As Mrs Maybe gives a prim address on the pristine virtues of capitalism, and as Oh Jeremy Corbyn tells his fans that neoliberalism is broken, it seems that the virtues or otherwise of capitalism are once again being kicked around.
An earlier Tory prime minister, and a man with a crisper command of English than Mrs Maybe, had his own take on this matter. Winston Churchill said: “The inherent vice of capitalism is the unequal sharing of blessings; the inherent virtue of socialism is the equal sharing of miseries.”
When she swerved through her rivals to nip into Number 10, Theresa May appeared to step back from free-market Thatcherism, speaking up for the state and pledging to intervene to fix “broken markets”.
The Tory manifesto for her hubristically unfortunate election even stated: “We do not believe in untrammelled free markets. We reject the cult of selfish individualism. We abhor social division, injustice, unfairness and inequality.”
For all that, yesterday Mrs Maybe gave her free-market cred a spit and polish. In a speech to mark the 20th anniversary of Bank of England independence, she said: “A free market economy, operating under the right rules and regulations, is the greatest agent of collective human progress ever created…This is unquestionably the best, and indeed the only sustainable, means of increasing the living standards of everyone in a country.”
While we pause to suck on that gobstopper, it is worth pointing out that her speech came the day after Jeremy Corbyn’s conference address suggested that Labour would rebalance the economy with more state involvement.
A YouGov poll suggest that 58% of people support renationalising the railways, water companies and other utilities, while 17 per cent were opposed to this. This indicates that policies the Tories see as extreme are in fact supported by many voters.
The debate of the virtues of capitalism – and Corbyn should stop saying ‘neoliberalism’, as it means little to ordinary voters – is partly down to mood music.
Corbyn wants to be seen coming down hard on the ruthless capitalism that rides roughshod over people’s lives; May wants to – well, what does she want exactly? One minute she embraces the state and doesn’t believe in “untrammelled free markets”; the next she says that the free market is the “greatest agent of collective human progress ever created”.
That one stopped me in my tracks. The greatest what? Capitalism is an unavoidable engine in our lives; it does great good and can do great harm. The world has never found a different way to do business, and probably never will.
But Mrs Maybe, in her prim little sermon, suddenly sounded as if capitalism represented God’s good work. That woman doesn’t seem to know what she believes some days.
Perhaps this is how the breakfast conversation runs: “Philip, today I am mostly going to be supporting the state as a means of helping the JAM…”
“Oh, yes please, pass it over.”
“Not jam – JAM – the just about managing.”
“Ah, them. Well I am just about managing to eat my breakfast, and…”
“But then again capitalism has been such a force for good in our lives…”
“Well it has it our lives, eh, love? Done us very nicely. Good old capitalism.”
“Ah yes, it is good, isn’t dear. Thanks for putting me back on track. Pass the marmalade.”
“Is that another acronym?”
“No, just marmalade, dear.”
Often in politics what is said is about creating the desired mood, while also being a reaction to what the other lot has just said. Mrs Maybe’s sermon on the mount of gold is interpreted as a riposte to Jeremy Corbyn’s attack on capitalism; and we can expect more of the same as the Tories gather in Manchester (what has that fine city done to deserve such a visit?).
Here are three closing thoughts.
One: capitalism seems happy to romp away, grabbing what it desires, until everything goes tits up, and suddenly Uncle Moneybags expects the state to step in, as happened with the banks.
Two: Mrs Maybe’s unreliable friend Donald Trump has agreed to slap a 220% import tariff on Bombardier’s C-Series jet, partly made in Belfast, at the urging of US rival Boeing – is this how free markets are supposed to work?
Three: Everything Mrs Maybe and Oh Jeremy Corbyn squabble about overlooks the fact that China goes its own way, taking over the world with its monster hybrid of capitalism and communism, without caring a jot whether something is untrammelled or not.