Will Hutton

Doctor of Laws

11 July 2003

Mr Vice-Chancellor,

This is not the first time that Will Hutton has stood on this platform to receive a degree from the University of Bristol. In 1971, he walked across this stage to receive a Joint Honours degree in Economics and Sociology. Some current staff remember him as an undergraduate. Perhaps surprisingly in view of his subsequent career, he was not, he says, then particularly interested in politics. Although the years from 1968 to 1971 were the high point of student radicalism, he did not demonstrate in Grosvenor Square; and although he did join the occupation of Senate House here in Bristol, he left after half an hour because it was so uncomfortable.

Seven years in a Merchant Bank changed that. After working as an investment analyst and Senior Account Executive, he left the City in 1977 to study for an MBA at Insead, the Business School at Fontainebleu. In 1978, he began his career as a broadcaster and journalist with the BBC, working initially for Radio 4’s The Financial World Tonight and Moneybox. In 1981, he made the transition to television, spending two years as producer and director of The Money Programme, and six as Economics Editor for Newsnight and as a reporter for Panorama. In the early 1980s, television economic journalism was not well established or successful, so he was breaking new ground for the medium as well as learning new skills himself. The years with Newsnight and Panorama involved travelling widely in Britain, reporting the effects of de-industrialisation across the country. He developed a grounded knowledge of the consequences of economic restructuring, and a growing anger at social injustice. The subjects he covered were varied and sometimes controversial. They included the economic decline of Bradford; the miners’ strike; the potential privatisation of the telecommunications industry; the lack of an appropriate institutional structure to support the economy in Cornwall; and the lack of effective regulation in the City, resulting in conflicts of interest between investment banks and their clients, and insider trading. Then, from 1988, he spent two years based in Switzerland as Editor in Chief of the European Business Channel. 

During those twelve busy years in radio and television, he did manage at least some degree of work-life balance. He married his wife Jane in 1978. They celebrate their twenty-fifth anniversary later this year. By 1990, they had three children, Sarah, Alice and Andrew. And in 1990, Will Hutton became Economics Editor of The Guardian. I should not encourage the stereotyping of sociologists, but it is true that colleagues here with an interest in political economy became regular readers of his work at that point, and were increasingly impressed by it. Early in 1995, he came back to the University as a Benjamin Meaker Visiting Professor, delivering three fine and stimulating lectures to a packed and fascinated audience. Those lectures coincided with the publication of a major book that was to be a turning point in his career. The State We’re In is an incisive analysis of the peculiarities of British capitalism and its social consequences. It points to increasing insecurity in the labour market, and the emergence of the ‘30:30:40’ society – with 30 per cent suffering poverty and social exclusion, 30 per cent subject to insecure pay and conditions, and only 40 per cent in well-paid, stable, pensionable employment. Underlying growing inequality, social division and social exclusion are financial structures and a corporate culture geared to short-term profits, sustained by a socially divisive education system. The State We’re In argued that cultural and structural changes across society, but especially in corporate governance, were necessary for economic stability and social cohesion. It insisted on the importance of institutional structures, advocating stakeholding at the level of the firm, and reforms to public services to make them more inclusive.

Most social scientists aspire to reach a wide audience, inform public debate and make a practical difference. The State We’re In combined accessibility and popularity with serious analysis, sold 250,000 copies and confirmed Will Hutton’s position as a public intellectual. The softback edition was the only work of sociology, politics, economics or social policy in the top hundred paperbacks of the year. Even the rock band Radiohead claimed Will Hutton as inspiration of their 1997 release OK Computer. Academic commentators suggested that Hutton’s influence on the next fifty years ‘may yet prove to be as seminal as that of Keynes and Beveridge on the last fifty’. Even those who disagreed with him recognised the importance of his argument: one dissenter described him as ‘today’s most influential and widely-quoted radical thinker’. A new generation of students at Bristol found Will Hutton’s work on their reading lists and examination papers: ‘Will stakeholding work?’ or ‘Critically evaluate Hutton’s depiction of the 30:30:40 society’.

He remained with The Guardian and Observer newspapers until 1999, as Economics Editor and Assistant Editor of The Guardian, and then as Editor and Editor-in-Chief of The Observer. Alongside a growing public profile, he found time to produce three more books, The State to Come, The Stakeholding Society, and On the Edge, the last co-edited with the eminent sociologist Anthony Giddens. Throughout the 1990s, Will Hutton produced a steady stream of articles, many of which serve to communicate academic work in the social sciences to a wider audience. Many also provide incisive critiques of social and economic processes and policies, from the Private Finance Initiatives to the state of public parks. The hallmark of Will Hutton’s work is that these critiques are always positive. A passionate anger at social injustice underlies his analysis of its causes. But above all, he does not believe this injustice to be inevitable. He therefore has the courage and vision to offer solutions, optimism and hope – and to insist that we must engage in a collective conversation about the institutional structure necessary to a decent society and how this can be achieved. At a meeting at the Oxford Labour Club in 2000, Gordon Brown’s adviser Ed Balls complained plaintively to the audience that ‘Will Hutton makes you feel better’.

A constant theme in Will Hutton’s work since the 1980s is that British business does not work well either for business or for the working population, and that institutional structures need to reflect greater respect by employers for their employees. In 2000, he became Chief Executive of the Industrial Society, founded in 1918 by Robert Hyde in response to brutal exploitation in the East End of London. Hyde similarly believed that good working conditions improve productivity and wealth creation. Throughout the twentieth century, the Industrial Society fostered and campaigned for better training, better management, and corporate social responsibility. In 2002, it was re-launched as the Work Foundation, an independent not-for-profit think-tank still dedicated to improving both productivity and the quality of working life in the UK, and to making workplaces more effective, successful and fulfilling.

Will Hutton also chaired the Commission on Accountability in the National Health Service, which reported as New Life for Health. He has been involved in discussions about the preamble to a possible constitution for the European Union. Internationally, his most recent book, The World We’re In, a defence of Britain’s role in Europe, looks set to match the sales of The State We’re In. It has just been launched in a new edition in the United States of America under the title A Declaration of Interdependence, and has been translated into Russian and Italian. Somehow, he also found time to take up golf in his fiftieth year.

The purpose of a social science education is not primarily to produce professional social scientists. It is to contribute to an informed and engaged citizenry. Few can claim to have done this as consistently and effectively as Will Hutton. As a public intellectual, he has constantly insisted on the importance of the public domain, of democratic debate and democratic accountability. The Work Foundation is another forum for this, since it too seeks to influence the public conversation about work and working life. Will Hutton’s career has been, and continues to be, an unparalleled contribution to raising the level of public debate in Britain.

Mr Vice-Chancellor, I present to you Will Hutton as eminently worthy of the degree of Doctor of Laws honoris causa.

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