To kick off, then. In the light of Osborne’s controversial cuts to working tax credits, measures which even Fraser Nelson at The Spectator thinks are a bad idea, some thoughts on the deeper history of where we are. Both left and right are fond of namechecking the 70s, in a very partial way, to suit their arguments; it’s either ‘back to the militant unions’ or ‘back to that meanypants Thatcher’. And both left and right talk as if the difficulties we have in the UK with low pay, poor productivity and an intractably unemployed underclass are 100% the fault of the other side.
But digging into that history for a moment, let’s not forget that Thatcher’s admittedly brutal approach to the unions was felt by many at the time to be necessary as a result of the greed and intransigence of those same unions during the 1970s. Explicitly socialist 70s policies brought the UK to its knees, sent entire industries to the wall due to lack of competitiveness / innovation and forced our country to call in the IMF.
UK industrial policy since WWII has overall been badly-judged, by governments as well as by unions. And I don’t think Thatcher was some kind of saint, of course not; the human cost of closing the mines was appalling, and most former mining communities have never recovered.But it’s a total lie to blame it all on Thatcher, as though she just destroyed the industrial proletariat for a laugh, or out of some kind of casual sadism. The militant unions of the ’70s should (and never do) take a share of the blame for pulling up the drawbridge against globalisation, insisting on a protectionism that destroyed competitiveness in our industries, and pushing for the rolling strikes that brought the confrontation about in the first place.
Whether we like it or not, that ancient history is still alive and well in contemporary Labour/Tory debates. Much of the argument about the welfare state, and about ‘generations who have never worked’ dates back to the collapse of Britain’s industrial proletariat, which in my view was in large part a catastrophic clusterfuck created by the irresistible force of unions’ militancy meeting the immovable object of Thatcher’s determination to defang them. This, combined with wider forces of globalisation driving manufacturing to countries with cheaper labour, and a shipping industry increasingly capable of transporting the output of same cheaply and efficiently.
The same has happened in most developed economies. My late father-in-law was one of the last generation of factory fitters in Liverpool, and spent time overseas in Detroit fitting the last generation of automotive factories there, factories that have recently closed down as the companies that built them leave or fold. A quarter of Detroit has now been or is scheduled to be bulldozed.
One of the most intractable questions for any government in a developed economy is what to do with the social class which previously formed the industrial proletariat. It’s awful and dehumanising to just leave a whole class of people on the shelf, but there aren’t enough industrial jobs in the UK any more. For the UK, that whole question is tied up in grief, anger and bitterness about the 1970s, when the whole edifice collapsed and left millions in destitution.
So what do you do? All attempts so far to find a solution have had unintended consequences. Thatcher pissed our North Sea oil and gas bonanza up the wall paying unemployed miners and factory workers hush money in the form of ‘sickness benefits’ to stay off the dole so as to massage employment figures. All that did was kick the can down the road. Blair tried to turn the same people, or their children, all into middle managers by expanding university attendance to 50%, but just created grade inflation instead and made it ever harder for poor kids to get good jobs because you need a Masters now where you used to be fine with A levels. And now Cameron and IDS are trying to force their children’s children back to work, any work, however shitty, in the service economy we now have in the absence of manufacturing, by taking away their tax credits. Meanwhile I’ve yet to see a plausible solution from Labour’s current incarnation, which doesn’t seem to have any alternative to welfare dependency.
Clearly I don’t have a solution to this, or maybe I’d be in politics. But it’s my observation that 1) whatever you do has unintended consequences, 2) the roots of our current situation actually go way, way back and a proper analysis needs to look at both sides of the story and 3) whatever path we take has to think seriously about what real, meaningful participation the UK as a country can meaningfully offer the former industrial proletariat in the political and economic life of our nation. Otherwise we’re going to be stuck forever in an argy-bargy between ‘hate-filled benefit bashers’ and ‘the something for nothing brigade’.