Saturday, 20 November 2010

Out of the mouths of...Lord Young

Lord Young's forced resignation seems to be to be part of a conspiracy by the political classes - by the Conservatives to justify their ideological attack on the welfare state (to "prove" we can no longer afford it) and by Labour as a convenient stick with which to tag the Tories as unfeeling and unaware of what "real life" is like in the UK.

But there is a great deal of truth in what Lord Young claimed.

First, on a technical point, he spoke of this "alleged" recession, and he has some justification, in that a recession is defined as two consecutive quarters of negative growth , and we are now in positive growth, albeit not exactly racing ahead.

But his point that "(t)he vast majority of people in the country today...have never had it so good." has real validity. I'm not so sure that "vast" is entirely justified, but very many of us are very comfortable and doing very nicely indeed. Those with mortgages who retain their jobs are having a bonanza, since as a result of low interest rates they can be receiving a tax-free bonus of up to six hundred pounds a month. We don't hear too much about them. For the rest of us, in work, or with secure pensions, life is good: food prices are still low and form a relatively small part of our expenditure, clothing is absurdly cheap and many other commodities are being heavily discounted in order to promote sales. Soon after Christmas we shall be seeing estimates that the "average" child has received some £300-worth or more of presents.

Quite frankly, even for the vast majority, indeed the overwhelming majority, austerity this is not.

The period of the Second World War and the ten years or so afterward can perhaps more accurately be described as "austerity", though I cannot remember ever being seriously hungry or cold (except that in those days convention dictated that little boys should wear short trousers, even in the depths of winter, so our knees and inner thighs became "chapped" and red-raw. Some stuff, "Snofire" I think it was called, which we were given to relieve pain, was not very effective. Today's boys, in long trousers as toddlers, don't realise how lucky they are.) Even this war and post-war austerity was the lap of luxury compared with average life in the Third World. I once asked one of my Malawian colleagues, a senior educationalists, if he gave his children Christmas presents. "Yes", he replied proudly, "I buy each of my children a bottle of Coke." Puts things in perspective.

The problem is, of course, that in spite of government claims, we are not "all in his together. The main pain of the premature and misguided corrective economic measures will be felt by the bottom 20%, that part of Polly Toynbee's caravan which is now in danger of being detached from the main body and becoming a separate entity, and who didn't get their fair share of the 1990s prosperity either. In addition are those who lose their jobs and, no longer able to pay their mortgages, may lose their homes.

As a nation we are some four times richer that we were in the 1940s (when we could afford to establish the NHS, introduce family allowances and other new aspects of the welfare state.) With the political will and a modicum of generosity we can easily afford to make the lot of the bottom 20% more tolerable and re-incorporate them into society, and provide "tidying-over" measures for those temporarily without adequate incomes as a result society's failure to control the banking system. A courageous government would call upon Lord Young's "never had it so good" cohort do our bit.

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