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


  1. Port Talbot. an area of uncertainty cos of what has happened. The near closure of Tata steel leading to fear of unemployment and decline in the community. As an insurance policy in the area The Open University should develop opportunities for advancement in the population, to develop new hope in the area not the rigidity of the present system. With a community spirit to help themselves (voluntary organisations etc) they could develop new industries, care for the elderly the Lib Dems should instil a sense that they can achieve for their community by steering those who have an interest in the area into developing strategies to go forward to the New Jerusalem.

    1. Thanks Nigel, an important point. As well as bemoaning the government's failure to lead us to the New Jerusalem we must also promote and encourage "bottom up" efforts to get there.

      I particularly like your suggestion that the Open University (did very well on University Challenge last night) should be involved. They could. for example , do something to make the hundreds of fairly ineffective apprenticeships more meaningful.

  2. Yes, I very well remember the optimism of the 1960s with the prospect of increasing standards of living, education, medicine (would anyone die any more?), space travel (new worlds available to conquer), with technology and peace and love, etc. and I must admit that I was rather jealous of the new generations.
    Unfortunately, the nation recently seems to be imbued with selfishness (which I can only ascribe to the Thatcher years) and xenophobia.
    In the meantime us baby boomers seem to be blamed for getting our free education, buying our small flats (at 15% interest) in some sort of attempt to "pull up the ladder" as we had obviously anticipated the bad times ahead.

    1. Yes it saddens me that so many of the comfortable among older generations are so desperately anxious, even vicious, about ending the "something for nothing" society in the context of of social security for the less fortunate, whilst conveniently forgetting how much we've had for nothing - free education right up to graduate and even post-graduate levels, and a huge tax-free unearned windfall as a result of the rise in house prices, not to mention the free medical attention and prescriptions that we're still receiving