Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs

A Critical Thinking approach to Brexit – Part 2

After the long discussion in part 1, this is somewhat shorter…

If it is accepted that public debate on the specifics of matters like Brexit is inevitably limited to unprovable matters of belief, one is left with the question of how should it be debated.

Rather than resorting to claim and counter-claim, it would have been much better to establish a set of key principles against which to evaluate competing options. While this partially happened at political level, the difficulty is transferring it to the public arena, and an audience that inevitably has neither the knowledge to evaluate what is being suggested nor (probably) much patience with arcane technicalities.

The proof of this was the failure of Remain to capture public support. And their opposition did not help either its own case or the debate as a whole by being repeatedly unable to convey either a focused, specific definition of what Leave actually meant, or even a set of specific criteria against which its claims could be evaluated.

Add to that a public whose understanding of the issue largely resides in the category ‘unknown unknowns’ (i.e. it doesn’t even know what it needs to know in order to make an informed decision) – and constitutional arrangements that are arcane in the extreme – and we had the recipe for a perfect storm.

Experience suggests that much of the public remains in a state of not wanting to hear what it needs to know either. This is what my book was hoping to address: a relatively non-partisan examination of the physical and psychological state of the nation which is arguably the real problem underpinning the whole issue.

Trying to persuade people whose very position is founded on a rejection of outsiders that they would do well to heed the observations of disinterested third-parties is a good definition of being onto a loser. And so it has proved – no matter that most commentators in ‘friendly’ countries have advised that Brexit is a disastrous move even when seen from a distance, the message fell on deaf ears. So much for trying to advocate the benefits of critical thinking: it seems that you need to be able to think reasonably critically about that too, before you become remotely ‘open’ enough to have a proper debate.

I will end with two things:

Firstly, here is a link to a website that despite its name is an independent media organisation. Its views on the impact of the U.K.’s current position within the E.U. might have been worth considering.

Secondly, given that the debate was not symmetrical – in other words, Brexit was the antagonist as it proposed to change the status quo, and therefore the burden of proof was on it to convince its doubters that such a change was right. This it never did, preferring to rely instead on what it is all too easy to describe as sensationalism and misinformation.

Here are some of the techniques it used to do that:

Hasty generalisation: because there are things wrong with the EU the whole thing is corrupt
Sweeping generalisation: because some immigrants have gamed our systems, that is what they are all doing
Confusing cause and effect: things are bad in Britain because we are in the EU.
Oversimplification of cause and effect: If we leave the EU everything will be alright.
Confusing correlation and cause: because there are things wrong in Britain and things wrong with the EU, the one must be the cause of the other.
Slippery slope: If we stay in an imperfect EU it will be the end of our country as we know it.
Ad hominem: attacking their opponents personally rather than the arguments they were making.
Straw person: misrepresenting Remainers as ardent EU apparatchiks in order to disredit them.
Arguing from one thing to another: Because we don’t like the EU, the EU is therefore abhorrent.
False dichotomy: if the EU is not perfect, then it must be terrible.

This is pretty much the full house of logical flaws – and the Brexit debate seems to have fallen foul of virtually all of them.

The final step of critical analysis is to look for plausible alternatives to evaluate against the main claim. The main one, which seems to be that the EU is a neo-liberal threat/a bullying dictatorship/in the pay of big business/responsible for the decline of Britain/undemocratic, requires answers to certain questions about the current nature and behaviour of that organisation. Here are ten which in my view needed answers:

1. If the EU is ‘anti-citizen’, what is the purpose and effect of social programmes, such as the Social Chapter, the Working Time Directive, the Charter of Fundamental Rights etc.?

