to the history, which is crucial to the ultimate diagnosis: Hutton contends quite simply that Britain has been self-deceived by the peculiar nature of its industrial revolution, which was the first in history. It was largely a matter of private enterprise, partly enabled and later cushioned by empire, whose possession encouraged us to support an unqualified doctrine of free trade.  

However, all other nations, including the United States, both when they sought to catch up with the steam and rail revolution, and when they later co-pioneered the ones based on gas and electricity, and ultimately on nuclear and digital, from the outset depended much more upon state intervention to promote needed expertise, education and investment. The United Kingdom, by contrast, remained captivated by the mythical glory of its initial take-off.  

As a result, not just Conservative governments, but also Labour ones, right up to the New Labour one, and including the catastrophically misguided work of Margaret Thatcher (Hutton is admirably unqualified here) remained far too captivated by the norms of economic laissez-faire, ‘balancing the books’, a primacy of finance over production and obsessive Treasury concern with money, rather than productive wealth.  

The exceptions to this were the pre-World War one Liberal government and the post World War Two Labour one. Yet all the strong ideas implemented by the latter came from ‘New Liberal’ thinkers and not Labour ones: notably from Keynes and Beveridge. Labour on its own, by comparison, has tragically and disastrously oscillated between a desire to replace capitalism with some sort of command economy on the one hand, and simply leaving capitalism as it is, with a bit of welfare tinkering, on the other. More recently this has been seen in the contrast between Corbyn and Blair. 

It is at this juncture that Hutton proceeds to complement his political-economic diagnosis with a more purely political one. The split on the ‘progressive left’ is a catastrophe that has kept the Tories unfairly in power for much of a century. This split is both caused by and has prevented any reform of the first past the post voting system, which urgently needs to go.  

For this reason then, political economy and constitutional reform go together.  

As to the latter, we need proportional representation which would allow more reasoned debate instead of the inter-party squabble, alongside legally guaranteed local government and a different kind of informed, rather than overweening executive.  

As to the former, we need flexible planning, public-private partnership in investment, a national wealth fund, sectional trade union bargaining, the breaking up of cartels and monopolies and required social purpose and stakeholding, for every business and financial enterprise. 

One is tempted just to say hurray! But there are some historical and theoretical questions to be posed that may have hidden practical consequences.  

Better than trying to ‘balance’ the private and the collective, as if the self and society were in rivalry, is to take the more Continental (and early Blairite!) course of stressing that we are always ‘persons in relation’.

Hutton now backs Tawney besides Keynes. But do they say the same thing? For the latter, capitalism is a wild, amoral and dynamic beast that can nonetheless be politically tamed. In certain phases of the capitalist cycle only (as Hutton rightly sees) this will be about boosting demand, but in others it can mean lessening it and temporarily hurting workers.  

But Tawney, and Hutton clearly agrees with him, wanted a market economy permitting only useful and not merely acquisitive wealth. Given this ethical purpose it was for him possible for the market, aa a socialist market, to reach equilibrium, beyond extrinsic and always precarious state ‘management’.  

Just how precarious was seen in the 1970s. For Hutton, the lapse of Keynesianism in this decade was simply a matter of the triumph of the wrong ideas. To a large degree this is surely right, and yet it is not the whole story. Were it the latter, then neoliberalism might not have spread beyond Anglo-Saxon lands to Europe and South America.  

The other aspect is surely the reality that capitalism of its nature, as driven by the amoral search for profit, resists any prospect of a stable, social market. Achieving that and extending the corporatist order of negotiation between state, business and unions would have been the alternative way, instead of Hayekianism, to deal with ‘stagflation’. Rather than a competition between capital, labour and consumer for money that wasn’t there at the time, a fair division of spoils could have been consistently instituted by legally and culturally re-framing the firm and the market, something that would have immediately favoured a renewed degree of growth.  

Really, almost everything that Hutton writes indicates agreement with this sort of thing, including the recognition that of itself, capitalism is not actually dynamic (that comes from technology and culture) but tends to build up sterile finance in the interests of the few, rather than productive growth in the interests of the many. But in that case ‘ethical socialism’ is not just a set of ideals, as he tends to imply, but a mode of achievable practice.  

Similarly, a general mutualist national insurance approach to welfare, which he rightly favours, was not just a New Liberal advocacy as he claims, but deeply rooted in co-operative socialism and in Christian (especially Anglican) social thinking whose influence -- except silently in the case of Tawney -- goes unmentioned. Yet the very phrase ‘welfare state’ is Archbishop William Temple’s and Tawney’s social analysis, intended for the general public, concluded with an unabashed High Church ecclesiology! 

It is relevant here that Hutton speaks of the need to combine the ‘I’ with the ‘We’ and yet he clearly does not endorse just any old exercise of ‘individual agency’, even if he sometimes appears to do so, when defining the operation of the price mechanism as necessarily ‘wild’, after Adam Smith’s exclusion of commercial transactions from the immediate operation of social sympathy. Better than trying to ‘balance’ the private and the collective, as if the self and society were in rivalry, is to take the more Continental (and early Blairite!) course of stressing that we are always ‘persons in relation’ – at once within and outside each other, in a constant creative weave.  

