As executive vice-chair of The Work Foundation, former editor and current columnist for The Observer, as well as the man charged with the Coalition Government’s Independent Review of Fair Pay in the Public Sector, Will Hutton is a figure whose thoughts on (to borrow the title of one of his earlier books) The State We’re In will be read. If our current masters are likely to read it, a review should make the point that we should too, if only so that we aware of the words and thoughts that our leaders and rulers are likely to be ingesting. (The same argument can be made even more strongly for Thaler and Sunstein’s Nudge (read our review), one of the most important points about which is the Prime Minister and Chancellor of the Exchequer’s support for it and their subsequent hiring of one of its authors.)

Hutton’s concerns in this book are the most over-used word of the last twelve months – fairness – and the building of a future Britain; the link that he makes is by stressing the importance of fairness to creating both a society and an economy that will provide a more sustainable and cohesive future for the largest number of us. Fairness here embraces openness of process and a visible linking of reward to due desert: reward must explicitly recognise contribution and discretionary effort, and opportunity must be opened up to many more of us.

As William Davies commented in reviewing Hutton’s book for the Open Democracy website:

When he wrote this book, Hutton cannot have known that the word ‘fairness’ would, in the mouths of Britain’s coalition government, attain the same anti-logic of the words ‘I’m like whatever’ in the mouth of a stroppy teenager. It certainly isn’t his fault. If anything, Them and Us performs a crucial service in erecting some principles by which the ‘fairness’ of coalition policies might be judged.”

If fairness is to be at the centre of everything, whether you’re accepting that proposition from Hutton or Nick Clegg, a yardstick will be a handy tool to have around in the coming years. Given that Hutton’s aims go beyond the merely diagnostic, a few judgemental principles should sit well alongside the periodic comments of the Institute for Fiscal Studies and CIPD’s Dr John Philpott: if we are all to remain engaged, incentivised and committed, we all need a future. William Gibson, sci-fi novelist, might not appreciate the irony if his best known quote – “The future is already here – it’s just not very evenly distributed” – turns out to be an accurate political prophesy.

To prevent ossification setting in as those that have (meaning that they have both assets and clout) engineer the economy and the socio-political process to enable them to hang on it to in ways that deny others opportunity, Hutton argues, stifles both innovation and aspiration – qualities essential to the proper working of our system. For Hutton, fairness is ‘capitalism’s defining value’ – and the state and the political process have important roles to play in ensuring the maximisation of both fairness and sustainable economic and social viability. There’s meat here to offend both left and right in different ways, which is perhaps a different way of saying that the ingredients here provide food for thought for most potential readers.

And yet … there is an awful lot to chew on. The book’s introduction and conclusion are rousing and convey a sense of real urgency in calling for something beyond ‘business as usual’, given what it usually consists/has recently consisted of and what business – in Hutton’s argument – requires. One of the surprises of the book, however, is that the skills of a newspaper editor and high profile columnist have not been better used in structuring and presenting the arguments that occupy the main body. This is a dense and lengthy read and one that would have benefited from the use of an editorial blue pencil and the introduction of more sub-headings and graphical representation of the many facts and figures.

There’s an old cliché about 2,500 words being harder to write than 250,000, but the shorter version – or the use of a greater number of shorter, tightly focussed chapters (an approach used to great benefit in Ha-Joon Chang’s 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism, which shares a similar ‘our version of capitalism could do with a few tweaks and facing a few home truths’ outlook with Hutton but makes its arguments more forcefully.) Responding to the events of 2008-9 by finding the shortest route back to 2007 is self-evidently not a way forward – going backwards never is. But those hoping to find a ‘manifesto’ here may need to extract sections and write it themselves (although, to be fair to Hutton, that may be closer to his intention as an author).

While I’m usually opposed to books that provide numbered lists of recommendations and actions, adopting such a structure might well have been of help here in that it would have clarified the arguments that are being made. It might also have encouraged the author to address another potential criticism – that the book is much stronger on what the author would like to see happen, and rather shorter on how this might be achieved. And, more importantly, how likely achieving it might be given the lie of the land and the current positioning of those with real influence. Given that the book decries, for example, the power of a populist mainstream media whose ‘churnalism’ – excellent bit of word making that it is – is a tail wagging the Westminster dog, his version of The Big Society is going to be every bit The Big Ask as the one his most recent commissioner (The Prime Minister) has so far outlined in equally nebulous terms.

Reviewing Them and Us in the context of this blog, fairness (oops!) probably requires that I should say that this isn’t a book written for an HR audience. Not is it especially written for a management one, although Management Today described it as “sharp critique of unfairness in modern Britain is important and often compelling but too wide-ranging and undisciplined” while Director Magazine summarised it as “a well-researched, far-reaching and cogently argued call to arms”. (If Hutton’s intention was to capture the ear of thinkers in business rather than politics, he might be cheered to compare these reviews with that of The Spectator, who dismissed it as “tedious, rambling and dismally written”). If ‘how’ – in concrete, readily implemented terms – is a question that’s left only partially answered in the book’s pages, ‘what does it mean for work?’ is dealt with almost entirely implicitly. Hutton’s thanks to his researcher should also, perhaps, be tempered by the inclusion of a recommendation for the possibilities of merging Jobcentre Plus and the Learning and Skills Council to provide a ‘single body to promote lifelong career progression’ – the idea is laudable, but the LSC was replaced by the Young People’s Learning Agency a year before the book was published.