2. If it is in the pocket of big business, what is the purpose and effect of programmes such as the WEEE directive, the CE safety mark etc, all of which add costs to all (but especially big) businesses? Why did it, for example, also impose limits on mobile phone roaming charges?
3. If the EU is a centralising body, what is the purpose and effect of Subsidiarity, and why does it pump significant funds into regional aid?
4. If the EU is undemocratic, why does it require unanimity between member states for all of its major decisions (such as approving Brexit)?
5. If the EU is undemocratic, what is the purpose and effect of direct elections to one of its three main institutions, and indirect elections to the second (via national elections)?
6. Why is the unelected status of the Commission (in effect the civil service) so objectionable when the civil service in Whitehall is not elected either?
7. Why is it unreasonable for Britain to pay to belong to the EU when it has one of its largest domestic economies, and it agreed the formula for contribution calculations? (The other two populous large economies (France and Germany) pay more).
8. Why are the investments made in Britain by the EU, such as regional investment, not considered in your figures when costing the amount Britain pays to the EU?
9. Given that Westminster one the one hand has approved around 95% of EU legislation and on the other has been fined for its failure to meet standards and timescales on vehicle emissions, beach cleanliness and waste electrical goods recycling (to name but three) what evidence is there that Westminster would give equal priority to addressing these issues if not held to account by the EU?
10. What reasons were there for Britain seeking and obtaining exemptions from significant parts of EU legislation, such as the Social Chapter (for many years), the Working Time Directive, the Single Currency, the adoption of Schengen and more? Has the country benefited or the opposite from being outside these schemes? (As an example, is it mere coincidence that the country exempted from WTD is now the country with the longest working hours? What effect has this had?) The website linked earlier passes reasonably impartial judgement on some of these matters.

If Brexiters had been able to answer these questions to the standards of rigour demanded by Critical Thinking (and had the population been able to ask them in the first place) then the case for Brexit might have been a lot stronger. As it is, we are largely still waiting.

Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs

A critical thinking approach to Brexit – part 1

For all of the “debate” going on in Britain about Brexit (much of which falls woefully short of any reasonable criteria for being considered to be such), little time has been given to examining the real issues with E.U. membership. The problem here may in many cases be wanton partisanship – but there are bigger matters that all sides of a mature debate ought to be able to agree on.

The principle one is that a position based on fact is stronger than one based on assertion (i.e. belief). It is probably necessary (and wise) to set aside epistemological debates on the nature of knowledge – but the difference between a ‘fact’ and an assertion is that the former is supported by provable (i.e. replicable, thus verifiable) evidence whereas the latter is not. In a sense it is ‘belief without proof’ – a definition best applied to religion, but which is much less advisable when it comes to matters of the national future.

I am not suggesting here (even implicitly) that one side has been more deficient than the other in this respect. A mature position would be to accept that a huge amount of what is being discussed lies in the realm of belief – because in the final reckoning it is impossible for any one individual – most of all the “person in the street” – to be in possession of anything like enough information to be able to assemble a factually-robust overview. Thus we are reduced to arguing over beliefs – which are easily overdrawn and is rarely wise.

Therefore, even as a firm Remainer, I ‘ought’ to be able to accept that cases made for remain that are based on assertion rather than fact do not advance the argument, and may even weaken it. Arguments that draw on factually-robust arguments have little need for weaker ones –and recourse to them might suggest that a better case cannot be made.

The same should apply to Leavers. If I were in this camp, I hope I would equally accept that the case for Brexit is best made on a basis of solid fact. I am intending to be as even-handed as possible here, so I hope it is not too partisan to point out that this case was never made. Part of the reason for this was that proof is impossible to obtain when it comes to things that have yet to happen: we can’t know the future, so the best they could do was predict.

The same was true for Remainers arguing the virtue of their case on the basis of the damage Brexit would do: both cases were predicated on more or less accurate extrapolations of the present – and started from the position of confirming their own existing biases. As such, neither offered a good basis for such a momentous decision.

However, Remain did have one key advantage here: the conditions for remaining in the E.U. were known, as they already exist – though this advantage was blown both by the failure of the Remain campaign to use them effectively – and more so because the vast majority of the electorate had so little knowledge against which to measure the veracity of the various arguments with which it was being presented.

In short, nobody knows what the outcome of leaving will be. We might accept the consensus from the majority of ‘experts’ that it will be harmful – but even they are, in the final reckoning, only offering predictions, albeit ones based on more information and insight than the average member of the public can probably muster. The more honest ones will accept that they too are biased.

