Saturday 14 September 2013

Why we need new institution builders

Thank you to everyone who came along to hear Harriet Sergeant, Stephanie Flanders and I, slugging it out at the Chiswick Book Festival this morning.  It was packed out in the Tabard Theatre and it was a fascinating conversation, thanks largely to Stephanie's chairing powers.

The session was billed as a discussion about our failing institutions, and - even though I talked about the middle classes and Harriet talked about south London gangs - there did seem to be some parallels.

What I argued in Broke is that the middle classes have been taken for a ride by the financial institutions they clung to.  They were not sinless.  They colluded in the results, confusing the notional value of their homes with real wealth, but they were still taken for a ride - and their miserable pensions, corroded by hidden charges, and the bleak outlook when it faces their children earning a roof over their heads, are the legacy.

But there is another link which we might have missed.

Our institutions have been hollowed out, partly by greed and arrogance (the financial ones), partly by digital Taylorism (the public services ones).  Our leaders delude themselves as they look at the wholly misleading figures that pour out of the frontline - unaware, apparently, of how distant from reality they are.

But the great strength of the middle classes, not exclusively of course, is that they are institution builders.  And never has our economy and society required effective institutions as much as they do now.

As I wrote this, I am travelling to Glasgow in a Virgin train where the seat reservations had not been downloaded until we left Euston, where there are no hot drinks because the boiler has broken down, and where they are too short staffed to provide a service in first class (so they tell me; I'm in third class).  It is the UK's institutional failure in microcosm.

So I hope that the middle classes will realise the plight that faces their children and will create the institutions we need to give them a chance.

Effective banks are urgently required.  Local lending institutions.  Food businesses.  Effective institutions capable of educating everyone, not giant factories dedicated to delivering outputs.  And we need thousands of new enterprises to take on the monopolies - starting with a real UK competitor to Amazon.

So there we are.  The middle classes.  They might look like the problem, but potentially they are part of the solution.

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