BILL KIRKMAN

The current international crisis is an opportunity to go beyond posturing to change some of the basic structures on which a consumer society is built.

Unless you are a dedicated party member, it is difficult to get excited by the annual political party conferences, which take place in Britain each year at this time. Traditionally, the conferences of the three main parties, the Liberal Democrats, Labour, and the Conservatives, follow each other in close succession, towards the end of the parliamentary summer recess. Rarely does much come up which is surprising. The politicians reassure their faithful supporters that they are doing a splendid job, and that the other lot are (if the other lot are the government) or would be (if they are the opposition) a disaster. One does not have to be too sophisticated an observer to recognise that very much the same kind of thing applies in other countries also.

Against the current backdrop of international financial crisis, the situation is completely different. Listen as I did to electors in Birmingham (where the Conservative party conference is taking place) interviewed on the radio today, and you find pretty well everyone saying the same thing. They are not interested in the posturing of the politicians. They want a clear indication of what they propose to do about the situation, and how they propose to do it.

Across party lines

The same thing was true when people were interviewed at the time of the Labour party conference, in Manchester, and the Liberal Democrat conference in Bournemouth.

Everyone knows that the situation is dire, and that international bankers have made a mess of things. People have lost confidence in the regulatory authorities. Financial expertise is questioned, and not trusted. It is certainly not taken for granted. What is true of the United Kingdom is equally true of the United States. When huge and apparently unassailable pillars of the financial world come tumbling down overnight, it is increasingly difficult to persuade people to take seriously the judgment of those who have been responsible for running the international economy.

In these circumstances, it is, of course, easy to make apocalyptic prophecies of ever greater disaster, and, of course, no one will be likely to underestimate the seriousness and extent of the crisis. Nor should we.

The situation does, however, offer real opportunities to the politicians to think some truly radical thoughts. In other words, it offers opportunities to examine not simply what the things are that have gone wrong in the financial institutions, and what remedies should be sought, but to look far more fundamentally at what changes need to be made in the way society as a whole works.

Some questions spring to mind. What should the balance be between the provision of a service and making a profit? Corporate social responsibility is a frequently repeated mantra; what should its exercise really involve? In what way can the receipt of huge financial rewards by people who have allowed financial institutions to collapse be balanced against the losses incurred by their customers?

There are other, more philosophical, questions, such as, for example, how to distinguish between cost and value.

Needs and wants

The questions may be focused not simply on those at the helm of (often now rudderless) financial institutions. As consumers, we all need to develop a clearer understanding of the difference between what we want, and what we need. We need, too, to look critically at some of our assumptions. If we own a house, for example, do we view it mainly as a home, or as an investment?

If one accepts the general thesis that the present international crisis requires something more than reorganising the ownership of vast financial institutions (though clearly that in itself is an almost unbelievably massive operation, and one that challenges many long-held assumptions) political leaders are faced with some major opportunities.

The change in the flavour of the presidential electoral battle in the United States provides a clear indication of this. In Britain, where the politicians are not currently facing a general election, but where the big talking point is whether, and for how long, the present government can survive, my feeling is that the nature of political discourse is changing fundamentally. It will probably take some time for the politicians to react equally fundamentally. The habits of traditional cut and thrust are deeply ingrained.

They will be wise, however, to listen carefully to the electorate, who are looking for something much more far-reaching than first aid measures. Yes, the immediate need is to tackle the financial crisis, but what people are clearly looking for is a change in many of the structures on which our society is built.

Bill Kirkman is an Emeritus Fellow of Wolfson College Cambridge, U.K. Email him at: bill.kirkman@gmail.com