E.U. membership is such a complex and diverse matter, that even attempting to reduce it to simple certainties is probably unwise. A more mature position is to accept that membership of the EU is a mixed bag: it has its benefits, but given that it is by necessity a compromise between many different national positions, it is imperfect. It therefore has downsides too. A sensible way forward might involve considered weighing of these issues, rather than bunker-mentality absolutism – but binary thinking is the normal way in Britain. Our traditions and systems encourage it – from our parliament down.

It might be more sensible, too, to accept that a view on this depends not only on what you are looking at, but where you are looking from. What appears to one person or country to be a problem may be nothing of the sort to another. The failure to acknowledge this has been a major source of difficulty: with both sides claiming absolute virtue, there was little chance for a mature, considered debate ever to happen.

In particular, the apparent inability of many in Britain to accept the proposal that the EU is a partnership of equals prejudices any views they subsequently take of that enterprise, in a way that does not necessarily happen elsewhere. It is what has always informed the British presumption for special treatment.

Another classic flaw of reasoning is to embody diverse groups as though they are a single individual. Claiming that ‘the British People’ think anything in particular may be convenient, but it cannot be true since 60-plus million people never think as one. The same is true of ‘Europe’ and the E.U. All those claims about the malicious intent of that organisation ignore that fact that it is made up of thousands of individuals, and the idea that they all have a single, united agenda is probably incorrect. It is probably overdrawn even to suggest that its (relatively few) leaders all think the same either. Dealing with that is the whole point of politics.

In the final reckoning, people’s real intentions are known only to them – and attempting to second-guess them, let alone claiming to ‘know’ them, is pointless.

‘Thanks’ to the Facebook page set up to promote my new book, I have heard from a lot of Brexiters recently. I expected this, and did not block comments – though one might think that people who cannot respect the right of others to differ without needing to sabotage it, make a pretty clear statement about themselves at the outset. If they find people like me struggling to accept their views, they could first start by examining their own approach. They fall desperately short of the standards necessary for mature democratic debate, and on that score alone, I find their supposed desire to re-establish Britain as a self-determining democracy hard to accept. Regrettably, the majority of respondents had not taken the trouble to inform themselves that the book is not even really about Brexit before they started shouting. Few were willing to do any more than wield slogans. They do not seem to understand that making a point means more than who can shout loudest, or be the most aggressive.

There were, however, two who were prepared to debate the issue. I applied the basic precepts of critical thinking to their arguments – conceding points whose logic seemed sound, offering alternative interpretations of contentious material as necessary, and supplying references to third-party sources where I believed factual inaccuracies had occurred or unsubtantiable claims had been made.

Only one person did the same in return. He then supplied a link to this article which refers to a now-declassified document FCO 30/1048 apparently showing that Edward Heath deliberately downplayed the implications of Britain’s joining the EEC in 1973 and suggesting that it would be “too late” to reverse by the time public opinion caught up thirty years later.

I have no reason to doubt the existence of this document. But it needs to be evaluated for credibility using the normal ‘CRAVEN’ criteria:

Corroboration or conflict with other evidence
Reliability of the report (factual accuracy)
Ability to see (what it is claims to have witnessed)
Vested interests of those reporting
• (Relevant) Expertise of those reporting
Neutrality or bias in their agenda

On this basis, the article falls rapidly apart. Not necessarily because it is lying, but because the source (The Daily Express) is known to be biased towards Leave in the first place – and the language used in the report is clearly not impartial. It ‘leads’ the reader towards certain conclusions, which impartial reporting never does. The more strongly it does this, the more it weakens any claim to objectivity. In this case, analysis of the language used shows it is blatant.

Secondly, there is no attempt to identify, let alone discuss, alternative interpretations – such as the possibility that Heath genuinely believed that it was in the national interest to join the EEC, but that he also knew public opinion would struggle with it when memories of 1939-45 were still much fresher than they are today. It is not as though governments never have hidden agendas – even well-meaning ones…

Finally, the source has pre-judged the article and arrived at a conclusion before it begins: the whole point of the article is not to arrive at the truth, but to convince the reader that a certain interpretation is correct. This is the diametric opposite of how mature debate is conducted.

