The Britain I grew into in my formative years was a stable, safe and benign place. Green and pleasant, even. My parents were teachers, whose income permitted a secure if fairly modest way of life, and over time their hard work permitted progress to a better home and a more comfortable way of life.
From my South-Western perspective, general British life held every hope of my own following a similar pattern. But I was aware that the same was not true everywhere: journeys to family in the Midlands, and later further north revealed a country pock-marked by industrial decline, many of whose towns and cities were dowdy, declining places where life was basic, and getting worse. Despite my own good fortune, my memories of the period include images of national decline and industrial strife, not to mention the desperate situation in Northern Ireland; the trajectory seemed to lead inexorably downward.
Yet much of my recent reading has hailed the Seventies as the tail-end of the most egalitarian period in Britain’s history, when people like my parents had the best ever chances of social and material progress.
The about-turn of the late 1980s came as a welcome shock: it seemed that, after all, Britain was capable of being a positive, colourful and dynamic place where optimism ruled. Thatcher’s revolution did indeed seem to be turning the country around, something I encountered most strongly when I landed in the South-East in 1987, where wealth was clearly being generated and a revival was underway.
But it quickly became evident that a teacher like me had already been priced out: on my salary of £8500, at £35,000 even a terraced house was already out of reach, and I was forced to rent rooms for the first eight years of my career. But I could see people all around who were buying fast cars, furnishing desirable homes and taking glamorous holidays. Somehow I accepted the suggestion that it was not for the likes of me.
In the interim, we have been presented with an image of a Britain as the economic innovator of Europe, a thrusting buccaneer of the deregulated market. And the number of towers visible on the journey into London has indeed mushroomed ever since. Large areas of the East End are unrecognisable from the dereliction that I used to travel through. Even parts of the great northern cities have followed suit.
And yet mid-way through 2018, with Brexit a mere six months away, I feel increasingly bewildered about the nation of which I am a part. I wonder whether I really knew it all along – or whether the last forty years have been one enormous confidence trick. A recent visit to Italy only served to amplify this – and I made the ‘mistake’ of reading Danny Dorling’s blood-pressure-raising book Inequality and the 1% on the way home.
The great national revival of the last few decades seems to have got us – or at least most of us – nowhere. Much of the gloss put on the state of the nation ever since has done nothing more than paper over the long-standing structural weaknesses which have never been properly repaired, and are now all too visible again.
While life has continued to get better and better for the former Yuppies, everyone else has been left behind. It’s glaringly obvious to me that it was the same people who trashed the economy in 2008 who were racing their Porsches around the M25 a few decades earlier. They have been feathering their own nests at everyone else’s expense ever since – only now they control the system too. I find it all the more galling that they are the people who, as a grammar-school first-year I looked up to as the responsible sixth formers.
The Crash and Brexit have done nothing more than reveal the rottenness that has been there all along: the extent to which this country still mostly operates in the interests of a small elite of often-hereditary wealthy, who have been joined by a new breed of narcissistic sociopath who can only see the rest of the population as the suckers from whom as much should be taken as possible, and who lack even the social conscience – such as it was – of the traditional higher orders.
The great (financial) services sector on which Thatcher built our new economy has utterly failed to enrich the nation at large, or to deal with its structural and attitudinal problems. Those whom it did help have pulled up the ladders behind them. Beyond the newly-glossy city centres, not much has really changed either in the depressed places ‘up north’ – or the smaller towns have had even less attention from a polity whose entire focus was city – and mostly London – centric.
The hollowing out has picked up where it left off. It has become acceptable that services for the least fortunate have been pared back, that food banks are a fact of life, and that there is almost no welfare state to act as a safety net. Much of what passes for national life has been built on access to cheap credit that has ultimately only enriched the already-wealthy. And much of the rest of the country is being bricked over with amenity-less, community-free rabbit hutches whose main purpose is also to enrich the companies that build them and the landlords who let them.
This has been further driven home by my own circumstances: while we are hardly a priority case, the lack of realistic hope of accessing any support since I lost too my job (partly as a result of public-sector cost-cutting) has had a severe impact on our circumstances. Such is the over-demand, my G.P, recommended I go private for mental health services when I needed them quickly, at a cost well into four figures, when we could least afford it. It had to be done.