Nothing could be further from Keynes’ despising of the proletariat and favouring of learned leisure, that John Ruskin’s revolutionary mystique of the artisanal. 

There are two deeper questions about Hutton’s approach. First, his excessive ‘idealism’, as with his analysis of the Seventies switch, may still underrate the difficulty of overcoming the power of entrenched interests – the need indeed not so much for class, as for popular warfare against plutocracy.  

Secondly, he tends to underplay a theoretical tension between secular and materialist thinkers, including New Liberals, on the one hand, and religious and Idealist thinkers like the first ‘New Liberal’, T.H Green on the other.  

The latter was much more like Alasdair Macintyre or Michael Sandel than like John Rawls, as Hutton claims: for by human ‘self-realisation’ he meant the ‘positive liberty’ of pursuing the objectively true ends of human flourishing: religious contemplation, artistic creation of genuine beauty, active citizen participation.  

By contrast, the secular New Liberals, including Keynes, tended to reduce the ethical good to the negative liberty of rights, private friendship and utility – often leading them to favour eugenics and to indulge in racism. Nothing could be further from Keynes’ despising of the proletariat and favouring of learned leisure, that John Ruskin’s revolutionary mystique of the artisanal.  

Hutton tends to express surprise that a Tory like Ruskin, or a reactionary like Carlyle, should have favoured the cause of the worker – and indeed in Ruskin’s case also espoused ‘communism’, as Hutton elides from the picture. But this is to fail to see how Tory Radicalism and even paternalism is actually a third strand in the kind of transformative thinking that we continue to need, was always a crucial influence on Labour and was a crucial element of the postwar settlement.  

If these thinkers indeed favoured ‘hierarchy’, then that was in part because they wanted more interpersonal and mediated chains of command, rather than brutally centralised and mechanical ones. Surely Hutton wants that also, as his excellent reservations about the use of Artificial Intelligence would indicate? 

There is a recognition that economic individualism usually ‘on the right’ is actually matched and encouraged by a cultural individualism usually ‘on the left’. 

This is perhaps the limit of talking in terms of ‘progressive’ versus ‘conservative’. Hutton harks back to the norms of the Enlightenment. Yet, as Richard Whatmore has shown, all the great British enlightenment thinkers came to think that pure enlightenment was failing.  

They saw its anti-religious fanaticism stance as challenged by the rise of new secular, nationalist and direct democratic fanaticisms, as supremely with the French Revolution. By ‘populism’, as we might now say! 

But they also already recognised that the breakdown of a rational peace had been encouraged by excessive consumer greed and by the over-implication of commerce in state borrowing (whose pre-enabling of industry in Britain, Hutton does not mention) and so also in war and empire.  

It was exactly in this context that the enlightenment thinker Edmund Burke began to consider the virtues of the longer-term embedding of enlightenment in Christianity and the importance of the medieval ‘gothic’ legacy of a corporate order binding social body to social body, rather than individual to individual via contract, mediated by the market and backed up by the state.  

In Burke’s wake, for example with the radical William Cobbett, much of the Nineteenth Century critique of economism, to which Hutton is the heir, was of a ‘Romantic’ and often ‘neo-medieval’ rather than purely enlightenment cast. (Hutton at times wrongly reads medieval ‘feudalism’ as ‘absolutist’ – a specifically early modern phenomenon.) This matters, because this tradition contains a stronger recognition that the centralising state (which the Enlightenment favoured as a substitute for the Church) can be just as alienating and anti-social as the uprooting market – even if, as Karl Polanyi later saw, one needs the power of the state today in order to restore the primacy of the social and of inter-human fellowship.  

Within the same current, there is a recognition that economic individualism usually ‘on the right’ is actually matched and encouraged by a cultural individualism usually ‘on the left’. And here Hutton is perhaps inconsistent – he definitely sees this, mentioning the dubious overriding of the universal by identitarian concerns,  and yet also recognises it somewhat uneasily, as it challenges certain ‘progressivist’ assumptions. 

 As a result, he rather disallows the validity of some populist concerns – ironically rather like the incomprehension of the older enlightenment in the face of the new revolutionary era. For example, concerns with the normative primacy of the heterosexual family and the enabling of family and children, with regional and national identity, with the academic ‘woke’ trashing of the entire Western legacy, with the exploitation and cultural disruption of excessive immigration, with ecological policies that simply override current human needs while doing little to assist the future of nature.  

The danger of these partial blind spots could be a continued failure of the roughly ‘communitarian’ Left, or the sensible Right, to win over the mass of the people to their cause. For they must be won over if not just the United Kingdom, but humanity as a whole, is to have a decent future.  

Towards building that future, no one has contributed more, or more valiantly, than Will Hutton.  



Film & TV
5 min read

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: 20 years on

Memory and the meaning of suffering.

Beatrice writes on literature, religion, the arts, and the family. Her published work can be found here

A coupe sit on outdoor steps against a blue sky. One holds a plate and the other looks towards them.
Carrey and Winslet as Joel and Clementine.

Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind came out in 2004. Twenty years on, its stubborn insistence that the memory of pain gives meaning to our lives is as relevant as ever.  

I first watched Gondry’s cult classic earlier this year, in the midst of recovering from postnatal PTSD. When we are faced with heartbreak, it can be easy to wish that we could retreat from painful memories, hiding them away until the initial pang has seemingly died down. That was my experience, at least. But I quickly learnt that the traumatic memory of my daughter’s birth would continue to resurface until I processed it and accepted it as part of my life. Just so, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind teaches us that being vulnerable to suffering is a gift, that suffering itself is necessary to our moral growth, and that our ability to remember the past is an invaluable faculty of the human mind.  

The film begins simply, with a meeting between its protagonists, Joel Barish and Clementine Kruczynski. As Joel and Clementine start making small talk, they seem immediately comfortable, almost familiar with each other, and yet the atmosphere is eerie. Soon enough, we discover that Clementine was a patient at Lacuna, a clinic which erased every memory of Joel from her mind after their two-year relationship ended in a painful breakup. When Joel finds out, he asks Dr. Howard Mierzwiak, the director of Lacuna, to do the same for him. As viewers, we now start to wonder: was that meeting we witnessed their very first, or have they met again after their memories were erased, unaware that they loved each other in a ‘past’ life? 

This tone of disorientation continues throughout the film, and that’s what makes it so special. As Joel’s memories of Clementine are erased one by one, he realises that the removal of one’s painful experiences is in itself a kind of trauma; what promises to be a relief, turns out to be nothing more than loss.  

We experience this sense of disorientation and loss alongside Joel as we jump through snippets of his and Clementine’s happiest and saddest moments together, trying to piece together in our minds a linear narrative of their relationship. While this is happening, the film’s subplot focuses on Stan, Patrick, and Mary, three young people working for Lacuna. As Stan and Patrick, the ‘technicians’, work on Joel’s memory removal, Mary, Lacuna’s naive receptionist, muses on the beauty of their mission. She begins quoting aloud the passage of poetry which inspires the film’s very title, taken from Alexander Pope’s verse epistle Eloisa to Abelard (1717): 

How happy is the blameless vestal’s lot! 

The world forgetting, by the world forgot. 

Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind! 

Each pray’r accepted, and each wish resign’d. 

Mary has an idealistic vision of her work: she believes she is helping suffering people experience the kind of ‘eternal sunshine’ that only a ‘spotless mind’ can achieve. But the human mind is not so simple. Joel’s desire for forgetfulness quickly turns nightmarish. As he realises he has made a mistake, he starts fighting to retain the memory of his love for Clementine, but his is a hopeless quest. Dr. Mierzwiak’s intervention ensures that the procedure is completed.  

Left alone without Stan and Patrick, Mary confesses to the married Dr. Mierzwiak that she is in love with him. It is at this point that her idealism crumbles down. He reveals that they’ve already had an affair in the past and that she agreed to let him erase its memory from her mind. Mary is devastated. She decides that what Lacuna is doing is unethical - even if Mierzwiak technically has the patients’ consent to the procedure - and releases the clinic’s files back to the patients. It is this decision which leads Clementine and Joel, just a few days after they ‘meet’ again, to discover that they’ve already loved each other in the past.  

Accepting suffering and holding it in our hearts, not with bitterness, but rather with courage, requires endless patience and infinite hope. 

Although the script of the film doesn’t spell it out, Mary’s story emphasises that the absence of painful memories is in itself experienced as a painful loss. What’s more, it shows that, without the memory of the suffering which we have inflicted on others, and which others have inflicted on us, we are incapable of moral growth. Thanks to the knowledge of the past, Mary is able, this time around, to resist having an affair with a married man. Just so, the final scene of the film, which sees Joel and Clementine vow to renew their relationship, is hopeful not in spite of the fact that they have regained the memory of the ways in which they hurt each other in the past, but precisely because of it.  

Accepting suffering and holding it in our hearts, not with bitterness, but rather with courage, requires endless patience and infinite hope. But that is what we were made for. Each one of us is called to endure pain in imitation of Christ, and, out of that pain, to discover a greater capacity for sacrificial love. We make meaning out of pain: that’s what human beings do.  

The very last lines of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind perfectly express the fruits of this Christ-like acceptance. As Joel reassures Clementine that he can’t see anything he doesn’t like about her, she expresses her doubts and anxieties: ‘But you will! But you will.’, she repeats, ‘You know, you will think of things. And I’ll get bored with you and feel trapped because that’s what happens with me.’ Joel and Clementine look at each other, and, after a pause, they simply say to each other: ‘Okay’. Their ‘okay’ is not an indication that they are doomed to repeat old mistakes. Rather, it signals a new choice: this time, when their relationship becomes difficult, they won’t just run away; this time, they will face discomfort, heartbreak, and disappointment, armed with the knowledge that seeking a sense of permanence by loving another person completely is an inherently valuable pursuit. In accepting the most traumatic parts of our past we grow closer to God; and in bravely deciding to look ahead to the future with hope, we catch a glimpse of the unadulterated joy which we will finally experience in God’s eternity.