In case Brexiters reading this conclude that I am simply deploying a subtler than usual form of argument against them – well in a sense, yes I am. (Acknowledging the inevitability of bias is the first step to allowing for it). But I also accept that the other ‘camp’ does the same – it is one reason why I very quickly gave up reading the New European: it is just as partisan as the pro-Brexit press. Even if one argues that some counter-balance was much-needed, the effect has nonetheless been to reinforce bunker mentalities on both sides.

Regrettably (I mean that), those individual Brexiters with whom I engaged soon showed that they could not handle reasoned argument. One resorted to ignoring everything I replied with; he then re-stated his opening gambit that “the EU is corrupt and that is all there is to it”, before disappearing. The second appears to have rejected my response to the ‘evidence’ he supplied, and has also disappeared. This does not lend much credibility to any claim they might have had to having a supportable position; in the end, both resorted to assertion rather than counter my arguments. Why does anyone believe this is adequate? This is not a good basis for the formation of public opinion, let alone national decision-making.

I’m not for a moment claiming to be unbiased on Brexit. But if attempts to engage with people on a mature, intelligent basis routinely fail in this way, then the nation has real problems. As a former teacher, I deeply regret that that profession seems to have failed profoundly in its work of developing more thoughtful, considered individuals within our society.

The whole point about critical thinking is accepting that no one is perfect: we all have biases to set aside before we engage, and even trying to be objective is hard work. But it seems that attempting this – or even acknowledging the need for it – is several steps too far for many people.

My own bias will of course continue to inform the view I hold – but I believe that I have based those views on the firmest evidence I could obtain (including visiting the European Parliament numerous times and talking to MEPs of different parties – even Eurosceptics, to counter claims of presentational bias), and considered allowance for uncertainty.

Unfortunately, the majority of those who might want to change my mind seem to have very little idea of how to go about it. Jeering and sloganising will certainly not work. Quite why they think it will is beyond me, and I can only assume they are unable to do better. It is certainly not the way to restore the democracy they claim to want.

In the end, everyone who failed to attempt reasoned debate on this issue is partly responsible for the tragedy that I think is now the likely outcome. We will probably all be the losers as a result – but infinitely more so if we can’t raise the national debate to better levels than this.

Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs

Irresistible force meets immovable object? Not at all.

The calls from certain quarters for the nation to unite behind the PM’s Brexit deal is being treated with the disdain it probably deserves. Not because the sentiment is not necessary, but because it trivialises yet again the causes of the division. It represents nothing more than the diminution of the reasons people hold the views that they do, and treats them as little more than superficial differences that can be easily abandoned for the sake of patching up the nation.

It also relies on the assumption that the disagreement is symmetrical in ‘weight’: the irresistible force and the immovable object, perhaps. In a sense, that is why Leavers have been reduced to telling Remainers to ‘get over it’. There is simply no better argument available to them, as indeed there is not in the opposite direction; nothing that can trump the very different values of the opposite camp. It is stalemate.

But the two cases are not symmetrical. The belief of Brexiters that pro-Europeans should just get over their difficulties betrays a fundamental failure to appreciate or care for the nature of identity – of which, given their own claims, one might have expected them to have a better understanding. Nationalism (insidious or otherwise) is based on the call for people to identify profoundly with an identity bigger than themselves, to the extent that the two partially merge. And yet Brexiters simply fail time after time to appreciate that for pro-Europeans, what is being “untimely rip’d” from them is their own version of exactly the same thing.

Here, in one nation, Brexit has exposed two utterly incompatible readings of what our national identity is, or should be. The one cannot but exist at the expense of the other; the only fully practical resolution would be to divide the nation physically in two. And the only less drastic, less satisfactory – but more practicable – alternative is to hold a new vote now that the specific terms of the proposed settlement are known. Mrs May’s greatest error of many, is to fail to appreciate this; if she was really as concerned for the national interest as she claims, she would recognise that a new vote is the only real hope of reconciling the issue – and if that means that two years’ difficult negotiations, let alone the time and expense, are not after all needed, then so be it. A useful purpose will still have been served.

