Will Hutton: The State We’re In
‘The gentlemanly ideal reaches far back into British life, with historians like Cain and Hopkin arguing that it was the animating force in the rise of British capitalism’.
What, in Hutton’s view has been the impact of ‘gentlemanly’ values upon the nature of the British economy and the body politic?
In 1995, when Will Hutton published The State We’re In, Britain had been under Conservative rule for 16 years. This era had been marked by unemployment and social decline and Hutton recognised that ‘The numbers living in poverty’ had ‘grown to awesome proportions’ (p. 1). He was concerned that Britain’s position as a leading world power was clearly diminishing, as was its stronghold at the forefront of world industry. The result was a huge divide which was being felt throughout the country as the rich became richer and the poor found it increasingly difficult to rise out of the depths of poverty.
According to Hutton, many of the problems facing the country were as a result of the structure of the British economy which had been evolving out of a 17th century culture of gentlemanly ideals. These ideals, Hutton states, had arisen from the land owning aristocracy whose wealth and social standing had been given to them by royal ascent and who ‘lived on rents from their land’ (p. 114). The lives of the aristocracy were defined by their ability to live in affluence, effortlessly supported by the manual labour afforded to them by the classes over which they had dominion. The powerful position that these landowners held within society was further increased during the 17th century when they gained political power over the country and thus, immensely increasing their potential to amass wealth and shape Britain’s economy to support their aims. The gentlemanly rule extended to ‘the monarch, church, the law, the City, the army’ (p. 43) and together this union forged ahead, building the British Empire and generating massive revenues from international trade and ownership of land in Britain and around the world. The city of London, home to both the political and financial interests of the elite class, became the central point for them to exploit international trade and business links.
Hutton describes the gentlemanly ideal as ‘the motivating power for generations of Englishmen’ (p. 114) and for the many people who sought to emanate the ‘mystique’ (p. 114) of this class, it was necessary to be able to acquire wealth from doing as little in the way of noticeable laborious pursuits, as possible. ‘Finance and commerce’ (p. 42) quickly became the favoured gentlemanly methods of acquiring fortunes, whilst labour intensive occupations such as manufacturing were deemed inferior. The land owners, however, welcomed the new inventions which were to herald the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. They used their political power to effect such legislative changes as the enclosure movement, forcing many people out of their jobs on the land and into destitution as they left their homes in droves to search for work in the cities.
As Britain led the way in world manufacturing and industry during the 19th century, the nature of the gentlemanly value became more evident as the banking system sought to distance itself from those sectors of the economy who were transforming the face of the British workforce. British banks did little other than offer short term ‘cash advances against invoices’, ‘recycling money from businesses in temporary financial surplus’, ‘to those in temporary deficit’ (p. 117). The bank’s reluctance to invest in industry appeared later to be justified, when in 1878, the City of Glasgow Bank sought help from the Bank of England following its support of Glasgow shipbuilding which fell behind with repayments. Britain declined the request to bail the Scottish bank out of its predicament and it collapsed as did other small banks who...