As someone who paid all his taxes and National Insurance, who did a demanding, socially-conscious job – and who made no call on that same ‘insurance policy’ beyond the odd bit of health care (having no children, we have never drawn even child allowances or used the school system), I can’t help but feel we were sold a pup. So much for the social ideals and ‘guarantees’ of the post-war period. So much for the customer being king: thanks to the free-marketeers, the British welfare state has become a rubbish product.
But this is not a personal sob story: my own situation is only (mildly) reflective of the real, deep difficulties encountered by too many in this country. But if it is affecting even a middle-class professional like me, there must be something deeply wrong.
One observation in Dorling’s book startled me. Rather naively, I believed that the riches hoarded by the well-off were somehow additional to the rest of the nation’s wealth. But it is not so: the more the 1% takes, the less there is for everyone else. There is a direct correlation between inequality and general means – and it explains why, in less unequal countries that I know, even my peers have noticeably more resources than their British equivalents.
To put it starkly: one person whose income is 20 times higher than the national average is actively depriving another nineteen of a significant share of the national wealth, that might be distributed amongst them, or spent on the general good. The enrichment of the 1% actively contributes to the impoverishment of the rest – and not only those at the bottom, for all that they fare the worst.
Trickle-down theories of wealth have been shown not to work: the more the 1% acquires the greater lengths it goes to, to make sure it keeps hold of as much as possible. The argument for high taxation is often rebutted on the grounds that it raises relatively little revenue; while this may be true, it does suppress the incentives for the avaricious, low-conscience few from hoarding so much in the first place. An altogether more convincing case.
It becomes increasingly clear that the self-image that this nation still holds dear is – as it always has been – almost entirely the fabrication of a small, extremely privileged group for whom life is very good indeed. Their brilliance was in selling it so successfully to the rest, to the extent that it is, even today, more ingrained than we imagine.
The approach of Brexit has led to more such drum-banging by those most likely to be insulated from its effects. They feel entitled to do so because they feel entitled about life in general, in a way I don’t encounter in more democratic countries – and they care little about the free-fall that the rest of the nation is experiencing.
But Brexit, as with the Crash and M.P.s’ expenses scandal has presented the privileged classes with crises that even they have not been able to cover up entirely. Above all, Brexit has faced our ‘exemplary’ democratic system with a dilemma that it simply cannot handle. It has not been maintained well enough by those self-same ruling classes to do so in any meaning of the General Good.
I sense this country is approaching a critical moment in its history: something dramatic which in itself, we never expect to experience in Britain. Brexit may well prove to be the trigger for even bigger changes to come. I don’t know what, but something is going to happen. And I don’t trust or believe that it will be brought about by the existing order, who show time and again that they only ever look after their own. May’s instincts are as authoritarian as Thatcher’s – itself ironic since neither came from the traditional ruling classes.
The double-nelson in which the elite holds the nation makes it likely that we will follow the U.S. down its lonely path to ever greater inequality, to depths that even this country has yet to experience. Or could it be that this will be the spark-point for something that puts us back on the path that almost all other advanced nations have been following while we and Uncle Sam were fooling with our free market nonsense? Nations where inequalities have fallen, and even now are being held in check to a degree that the British system (which actually fuels them) has failed to do.
What will be the effect of changing demographics and life-chances on the nation as a whole? I find it hard to believe that we can maintain business as usual for much longer.
It’s an illusion to believe that other countries don’t have problems. Italy has more than its share – but they have something right, because at least in the north, their towns are vibrant, thriving places, and their communities still seem to be socially connected. It is visible to anyone who visits. This in contrast to the atomised, hollowed out lives and places that are too much a feature of this country, even in parts that have sufficient wealth that one might expect them to be different.
And there are plenty of other countries nearby who seem to be weathering the challenges of our era far better than Britain. Post-War, they built stronger foundations.
My overwhelming sense at present is of confusion: of not knowing my own nation any more. Everything I thought I knew about it turns out to be built of the sand of blithe assurances and myth-building by a class who were working to an entirely different agenda all along. Even now they continue to present a public facade of implacable self-assurance. It’s all they know how to do, even in the face of a nation that can now see right through it.
At last they and their blathering have been revealed for what they are – but is it too late for a nation in a tail-spin? As/if we leave the EU (whose main ‘threat’ to this country is its tendency to undermine elites in the name of perhaps-idealistic democracy) how will we pull out of the nose-dive?