Allan Little’s Big Interview: Kamal Ahmed  

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Edinburgh International Book Festival
12.8.18


Kamal Ahmed is the Economics editor of the BBC so I knew when I turned up for this event that I was in for some highbrow chat. As the talk was billed as ‘Has capitalism hit the buffers?’ I was also hoping for some answers. As a raving socialist I was on some level hoping for a polemical attack on late stage capitalism but of course I should have known better for this was a balanced nuanced discussion which never the less did in its own way provide satisfying answers to the question.

First off Little and Ahmed talked about a bit about the background to the current situation we find ourselves in explaining how Keynsian consensus was arrived at in the aftermath of WW2 and how until the 1970’s a balance existed between a mixed economy and a strong welfare state. The difficult period of strikes and power cuts in the 1970’s led to this breaking down and its replacement by the neo-liberal ideas of Milton Friedman and the Chicago school. This free market economic ideas led to Thatcher and Reagan whose attitude that the market will provide continued until the financial crash of 2008.

Ahmed pointed out that there have been other crashes since WW2 such as the Asian crash which is still effecting Japan today but acknowledged that 2008’s was a game-changer. The main difference Ahmed suggested was that the effect had been so devastating because the banks were now global. When challenged by Little on how the banks themselves had been effected Ahmed explained that there were in fact far greater controls on them than previously and that their balance sheets were drastically reduced. This meant also that they were risk averse which caused various problems. It means that they invest in fixed capital eg properties rather than other types e.g. new businesses causing people’s incomes to drop and remain low. It became apparent that Ahmed himself was not in any sense an anti-capitalist. He suggested that capitalism had been a positive force in emerging economies in South Asia allowing many citizens to rise out of poverty. He was however concerned that China’s successes demonstrated that capitalism’s previous interconnected relationship with democracy was crumbling. He felt that the technological behemoths of corporations such as Amazon and Google were also doing much to destroy notions of accountability and fair practice.

Ahmed felt that capitalism was failing in its central promise of rewarding those who work hard and ‘play the game’ He recognised that Millennials have a very different more cynical attitude to the older generations with regards to the capitalist consensus and that if Capitalism was to remain relevant it would have to change. He suggested that in the 21st century people wanted ‘a democracy you could touch’ and that he saw a return to localism combined with a kind of loose global policing of big business as a plausible way forward.

The discussion then went on to explore recent changes in attitude to the way the general public consume and relate to the media. Little challenged Ahmed about the erosion of trust in the BBC something which he met head on. Ahmed felt that it was important to retain a sense of balance but acknowledged the difficulties of this in a more polarised world. He felt that ultimately the BBC needed to be rigorous in all areas and non-partisan and that all sides should be treated with the same level of scrutiny. He suggested that this did not necessarily mean always having balance as he had to ultimately make a judgement call based on where he felt the truth lay. This he suggested was based on trusting the findings of experts and by being data led. He felt that the polarised binary way in which Brexit was reported was unhelpful and that he s aught to be direct and straight forward in his approach. He was interested in modernising news and current affairs in a way which recognised the different way people now consume news whilst also acknowledging that the disconnect the media creates between itself and people’s real lives has made it hard for them to trust.

This was a nuanced, intelligent discussion which certainly provided much for me to process and reflect upon – a far cry from the hectoring sloganeering of much of today’s media discussion.

Ian Pepper

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