There Is No Wealth But Life

Think Tank

3 min read

Mark Goyder is a senior advisor to the Board Intelligence Think Tank. He’s the founder of Tomorrow’s Company and co-author with Ong Boon Hwee of Entrusted: Stewardship for Responsible Wealth Creation.

I love this time of year. Here in Suffolk, the ground is carpeted in bluebells. The sun shines through the early growth on the beech trees. This year I love it all the more because I recently had a cataract removed. I see things more clearly. My vision is improved.


The word has been much used here in the UK in the week following many and various May elections. Labour Party leader Keir Starmer, in particular, is being pressed to set out his vision. In their article in The Observer, Tarik Abou-Chadi and Jane Gingrich say that it is not just in Britain that social democracy is losing its way. They observe the same thing happening across Europe. The reason, in their view, is that “social democrats have largely failed to construct an agenda that both communicates a clear vision of economic policy, but is not only focused on economics.”

Visionary leaders see the world differently. They then help others to see the world differently. The third stage is to turn the vision into reality.

So what might it mean for a political leader to communicate a clear vision of economic policy that transcends economics?

We all know the usual stuff — jobs, investment, skills. Then there are the slogans — “for the many, not the few.” “Levelling up.”

A visionary leader would go deeper. Given the loss of life, and the restricted quality of life the last 12 months, they would connect the economy to life. It was the nineteenth-century art critic John Ruskin who wrote: “There is no wealth but life. Life, including all its powers of love, of joy, and of admiration. That country is the richest which nourishes the greatest number of noble and happy human beings.”

Here’s the Stage One — a clear vision of economic policy that transcends economic policy. Stage Two is getting others to share it, connecting with their experience. Remind people what they have valued — and what they have missed — these past 12 months and what a different government should provide.

Most people accept that the market economy brings them many benefits. They appreciate the efficiency of supermarkets; the convenience of home deliveries; the range of choice of entertainment in the home that the internet gives them, they miss their access to relatively affordable foreign holidays.

And yet… How rich is a country whose residential care arrangements have turned care homes into prisons? Whose graduating students will be heading out into the world with average debts in excess of £30,000 after a year of listening to lectures in their bedrooms? Whose best-known housing companies have been paying their CEOs million-pound bonuses while trapping unsuspecting buyers with ground rents whose costs steadily escalate? In which the very wealthy are snapping up what could have been local citizens’ first homes for their second or third homes? A country where the Grenfell Tower tragedy killed 72 people, and, four years later, has left residents of 1.3m properties trapped and potentially at risk, with a cumulative repair bill estimated at £5bn? In which, rivers are dying and the population of nightingales has declined by over 90% in ten years?

Most of us are a mixture. We want the benefits of a consumer society but we also want and appreciate the benefits of a caring public sector. We have a sense of fairness. We want the poorest among us to be treated well and are not sympathetic to tax relief for “non-dom” billionaires.

There is no wealth but life. Ruskin goes on to say that the wealthiest man — let’s say person! — is the one who, “Having perfected the functions of his life to the utmost, has also the widest helpful influence, both personal, and by means of his possessions, over the lives of others.”

In 2020, the last year before the results were skewed by experience of the pandemic, the Edelman Trust Monitor warned us that a sense of inequity is undermining trust. In 2019, only one in five of people surveyed around the world felt that the system was working for them, with nearly half feeling that it was failing them.

Given this evidence, it really should not be difficult for a political party to start to construct “an agenda that both communicates a clear vision of economic policy, but is not only focused on economics.” I have my own ideas on what government and business and citizens could together do differently and so does Tomorrow’s Company.

Stage One in visionary leadership is to see things differently. Ruskin helps us do that. Stage Two is to help others see the vision. Stage Three is to put the vision into action. You may not be a political leader but you can help us influence their agenda. Why not share with the Board Intelligence Think Tank your ideas for an economic policy that is focused on fairness? You will be contributing to a collective cataract operation that is intended to improve the nation’s vision.

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