If the UK were following its post-war economic trend, the average household would now be forty percent better off than at present. This is the reality of the UK’s absolute decline, and is the subject of a scathing report by economic historians Adam Tooze and Brad DeLong, which details how the UK is decoupling from the economic top-tier. Nick Cohen cites this report, pointing out that the UK is in the midst of a steep economic decline that is characterised, according to Cohen, by the dominant political narrative of ‘denialism’. This denialism, led by our present Prime Minister and Chancellor, suggests that all we have to do is wish ourselves into a better economic mindset, and somehow, miraculously, our problems will disappear. However, as Cohen points out, until we “grasp the scale of our social and economic failure” we “will not understand the emptiness of Tory boosterism,” in which the “bragging swells as the nation diminishes.”
I’ve been moaning about this feeling of decline for ages, and when I talk about how I struggle with the deteriorating social conditions of British towns and cities, and particularly here in Leicester, I’m usually met with a shrug, followed by the involuntary rejoinder that these conditions are the same everywhere! All I can do, though, is convey my exasperation that this isn’t the case, and that towns and cities across Europe look and feel significantly different to what we’ve normalised here in the UK. The UK is becoming a dump, while other places prosper.
Nick Cohen quotes Adam Tooze’s assessment of the problem, and I can’t express this sentiment any better myself:
“You see it in the shabbiness on the streets, the worn faces and clothes of passers-by, the frustration and disappointment of the young, the ambulances unable to discharge the sick and the dying, the pound shops and charity stores, the befouled rivers and beaches, the cracking criminal justice system, the inability to build anything from homes to a railway line, and above all in the decline in living standards.”
Politics in the UK for the last decade has been gripped by several unreal fantasies and delusions. Boosterism, cakism, we-are-all-in-it-together-ism. Each at different times, and in the mouths of different politicians, have echoed through the media and embedded themselves in the public consciousness, limiting the alternative choices that voters might contemplate and work towards grasping. It’s only now, however, and after so much economic damage has been wrought, that reflection and remorse are starting to kick-in with British (typically English) voters. Three years after Brexit, a majority of voters are tentatively aware that leaving the EU has been an economic calamity which is not going to be undone anytime soon. The latest opinion polls are pointing clearly in the direction of the UK re-joining the EU at some point. As the UK gets poorer, expect these calls to get louder.
Brexit and the absolute decline of the UK economy is an expensive error, fuelled by a dysfunctional media that, in the words of a new report by Michael Blastland and Sir Andrew Dilnot, has been fuelled by “uninformed groupthink.” The report describes that BBC journalists across the UK have only a basic grasp of economics, and are therefore prone to presenting political policy choices as inevitable and unquestionable. Dominant economic orthodoxy is reinforced in the BBC coverage of politics because the BBC lacks sufficient independent economic expertise in newsrooms across the corporation. Coupled with the centralisation of the BBC’s corporate culture.
It is little wonder that dissenting voices are given no room to widen debate, as James Meadway notes:
“Economics coverage matters for all of us. A poorly informed public makes for bad government decisions and, as the IMF’s latest forecast reminds us, Britain’s economic underperformance is in no small part due to poor government choices.”
Hot on the heels of this comes a report from Richard Sloggett who has been able to link obesity rates in the UK with poor levels of economic performance. According to Sloggett:
“The most deprived parts of England have obesity rates 1.5 times higher than the least deprived areas. Hospital admissions related to obesity are three times higher in the most deprived areas than the least deprived. You cannot credibly talk about economic growth and ‘levelling up’ without a plan for tackling obesity.”
Can anyone point me in the direction of where our media reports on these social blights in anything other than a cursory or judgemental manner? Sir Michael Marmot has been warning of this impending crisis for decades, and has made clear what the policy interventions need to be to challenge the decline in life expectancy and public health. Basically, pay people more. Under our present government, these warnings fall on deaf ears. How many times has the UK anti-obesity strategy been delayed? Why is there so much push-back against clean-air and anti-congestion strategies? Why are nurses and teachers striking? The UK is being pushed back into austerity and it’s not working.
However much we can analytically think through and link the many symptoms of social decline that come into view on a daily basis here in the UK, there is one fundamental challenge that needs to be overcome, and that is the obdurate and recurring judgementalism of the modern Conservative belief system. When Thatcher came to power in 1979, she brought with her a belief that poverty is the responsibility of individuals, and isn’t caused by structural deficiencies in the economic system. Kenan Malik describes this deep conceptual rooting when he writes:
“The mantra of poverty being ‘not material but behavioural’ is not, however, peculiarly Thatcherite. The belief that the responsibility for poverty lies with the poor and deprived themselves, and that poverty and inequality are moral rather than political issues, has deep historical roots and continues to shape public policy to this day.”
The absolute decline of the UK is rooted in this belief that some people are more deserving of a good quality of life than others. In my view this is the poison that keeps us trapped in this cycle of decay and doom. It’s time to start focussing on the quality of our lives, and not the economic exchange mechanisms that are used to justify the distribution of resources. If the majority are continually normalised to thinking that there is no alternative, then we’ll never expect anything different.
The decline of the UK is going to get much worse until we challenge this mindset and restructure our society around a belief in the common good for all, with a minimum standard of provision that everyone can expect, not just those fortunate to accumulate wealth. It’s time to get back to a form of pragmatic social democracy, and ditch the ideology and the judgemental contempt that is tied with it. It’s the quality of our lives that matters, not the cost.