Although the decision probably came too late for inclusion in the book, the decision to axe the Lifelong Learning UK agency from March 2011 should get a mention here (the decision was covered in an article in Training Journal late last year). Journalism isn’t the only sector where churn is increasing: the increasing short life span of companies (an important point that Hutton does cover) will increase the need for re-skilling and up-skilling throughout our lives, especially if they are to remain working lives. The work of Dutch economist, Ton Wilthagen, and his concept of ‘flexicurity’ – moving unemployment benefit closer to something akin to employment insurance – is covered in Hutton’s book, and is an idea that deserves more attention. (There is a web page listing research papers on flexicurity at the University of Tilburg’s website.) The handling of workers hovering between positions in a flexible economy is an important topic – one I was reminded of listening to Midweek on Radio 4 over the Christmas Break, when actor Rufus Sewell explained his approach to a profession where ‘resting’ has long been a recognised state. Sewell’s approach – minimising his outgoings so that he can exercise meaningful choice over jobs he accepts, allowing him to maintain self-esteem and a sense of dignity – is also mentioned in a recent interview with The Daily Telegraph:

I’ve discovered that I’ve never had much respect for money, and that has meant that money has ended up ruling me a little bit more than it should have. So I’m trying to learn – at this late stage in life! – to actually control that.

It’s a matter of just living relatively simply. I don’t want to find myself cornered and being offered something second-rate and wanting to do it for the wrong reasons. I’ve never done that before.”

Yet we are not all lucky enough to have assets to fall back on – or public profile as intermittently prominent as Sewell’s to assist us when suitable jobs do present themselves.

And it is not just the nature – or rather the longevity – of work that is changing. Workers are changing too, as Hutton acknowledges when discussing knowledge workers.

Knowledge workers in a more knowledge-based economy feel more confident about their capacity to manage their careers proactively and individually. They have skills that employers need, and they have no desire to negotiate their pay and conditions collectively. Consequently, trade union membership in the knowledge-based private sector has plummeted. Equally, knowledge workers are more keenly aware of new workplace realities. Production is less for mass markets and more customised, with much closer relationships with clients and consumers. […] The upside, in terms of macro-economic policy, is that the new realisation that increasing wages will simply price goods and services out of the market helps reinvent fiscal policy’s traction on demand and employment.”

But there is an optimism here that may yet be harshly tested by events. Current levels of graduate unemployment, the difficulties facing the skilled middle-aged in finding work, and the private sector’s performance in balancing public sector job losses may all attach a large ‘but’ to the assertion that knowledge workers ‘have skills that employers need’. And that ‘upside’ seems to be up rather further on one side (the employer’s) than the other. Surely being critical to organisational success but unable to achieve an increase in wages flies in the face of ‘due desert’ and ‘fairness’?

Hutton’s attempted scope in this book is vast, and criticisms of it should acknowledge that intelligent action tends to follow from thought and discussion. As Diane Coyle commented about a similarly weighty topic at her Enlightened Economist blog:

Leadership is like dieting: it’s easy to write down the principles, much harder to put into practice.”

In her profile of Hutton at the New Statesman website, she describes the author as:

[…] always late, always enthusiastic, always brimming over with ideas that pour out faster than he can form the words, compelling and exasperating in equal measure.”

I wouldn’t describe Them and Us as ‘late’ in seeking to delve into what fairness really means, and what’s its true implications are, although ‘brimming over with ideas’, ‘compelling’ and ‘exasperating’ are contrasting if applicable descriptions. Coyle’s own review (read it here) also agrees with William Davies’ in noticing that many of Hutton’s themes are revisited from his earlier The State We’re In:

One depressing aspect of Hutton’s agenda, or rather of Britain’s failure to grasp it, is how many of his prescriptions, especially on constitutional reform, media ownership and corporate governance, seem no less urgent today than they did 15 years ago.”

Perhaps 2011 will find some of us adopting Rufus Sewell’s approach (shopping at Lidl, darning and mending, enjoying walks in the park) and using the time to read Hutton’s ideas while we wait for those with their hands on the right levers to put any of them into action, although that will hardly help to grow the economy. Between dog walks and tea breaks, you might however be intrigued, roused or annoyed – and encouraged to draw conclusions of your own. In addressing something as complex as the state of the nation, it’s unrealistic to expect a perfect response from one man: this is, however, a spirited attempt. It may do us all no great harm if more of his agenda is taken on board in the next 15 years than has been the case in the previous 15. And we could do worse than spending our spare moments in the coming months unpacking many of the arguments and themes it contains.

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