Mammon’s Kingdom: An Essay on Britain, Now, by David Marquand

Mammon’s Kingdom: An Essay on Britain, Now, by David Marquand, Allen Lane, RRP£20, 288 pages

May 23 2014 / Financial Times

In 1909, the Liberal MP Charles Masterman published The Condition of England, a stylish, urgent book that, though largely forgotten today, had a powerful effect and wide influence. A friend of Winston Churchill and of the Fabian intellectuals Beatrice and Sydney Webb, Masterman was a product of the high bourgeois establishment but had been radicalised, after leaving Cambridge, by his experiences working among the poor of the London slums. He was a brilliant generalist: politician, journalist, literary critic, editor, social reformer. His book is propelled by rage at the condition of England, at its “monstrous inequalities”, its entrenched poverty, its decadence. He scourges laisser-faire capitalism and denounces a society “organised from top to bottom on a ‘money basis’, a business basis, with everything else as a side-show”.

Reading David Marquand’s Mammon’s Kingdom I was reminded often of Masterman and of his invigorating book. It is subtitled “An Essay on Britain, Now” but it is really about the condition of England, at least as the author finds it in still-energised old age. Like Masterman, Marquand is, or was, a politician-writer. A former Labour MP, he resigned his seat in 1977 to work as an adviser to Roy Jenkins and, later, became one of the founding members of the Social Democratic Party.

In the intervening years, Marquand, who enjoyed a distinguished second career as an academic, has moved back and forth between the Liberal Democrats and Labour. A restless progressive, or self-styled democratic republican, he seems destined endlessly to be disappointed by the compromises and the timidity of the British centre-left in power.

His contribution as a writer and political historian is as a synthesiser and summariser of complex ideas and as a popular communicator. I especially liked his book Britain Since 1918 (2008), a concise and elegant history of 20th-century democracy that also looks back to the Levellers and the Chartists.

This latest book is a departure – for all its footnotes and extensive bibliography, it is essentially a work of journalistic polemic, in the spirit of Masterman. It is also an indictment and a cry of despair at how we have drifted, to echo Michael Sandel, from having a market economy to becoming a market society. The author himself calls it “a wake-up call to a society sleepwalking towards a seedy barbarism”.

For Marquand, “no large western democracy has been more devoted to money worship than Britain”. He despairs at our “low levels of public trust and high levels of inequality”. We are, he thinks, in thrall to an insidious “presentism”. History, he writes, “no longer counts”. “Untamed capitalism” has coarsened us and made us greedy, uncaring and money-obsessed.

How has this happened? Why did the Keynesian postwar consensus unravel so cataclysmically, opening the way for the counter-hegemonic project that became Thatcherism? Why do the British “no longer know where they have come from or who they are”?

These are big questions and Marquand attempts to answer them, and many others, as he takes the reader on a breathless tour of the major social and political changes of the past century, and especially of the past three decades. We are treated, along the way, to biographical sketches of any number of influential figures, from JS Mill to Friedrich Hayek, as well as expositions of the ideas that have informed our political discourse. The chapter on the culture of the country in the years from 1945-79 – and on how the old establishment operated – is particularly good, at once a lament for what has been lost and a critique of its failings.

There is much to admire in Marquand’s book, not least its intelligence, breadth and deep learning. But do we really need a wake-up call of the kind he suggests? On both left and right, there is already widespread alarm at the crisis of our moral and political economies – as well as an awareness of how close the British state is to breaking up. And we have had other recent books on a similar theme, notably from Ferdinand Mount and Robert and Edward Skidelsky. If we were sleepwalking towards a seedy barbarism, a book such as Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century , a 700-page treatise on inequality that has become an international bestseller, would not be stimulating such a wide-ranging public conversation.

Mammon’s Kingdom claims to be about “now”. But it has little to say about Facebook, Twitter, the English Premier League (a playground for the international plutocracy and a model of the kind of rapacious winner-takes-all capitalism Marquand loathes) or many other of the fundamental cultural forces shaping the way we live, here and now. Marquand dismisses popular television as vulgar without explaining which particular programmes he dislikes and why. He writes about financial globalisation but not about cultural globalisation and how this has affected how we eat, dress, communicate, work and love. Marquand is good on economics and politics, as he always is, but the reader wants and expects more from such a beguilingly titled book.

Charles Masterman’s The Condition of England was saturated in cultural and literary reference. A panoramic state-of-the-nation novel such as HG Wells’ Tono-Bungay (1909) fascinated Masterman and rewarded close reading because it told him so much about the society in which he lived, just as Dickens dramatised and interrogated the contradictions of Victorian society. Marquand says he is not concerned with the “slow workings of imaginative literature” but perhaps he should have been. His section on our disunited kingdom would have been deepened, for instance, by a discussion of James Robertson’s And the Land Lay Still (2010), a novel that has become something of a sacred text for Scottish nationalists.

None of my objections are likely to disturb David Marquand, however. He has written a self-consciously provocative book, one that demands to be read. The style and tone are overwhelmingly assertive and overstated. He cares about the condition of England. He wants to stimulate debate. He wants to wake you up.