Fed up with the post-Olympics feelgood factor? Sense of national pride making you gag? Good news, here’s why we’re all going to hell in a handcart…
Perhaps to be born English was to have won first prize in the lottery of life, in the 19th Century. In the 21st, it’s more like one of those goldfish you get at the fair, which looks sad and pained and dies on the way home. In Going South, Elliot and Atkinson attempt to flush the dead goldfish down the toilet. The unifying idea is that Britain is now more or less a third world country:
Insist on the United Kingdom’s developed-world status, and the sheer incoherence of public and commercial life – the laughable inconsistencies, the corporate rapacity, the simultaneously intrusive and ineffective security apparatus – appears enraging and inexplicable. Look at Britain as one would a developing nation, and these features appear unremarkable and natural.
The focus is predominantly financial. The book presents an image of more or less relentless decline, but complexly so. They don’t hark back to a golden age; some things have definitely improved in the last century and the pattern of rise or fall is far from straightforward. The book opens by demolishing the idea of pre-war Britain as a colossal superpower; it seems that even a century ago our industry was backwards and sluggish:
In 1896, the United States had slightly higher steel production (just over 5 million tonnes) than the United Kingdom. By 1913, US steel production had increased sixfold to 32 million tonnes, while British steel production had less than doubled to just under 8 million tonnes. Even in industries in which the United Kingdom was the world leader, such as coal, there was a marked reluctance to use more modern methods. Half the coal mined in the United States was extracted using machinery; 92 per cent of the coal from British mines was hacked out of seams by colliers using picks.
Zoom forwards a few decades and we find British industry close to non-existent, the workforce uneducated:
More than 70 per cent of German firms are involved in technological innovation compared with just over 40 per cent in the United Kingdom. Britain’s workers have fewer skills than those in the United States, Germany and France. Just over 20 per cent of workers in Germany and 30 per cent of those in France are classified as low-skilled; in Britain the figure is 60 per cent.
The decline in real physical industry and education is evident. Despite the yearly grade inflation, each generation is notably dumber and crasser than the last. Areas like Sunderland are now a post-industrial scumzone of neckless lager-drinkers with shaved heads and tattoos. Anyone with good looks, talent, or intelligence migrates to London for a job; those without mate with each other, and produce comparably stunted offspring.
There are similar areas in the east of Germany but the scale seems larger and more horrendous in England. The level of routine street violence and intimidation is far higher in England than Germany. In Munich at least, education is far superior to anything in England – I have fairly normal teenage students who read Goethe for fun. There are, as Elliott and Atkinson point grimly out, almost no world-class British companies; compare this with Siemens, the Volkswagen group, BMW, Daimler, BASF, SAP, the ThyssenKrupp group, Porsche, Linde. Rolls Royce and Mini now belong to BMW; Jaguar belongs to an Indian company, Tata Motors. Germany has a wealth of medium-sized companies, usually family-owned and sited in the middle of a dark forest somewhere; the staff work there for life and feel proud of the company. Britain has the dole and Tesco. On the whole, Germans like hard work; on the whole, the British fantasize about winning the Lottery so they can spend the rest of their lives watching daytime telly and/or snorting coke and blazing hoors.
Crucially, German education is more pragmatic than ours: the top-achievers enter the Gymnasium, acquire an extremely thorough education, and go on to university; the rest leave school aged 16 and can enter any number of 3-year apprenticeships. The apprentices work in many different departments, are trained in realistic work practices and technical skills, and if they are any good they have a job at the end of it. German companies also compel their apprentices to attend English courses, at considerable expense to the company. Many of my middle and senior manager students took this route, having no higher education at all. An apprenticeship at BMW is highly coveted. And in England?
As we finished writing this book, the government was extolling the virtues of apprenticeships as one of the cures for youth unemployment, then rising steadily towards 25 per cent of all those under 25. While these conjured up images of a mediaeval stone mason teaching his indentured employee how to adorn gothic cathedrals with gargoyles, the reality was that many were simply 12-week training courses provided by private-sector firms with no guaranteed jobs at the end. Historically apprenticeships had always been a form of cheap labour, but for the young worker there had always been the promise of a ‘trade’ at the end of it. Learning how to stack a shelf at Tesco or how to collect the shopping trolleys from the far-flung corners of the car park at Asda does not really live up to the sepia-tinted image.
Whereas it’s wholly possible to find a good job in Germany, whether in a factory or office, in England the only profitable sectors are insurance, banking, IT, legal services, accounting – service industries. The surplus is £58.77 billion; the deficit on trade in goods is £98.46 billion. The authors don’t address this but the cultural effects of such an imbalance are not cheering: there are very few worthwhile jobs for those not capable of, or interested in, a specialist office job. You can work at Tesco or McDonalds, work in a call centre or as a minimum wage data entrist, or go on the dole. It doesn’t take much imagination to foresee social problems if large sections of population are condemned to McJobs or unemployment. As I observed from my 5 years of minimum wage temping, many in these jobs are violently dissatisfied.
With this imbalance, it is natural enough that the Government wants to let the profitable banks do what they want, with unpromising consequences. The banks, freed from financial regulation, have become a disastrous power; the Bank of England estimates the banks have caused between £1.8 to 7.4 trillion worth of damage to the UK economy. Meanwhile:
In 1980 the chief executive of Barclays Bank earned a little over £87,000 a year, 13 times the pay of the average worker in the United Kingdom. In 2010 he was paid £4,365,636, or 169 times the average wage.
Behind the villainous banks, however, are the politicians. There is indeed something vaguely third world about British politics: grandiose, ineffectual, and more or less meaningless. As Britain has donned what Thomas Friedman calls “the golden straitjacket” of financial liberalism, politicians now focus principally on public relations:
Gordon Brown declared the era of spin to be over, and later hired a top public relations expert apparently to craft ‘a compelling narrative’ of his achievements in office. It did not compel.
In the world of financial liberalism, there is nothing left for politicians to do, except to gesture grandly:
[…] in the style of Big Man leaders in the third world, our own top dogs are wont to issue rambling and random proclamations unconnected to any discernible philosophy or to any normal conception of the proper functions of government. Mr Cameron’s obiter dicta have included the importance of fathers being present at the birth of their children and the wrongfulness of WH Smith in promoting the sale of chocolate in its stores.
Along with financial liberalism we have the steady corrosion of individual liberties, the extension of a blundering and witless State into the lives of its citizens. The future, as Elliot and Atkinson suggest, is bleak. Reduced pensions, increased unemployment, electricity shortages, probably more riots. They propose that England develop a coherent economic model, but acknowledge the cultural difficulties:
To say that the Nordic countries dispense superb social benefits while selling lots of good-quality products on world markets is rather like describing police work entirely in terms of wrestling suspects to the ground and applying handcuffs. Behind the mechanics of a Norway, a Sweden or a Germany lie a bundle of attitudes, a set of social norms. […] The plain fact is that to be a Sweden or a Denmark, Britain would require a cultural revolution, ending the search for another quick fix and instead buckling down to many years of hard work.
And this is the problem. British politicians regularly denounce and praise, gesticulate, stomp, whine, exhort us to adopt such and such an attitude, but it is all talk. The culture is broken, has been broken by decades of bad government, by encouraging all that is idle, callow, corrupt and base, and by discouraging hard work, excellence, genuine individualism and decency. Instead of the individual we have the sociopath; instead of decency we have grandstanding hypocricy; instead of excellence and hard work we have the Lottery and vile celebrity. Where this will lead, who knows, but it’s hard to believe things will get better soon.