He doesn't have the tools for an age of scarcity
Two approaches to the cost of living crisis this week. First holiday-going outgoing Prime Minister Boris Johnson patiently explained how kettles worked to his countrymen. Their households face a £3,000 drop in spending power — but they must not worry. “If you have an old kettle that takes ages to boil,” said Johnson, “it may cost you £20 to replace it, but if you get a new one you’ll save £10 a year every year, on your electricity bill”. Only £2900 to go!
Then there is the Martin Lewis approach. Release detailed videos on the energy price cap rise. Sound furious. Tweet loads. Not quite Prime Ministerial either somehow (unless you like your leaders hyperventilating with emotion), but better than 90 percent of the Tory leadership field this summer. Unlike them Lewis understands that Britain is facing a troubling new age of scarcity.
A genial fast-talking savant with theatrical hands, Lewis made himself rich by advising others how to save. He is emblematic of an entire era of British capitalism. He rose to prominence in an post-privatisation era when consumers faced a bewildering array of service providers to choose from.
Lewis — whose weekly money saving newsletter has over 13 million subscribers — set himself up as a sherpa through this peaky neoliberal terrain. If noughties Britain, with its life coaches, barcodes, mobile networks, CCTV, online mortgage lenders, Homebase stores, credit cards, non-town centre chain restaurants, and gas barbecues had a champion, it was Lewis.
“My job is not to change the system,” he often said. “My job is to help people navigate it.” The fact that his advice was sound, and his newsletter featured hacks that could get people cheaper meals at Nando’s, made him immensely popular, and trusted. If Lewis was anything, he was a technocrat. The system worked, and its local problems existed to be adjusted and tweaked out of existence. Experts like Lewis were there to do just that.
Now the system is buckling, and all Lewis’s navigational aids are busted. “I’m virtually out of tools”, he said earlier this summer. His appearances on television and the radio are frenetic. The geniality is gone, replaced by severity. Lewis warns darkly of “civil unrest” — from mass non-payment of energy bills to outright violence on the streets. He is like a protagonist in a late JG Ballard novel, whose personality begins to warp in response to a dangerously psychopathic environment. Part of me expects to see Lewis doing a Network before September’s out.
What solutions does Lewis have, other than shouting about bills on the telly? Earlier this year, at Tony Blair’s “ideas conference” in London, Lewis was interviewed by Emily Maitlis. At last, he believed that the system itself had to be changed:
So that’s the plan: fix our political system so that it is barely democratic at all. Then the state will be free to rescue the British consumer, who is now helplessly beyond the point where expert advice like Lewis’ makes any difference. These look like centrist gripes dressed up as problem solving. They won’t do. For that reason I suspect Lewis belongs to the past, not the future. As Britain enters “the Age of Scarcity” the days when the biggest conundrum consumers faced was how to get cheaper peri-peri chicken will be a distant dream.