But I fear that is not likely to be resolved or patched up for many a year to come. I have had numerous encounters with people where (not at my instigation) the very first line of conversation sought to establish which camp I was in; that is the depth of division that has been created, and which I suspect will linger for decades.

Neither is the argument as practically symmetrical as some would claim. I challenge any Leaver to show what negative effects Britain’s membership of the EU has had personally on them. They have always had the choice simply to ignore most of the doings, let alone the cultural aspects of pro-Europeanism. While some may rail against the arrival of metrication, for example, the practical effects were small. Undoubtedly there are some whose livelihoods were affected by EU policy. But that argument is easily reversed – and while one might potentially feel sympathy with fishermen subject to quotas, one also needs to reflect on the reason those quotas exist in the first place. British domestic policy on this matter has shown relatively little inclination to deal with issues like the depletion of fish stocks, let alone the environmental aspects of the matter.

On the other hand, Brexit, if it happens, will cause significant real impacts on every single individual in the country. There will be no ignoring it. The increased cost of living, the lower incomes and opportunities, the increased difficulty of physical access to the continent – not to mention the cultural and identity loss for those to whom such things matter – will all be very real and immediate. If Leavers don’t understand this, it is nothing more than a product of their own insularity and limited vision; if they simply don’t care, it betrays the hollowness of their own vision of national unity.

In practical terms, living under the aegis of the EU, even for those who did not like it, had little negative impact on their lives – at least not in ways that were distinct and separable from the damage done by the domestic mismanagement of this country in recent decades. It arguably also balanced any negatives with benefits that were often larger in scope than locally-minded objectors might perceive. Clean air legislation, for example, is not easily appreciated from a determinedly local perspective.

On the other hand, the prevailing of their world view will have significant a personal impact on me and those like me. It will actively deprive me of things that I hold very important, and will make – indeed already has made – the leading of my life more difficult. Why I should suddenly forgive that gratuitous imposition I do not see.

That – apart from any of the bigger arguments – is I suspect why calls for reconciliation will not work, and why this will not be forgotten lightly.

Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs, Travel

It’s a bit late for that Now! Announcing my third book.

cover good

I’m pleased to announce the publication of my third book, It’s a bit Late for that Now! Britain’s relationship with the continent (before and after Brexit).

To speed things up, I’ve decided to put my money where my mouth is and self-publish this one.

The book is pro-Europe, not specifically pro-E.U., and addresses long-term issues that will be important whatever happens in the political arena. I hope it will be of interest no matter which side of the argument is preferred.

You can purchase print-on-demand copies direct from the publisher here

You can purchase the e-book edition here

You can  read the first fifteen pages online for nowt!

In the next couple of weeks, the book will also be available via Amazon and to order from bookshops.

Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs

Who Governs Britain?

wgb

Professor Anthony King’s book Who Governs Britain? is about as even-handed an assessment of the topic as one might hope to find. King is a distinguished and considered expert in the field, as I experienced in a public debate at which he spoke. The book is well-written and entertaining.

And yet one is still forced to come to the conclusion that the system is broken, or at least cracked. And highly inconsistent and illogical. Published in 2015, the book is prescient in its observations, given what has happened since.

There is some discussion going on regarding Theresa May’s deserving of sympathy. King’s book puts this in an interesting perspective. I doubt the criticism that suggests she has put party survival ahead of country – she is not that much of a team player. But she still represents the worst of the Establishment – inflexible, unfeeling and out-of-touch. The government’s response to criticism from Philip Alston, the UN special rapporteur on poverty, is just another timely reminder of how unresponsive is the British Establishment to real, urgent needs of ‘ordinary’ people. I wonder if it realises how badly its outright denial of the problem appears in the nation at large.

May’s woodenness and emotional illiteracy are thus just par for the course, team player or not. Whatever she really thinks about Brexit, her chosen approach has just reflected the ability of this country’s executive to do what the hell it likes, in between the occasional need to flatter the nation with false promises at election time. She could have chosen to acknowledge the closeness of the vote, and seek to reconcile Remainers with what she thought needed to be done. But as with them all, it was more important to score points than be right, more important to retain power than admit weakness or error, even where the latter might have brought relief. More important to bang drums than admit the country’s weak position and seek collaboration with our supposed partners.

