Bernard Ingham: Thank goodness for capitalism: it may be a flawed system, but it’s the one that works

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SOMETHING sensational has happened in British politics. The only game in town is capitalism. Conservatives, Labour and Liberal Democrats are now all singing from the same hymn sheet. They seek the Holy Grail of “responsible”, “ethical”, “moral” or even “John Lewis” capitalism.

The World Economic Forum in Davos today must be ecstatic.

Socialism is dead if not buried. Sooner or later we shall see trade union leaders buying up shares like billyo and turning up at company AGMs demanding better profits to line the pockets of their member-shareholders.

I should perhaps exempt Bob Crow, Len McCluskey and Mark Serwotka from this calumny. They would sooner be seen dead than pass up the chance to hold the public to ransom. They are past masters at the old capitalist trick of using market muscle to maximise returns.

But I digress.

I must confess that I duck when I have “isms” thrown at me. None of them works in its raw state. Communism has slaughtered and enslaved more than Hitler’s fascism ever managed and its African versions still brutally repress millions who might otherwise prosper.

Socialism – now repainted in social democrat colours – is notorious in its pale pink UK state for its starry-eyed idealism, tax and spending sprees and sapping enterprise. We can only afford it in small doses.

I’m hanged if I know what liberalism with a small or capital “L” means any more than I know what “Thatcherism” is really about, except common sense, which probably explains why so many revile it.

This is what makes nonsense of claims that Margaret Thatcher ran a free-market economy. Freer, may be. But free? Balderdash. Everywhere you looked British capitalism was – as it remains – in chains, as I told her more than once.

This was not because I was advocating that it should be let loose on the proletariat red in tooth and claw.

Far from it. I have some idea what dirty capitalist tricks entrepreneurs can play if left to their own devices.

Indeed, I know of no civilised society that allows capitalism its head.

Everywhere it is constrained by regulations, limitations and punitive laws.

This means that responsibility for our current austerity ultimately rests with those, at home and abroad, whose job it was to police the system.

It is hypocrisy to heap blame for the bust on financiers when all of us were only too willing to enjoy the fruits of the boom they engineered and when, incidentally, we did not bat an eyelid, except perhaps enviously, at the “obscene” rewards heaped on them. Sir Fred Goodwin, RBS, now threatened with being stripped of his knighthood, was roundly courted in the good old days of gushing returns.

But let us also recognise that the politicians and their official agents who lost control are only human and that, being consequently imperfect, can never be relied upon to get anything absolutely right.

It would also help if there was a broad recognition as they try to bully the new boss of RBS out of his £1m-plus contractual bonus that ultimately there is not much we can usefully do here in Britain in a globalised market unless the world acts together.

Nor will some people understand this pre-occupation with the City when apparently it is all right for Wayne Rooney to earn up to £250,000 a week and for pop stars to amass gold like Midas – unless, of course, there is a different ethic for those who entertain (and sometimes cause despair) rather than just generate the cash we urgently need.

I am not trying to defend our capitalism. Current capitalists are their own worst enemies. I am merely trying to look logically at the simmering pot of contradictions it represents in 21st century Britain.

The real issue is how, nationally and internationally, we can arm regulators to improve on the abject performance of the last lot of watchdogs to keep capitalism within acceptable bounds.

In these circumstances, all this talk of responsible, ethical, moral or even John Lewis capitalism is mere political window dressing. It may be felt necessary to make obeisances to a higher form of financial activity but it does not get us very far towards controlling the animal spirits that are always liable to run to excess.

It is nonetheless an advance that we are apparently all looking to improve the one system that can be made to deliver a better life for the citizens of the world rather than wistfully yearning for an alternative “ism” that experience shows simply does not work.