Will Hutton has never been one for moderating his views for the sake of wider opinion – unusual perhaps for a man who has occupied two of the plum jobs in public life: editor of The Observer and principal of an Oxford College (Hertford). As I explained what I wanted to cover, he quickly pounced on the EU, discussing it with the passion he always affords topics he considers important.
Our interview took place on the morning after the first Obama-Romney debate, so a comparison with the US came as an appropriate starting point: “In America right-wing politicians will run against Washington. I think a lot of right-wing politicians in Britain run against Brussels for the same reasons – that enterprise needs to be unvetted and unchained, liberty and individualism require less state, and both federal government and the ambitions of the European superstate must be resisted to the last.”
His contempt for and exasperation with Eurosceptics who cannot see the faults of such a view are evident. “This intersects with an introverted state in Britain. A sort of jingoistic nationalism obstructing globalisation.” Hutton quickly refers to some of the more outspoken Eurosceptics in the public eye, labelling the likes of Nigel Farage and Dan Hannan as “plausible used car salesmen”. When I suggest that even though these figures hold extreme views, the public mood is still an anti-Europe one, he agrees that this is an ongoing problem.
“How to make the Brits love Europe? In some respects I actually think, in my dark days, let’s have an in/out referendum and if we lose it, let’s live with the consequences. The Euro will survive in one form or another as it’s a superior way of organising a currency relationship, and by not pegging our currency to the Euro, or joining it, we have foregone a stable industrialised economy. When Europeans get their act together, we will want to be a part of that. There really is no point being a spectator. What goes on in Brussels, in its rights environment, actually frames the rules, policy direction, foreign policy, and social standings of the continent. You can either be in there, arguing the toss, or you end up just shadowing the outcome, having never been part of the debate.’
In a week in which the EU has won the Nobel Peace Prize, Hutton believes that Eurosceptics such as Douglas Carswell – who labelled the award “hilarious”- are selectively forgetting key parts of European history: “Economic failure in the ‘50s and ‘60s finally persuaded Britain that we needed to get some of the pie that the Germans and the French were creating. The Americans don’t care about us – they see the Germans as leading the European attachment and Obama has been less interested in Cameron than any previous relationship. We are a middle ranking country- we haven’t got that many options. And it’s better to have friends.”
Our animated discussion of the EU goes on far longer than either of us had planned so we hurry on to his current area of interest: Oxford. “I’ve been surprised all around really. It’s an institution of global standing – very outward-looking – but actually it is simultaneously quite inward-looking, where people are very occupied with the minutiae that a college in Oxford loves, and I am constantly surprised by the flip from one way to another.’
At this point our interview takes an unexpected turn when he states that one of his biggest surprises in Oxford was the amount of food that is consumed. “I didn’t know, or maybe I kind of knew, that the job of principal was more a lifestyle than a job. People say jokingly that I could eat for Oxford, and actually there’s an awful lot of food.” He swiftly moves on to showing his appreciation of the democracy at play in the governance of Oxford colleges. “The college governing bodies are very democratic and I must say (I’ll probably eat my words and there’ll be some disaster) I really a good way of governing an institution, or an academic institution like a college.”
World-renowned for his Keynesian economic views, this wouldn’t be a proper Hutton interview without a bit of economic policy thrown in. His views on our current economic state however, are very self- deprecating.
He plays down any foresight in predicting the recession – he’s been claiming for decades that the structure of British capitalism has been dysfunctional, dismissing it as “obvious”, and places the blame for our current predicament firmly on the shortsighted complacency of “my generation”. “Too little attention is paid to the longer consequence of inequality, that putting all our eggs in the financial services basket was going to be a first-order economic mistake. Not actually thinking about productive entrepreneurship and all that flows from it was unsustainable.” He is frustrated at the timid tendency to follow the status quo, with those on both the right and left equally culpable: “It was my generation’s opportunity and it was blown away.”
Hutton concedes that 20 years ago, his views were seen by many in the City as anti-business and a hindrance to economic growth, but he gives examples of previously unlikely figures, such as Elizabeth Murdoch, daughter of Rupert, and John Cridland, director of the Confederation of British Industry, both mirroring his views and publicly supporting them. His generation may have blown it, but his optimism persists: “The world is changing, but is it going to change fast enough for you?”
Before we leave, I ask whether, as his economic predictions are now holding true and given his strong opinions on many areas of policy, which he is never shy of voicing, whether political office was ever a temptation? The answer was worthy of any politician trying to dodge a direct question: “Well, you’ll laugh, but I’m still really trying to work out what I want to do with my life – I don’t exclude it.” Hutton for 2015 perhaps.