She – and the whole of her misguided type cannot change. Their commitment to the ‘national interest’ is nothing of the sort: it is (perhaps unwitting) loyalty to a certain kind of establishment interest largely unchanged since the days of Empire, and as such not deserving of any sympathy. Even if one sympathises with the personal price she is paying, a lot of it is self-inflicted.

Whatever happens in the coming months with Brexit, it is easy to argue that the whole British governmental and constitutional system is in urgent need of review and overhaul: Brexit has thrown its limitations and contradictions into stark relief.

Unfortunately, turkeys don’t vote for Christmas, so the chances of one happening are virtually nil. The only person whom I suggest might be able to instigate one is err…. the Monarch, through a Royal Commission. There is no other mechanism. Not an appealing admission for a republican – and I suspect she’s actually Queen Turkey herself in any case.

Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs

Your starter for ten…

Here is a little analytical challenge for a Monday morning. I produced it as a self-challenge to my preconceptions about the quality of life in other (mostly European) countries. The graph below shows the murder rate per million of population of selected countries. The data all derives from the same year, 2016 and is drawn via Wikipedia from apparently reputable sources. My source can be found here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_intentional_homicide_rate

murder stats graph 2

The challenge I presented myself was simply to test the preconception that there are some countries that are much more socially stable than others. To my mind, that is a key determinant of a ‘successful’ country, one that might be held up as an example to others. Murder rates might be considered a suitable indicator of such. My experience, for example, of Germany and Switzerland is that they are so law-abiding and generally well-run that nothing truly, intentionally bad ever happens there. It is an illusion of course, and I know that.

But stereotypes are powerful. How easy is it to imagine a Swiss or German company being guilty of malpractice? The Volkswagen emissions scandal shows it can and does happen. Temptation is the same everywhere I guess, though the extent to which people act on it may not be. And temperament varies too.

Did I succeed? Well, only in part. There are considerable differences between murder rates (and that is without considering the absolute figures, which seem only partially reflect total population size).

I suggest that homicide rates are a reasonable indicator of social stability. The rise in knife-crime in the U.K. cannot be without its causes. So make of this self-created graph what you will. I know there are distortions introduced into the rankings, for example by the fact that I have not included all countries. In general, I have left out the smaller states except where they perhaps provided insight. In general, smaller nations seem to have lower homicide rates – from which we might learn something.

With my strong reservations about the way British society operates, I expected the U.K. to be towards the upper end of the European rankings – which it is. But so are France and Germany, the latter of which in particular I did not expect. On the other hand, Italy is not as much higher than the U.K. as might have been expected. I suppose we should also accept that the figures are only for reported murders; who knows what else goes on in some places…

Maybe we should simply conclude that there are certain factors at work in larger populations (increased anonymity perhaps) that affect perceptions of our fellows.

And it is also noticeable that some of the countries held up for their good social model seem to have higher than (I) expected murder rates, for example Finland and Sweden. I wonder if environmental factors are at work there – but then, Norway is lower. And even in the seemingly-model society of Switzerland (often held up as one of the world’s most civilised places to live), 45 murders happened in 2016. Personally, I have never met a Swiss who seemed capable of killing a fly… But it is necessary to remember that thanks to military service, the Swiss have loose gun-laws compared with the rest of Europe, and I suppose some people (including some Swiss I know, but not I) would instinctively blame their high immigrant populations. Who knows the truth?

Before jumping to too many conclusions, I suppose one should really conduct a much more detailed study of the circumstances and motives for murders, which might tell us much more than relatively raw totals.

The stark contrast with Russia and the USA are not a surprise – but might still teach us something about contrasting social models. The authorities in the U.S. had to deal with 17250 murders in 2016 alone. And spare a thought for Brazil, with its rate of 295 per million, or 61283 murders in that same year…

Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs

Pinch-point?

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?