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Why I’m a left of centre humanist

By Paul Entwistle

Paul’s background is in finance. He has a longstanding interest in philosophy and political economy which he has been able to develop in retirement. He is a member of the Liberal Democrats.

1066 and all that

My story starts in 1066, when William the Conqueror installed his few hundred henchmen as landowners across the country. Thus was installed a martial and parasitic elite who ruled and collected rent thenceforth. Many of their descendants still have this power (except the martial bit), and I often reference the incredibly wealthy Duke of Westminster who is directly descended from one such lord of the manor.

So, for 800 years or so, life for the peasant or average geezer was nasty, brutish and short by modern standards. We might expect that with the Enlightenment, and industrialisation, conditions would have improved, but a quote from Friedrich Engels’ book The Condition of the Working Class in England (1845) scotches this idea. Whilst pouring contempt onto the money-grabbing bourgeoisie, Engels writes: “I once went into Manchester with such a bourgeois, and spoke to him of the bad, unwholesome method of building, the frightful condition of the working-peoples’ quarters, and asserted that I had never seen so ill-built a city. The man listened quietly to the end, and said at the corner where we parted: “And yet there is a great deal of money made here, good morning, sir.” Engels adds: “It is utterly indifferent to the English bourgeois whether his working-men starve or not, if only he makes money. All the conditions of life are measured by money, and what brings no money is nonsense, unpractical, idealistic bosh.” 

This anecdote summarises for me the debate between profit and quality of life which has endured ever since, though things have of course moved on! If you have never read this book, I strongly recommend it. It is a masterwork of social recording, and it shows that Marx and Engels knew exactly what they were talking about as a basis for their politics. (I should say in passing that I am not a Marxist, if anyone was wondering.)

I would now like to reference a recent talk by David Warden about humanist philosophy, in which he stressed that we are about furthering human flourishing. Now as it happens, I am a Utilitarian, and as you may know they also are in the business of furthering human flourishing, so we are all broadly on the same page here. The differences lie in the ways and means we may adopt.

Principles which point in a leftwards direction

I will now outline some of the principles which I hold which lead me leftwards rather than to the right.

Firstly, the question of the value of a hundred pounds – a simple example I’ve shared with some of you before. If you give £100 to a billionaire, they do not know they have it, and it increases their Utility not one jot. By contrast, if you give £100 to those lacking basic subsistence, you can change their lives enormously for the better, at least in the short term. The Utility/value of money depends on its circumstance, yet we persist in diminishing it by hurling it at the very rich!

But “Aha!” you may say, how then do we incentivise work? And the answer of course in our rather imperfect meritocracy is differentials of income to encourage contribution to the Common Weal. So how much inequality must we introduce to flourish? And my answer is – “much, much, less than we actually have”.

So, with your permission I will scull back to the 19th century, and read an extract from Marx which shows that he too was a Utilitarian, whether he knew it or not. The phrase is “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs”. (Perhaps we can overlook his choice of the masculine pronoun.) Now, our labour market attempts to satisfy the first part by matching jobs to the best candidates. There are many distortions of this, caused by unions and public schools and nepotism and racism and sexism and so forth, but this is what we try and do. But the second part, “to each according to his needs”, is much more interesting, and it would of course optimise Utility. It would also accommodate my earlier point about the figurative £100 – we would be giving it to the most needy in society.

So, returning to our potted history: even after a century of Factory Acts, and other initiatives to improve welfare, it was still obvious that inequality was extreme, and that health, education and welfare were lacking for many. The result was our Welfare State, which tries to do exactly what Marx prescribed. For the Health Service in particular, we provide treatment according to need at the point of delivery, and not based upon ability to pay. As we all know, various social services have been stressed or wiped out by austerity because “we cannot afford them”.

But we are still grossly unequal. How do I know? Well, one measure arises from our place in Northern Europe, and the countries we consider at least in some senses, our peers. In 2017, the UK had both the richest region in Northern Europe (Inner London) and nine of the ten poorest regions. Think about that for a moment. Our wealth inequality must be extreme, and indeed other measures confirm this.

