Monday, 5 September 2016
State of the UK - an inventory (1)
Tomorrow I expect to have lunch with a man to whom I taught economics in the 1960s. Then he was a youthful and very enthusiastic member of the Labour Party and I, as now, a committed Liberal. But we shared an optimism about the future. The Labour Party was in power and Harold Wilson was prime minister. Using what what Wilson called the "white heat of the technological revolution" and the intelligent application of the social sciences, we both expected we were on track towards "building the New Jerusalem." as Wilson's deputy George Brown (no relation to the more recent Brown) put it in an inspiring speech in Cleckheaton (and possibly elsewhere.)
In preparation for what I expect to be a very interesting conversation I've tried to put together an inventory of where we're at on that journey. A convenient start will be the "five giants" - squalor, ignorance, idleness, disease, and want - which the Beveridge Report of 1942 proposed to slay.
Squalor: Here Beveridge had in mind slum and insanitary housing. Most of this had been demolished by the 1960s and today the problem is not so much the quality of the housing (though I understand that a lot of people in the south are condemned to live in back-garden sheds,) but the quantity an price. The government's policies seem largely counter-productive. Subsidising first-time buyers will push up prices even further and so make houses even less affordable, the extension of the "right to buy" to housing associations will make affordable housing less available and ultimately place more into the hands of rapacious landlords, and there is no sign of any renewal of permission for local councils to build affordable homes.
Ignorance: Well, we now have universal free education up to the age of 18 but the enforced introduction of academies and free schools means that sensible planning for provision has gone out of the window. At the same time the enforcement from the top of a tick-box culture focussed on league tables based on a narrow range of subjects allegedly useful to the economy means that real and creative education has taken a back seat. It is hard to see today's teachers having much opportunity to enthuse anyone about anything. The re-introduction of selection at 11+ , in the face of all the evidence of the negative effects of this policy, is deplorable.
Idleness: Beveridge regarded maintaining full employment as a key function of the government. In the 60s we defined this as no more than 3% unemployed, and often the figure was below even this (Hence immigration for the Indian sub-continent and Caribbean to fill the gap). Today the official level of unemployment is almost double that, and in real terms, taking account of those who have been shunted off the register for various reasons, or forced into premature retirement, the real figure is probably double again. Many people "in work" are on short term or zero hours contracts with little security, minimum protection or entitlement to holidays, on boring routine jobs with few prospects of a satisfying future. Thousands have been forced into pretended and unwanted "self-employment." Most heartbreaking of all, over half a million young people aged 16 -24 are unemployed, and that doesn't include those enduring courses which they well know lead to very little.
Disease: Public health measures were implemented and the NHS created to reduce this to a minimum. Public heath has made great strides though the emissions and pollutants which stimulate asthma and various allergies among the young are cause for worry. I'm glad I don't live in London. The NHS is subject to costly re-organisations and starved of funds, with its so-called junior doctors in revolt. It is hard to argue with a letter in today's Guardian from a Professor Fay Dowker that the government's aim is to run it down in preparation for privatisation (which already seems to have happened to the larger part of the dental service.)
Want: Whilst the elderly are being being protected from the worst effects of "austerity" (thought the state pension remains one of the lowest in the rich world - we come 12th out of 15 countries) benefits for the unemployed, sick, disabled and incapacitated are being pared down and the recipients demonised. The most unacceptable statistic of which I'm aware is that unemployment benefit for a single person aged 25+ is £73.10 a week, but if you're a member of the House of Lords you can claim £300 a day (yes, a day.)
Sadly, based on the above, most of the current government's policies seem to be leading us away from rather than closer to the New Jerusalem