Now “the far Right” or, more precisely, Liz Truss, thinks that if we hurl money at the rich it will revitalise our economy and money will “trickle down” to the lower orders. This is wrong on two counts. Firstly, trickle-down is dead, and has not shown its head since the 1970s. (In reality, of course, money does flow “down”, but it is overwhelmed by the money which floods “upwards” in a rentier society for rent, intellectual property, anything involving land, planning gain, interest and so forth).

Secondly, and probably more importantly, studies show that if you pay money to the very rich, it tends to be diverted offshore or into assets rather than into the everyday economy which keeps all of us ticking over.

Which brings us neatly to taxation. The rich elite are incredibly privileged in many ways. Finite lease terms and ground rents have tried to ensure their estates are maintained from one century to the next, for example. And the UK presides over the greatest network of tax havens on the planet, and leaves in place the systems such as trusts and lack of transparency which enable tax avoidance and evasion to flourish.

So, there's a clue here: close tax loopholes, and tax assets more, and we can achieve a better level of social services, which increases overall wellbeing. But before I say “How do we know?” I want to make clear another matter. I and, so far as I know, other progressives, really do wish for a flourishing and vibrant private sector as the growth engine for the economy. I have never been persuaded that “Left” policies hamper such growth in any way, at least since the advent of Margaret Thatcher! Conversely, if we look at right-leaning policies, we have the example of totally inappropriate privatisations, which have turned our utilities into financial playthings often owned by entities incorporated in tax havens, and which are failing us in numerous ways. As further examples, we have the entirely right-wing financial catastrophes of Test-and-Trace (a public health strategy used to identify and manage individuals who have come into contact with an infectious disease, notably employed during the COVID-19 pandemic), and HS2 (a high-speed railway under construction in the UK) which actively avoided using much cheaper available public resources in favour of massive, ill-judged and appallingly managed private-sector contracts. That’s £100 billion right there!

The other accusation aimed at the Left is that their bureaucracy hampers swashbuckling laissez-faire growth from which we all benefit. Let’s look for a moment at what we are free to do in Conservative Britain, or at least have been until recently:

  • You can live in Monte Carlo and buy British Home Stores (BHS), strip out any spare cash by way of a tax-free billion-pound dividend to your spouse, bankrupt the company through lack of investment, and try and strip out the pension fund to boot.

  • You can build flammable cladding onto high-rise buildings, with ambiguous and inadequate rules and the collusion of corrupt regulators and councils.

  • You can set up a subsidiary to build a block of flats and then go broke just afterwards to avoid any future liabilities.

  • You can set up a chain of care homes purely for financial gain and book profits in a tax haven. (I note that both Labour and Conservatives are at fault here). I submit that decent regulation would be quite an improvement!

And so back to the vision of higher taxation on assets – what gives me confidence in this project? Well, I was one of the many struck by the 2010 book The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, which showed strong correlations between dis-ease in a country and inequality. I think we can broadly conclude that other North European countries enjoy a number of advantages over us. They have higher overall taxation than we do, and so better public services, and thus better scores for wellbeing. But – and this is the proof of the pudding for me – they have normally enjoyed better growth than the UK in spite of the higher tax base, and they certainly now enjoy a higher standard of living. This sounds to me like a model to follow.


So, my conclusion is that with compassionate left-wing policies within a country which still controls great wealth, we can have a vibrant private sector AND the best of welfare. I suspect that most humanists would sleep more soundly knowing that our disadvantaged brothers and sisters have a secure home and know where their next meal is coming from. I know I do!

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1 Comment

I think everybody would agree with the points raised here, that tax evasion and avoidance are things to tackle, I think everyone would agree buying companies and letting them fall, or embezzlement of pension pots etc, I'm not sure a right wing population would support any of those. It sounds like a sub-department needs setting up to tackle these issues collectively, both in tax, duty, moral righteousness and more.

Can we dictate who buys a company if its for sale? Can we tell owners of a company how they manage it? I'd like to hear counterpoint to the issues you've mentioned, as to what you would suggest if you were sat in cabinet on how to address these points.

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