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Wednesday, October 05, 2011

What's wrong with Britain today.

Britain often seems like it's changing too fast for my generation to cope with.

To set the record straight, I grew up in a working class Irish family in London where I was the first member of my immediate family to enjoy a university education. I went to one of the country's best universities after getting the grades I needed and after years at a failing state school...


I did well, I got a good grade on my degree, and I went into banking. I enjoyed and loathed banking in almost equal measure until I was exposed to the shadier and more despicable elements of that sector.

In my lifetime I've seen Britain experience road rage for the first time, I've seen teenage violence rocket, I've watched the murder rate in Britain double, I've seen the poverty gap grow to its greatest extent in a century and I've seen our position as a globally respected power eroded.

As a man who should be a natural Labour voter I've seen most of this happen under a Labour government, and so it is that I find it extremely hard to have a solid political loyalty. I don't have any time for Thatcherism, I don't share laissez-faire agendas of the Liberal Democrats, and I don't believe the profit motive has given us a just society.

But when I have to sit back and ask myself what I do stand for politically I end up with a firm list of factors which in many cases were once a hard core of the British working class's life. I have these factors in my political make-up because my father and mother both came from rural Irish families where hard work and social cohesion remain the mainstay of communal existence. If a man or woman wishes to be utterly free he or she has one option and one only: leave regular human society and live in the woods alone.

I don't much care what people do in the privacy of their own boudoirs and I don't favour any regime or creed which believes bullying people into certain behaviours is anything but a disaster waiting to happen, yet my concern in social ethics has always been to ask "Does this work?" It is for this reason alone that I don't come out in favour of moral policies which although seemingly centred on 'fairness' are often an erosion of some pretty common sense principles of a workable society.

The same applies for the plethora of social experiments I've seen all sides of British party politics engage in, be it the disastrous Blair-enforced expansion of university access, or the Tory tampering with the NHS which has dismally failed to reform what is now a service facing desperate need of liberation from targets and middle management.

Yet what does appear to me a key foundation stone for renewing British society is a return to some form of accountability at the basic level, not just the national level. It seems to me that everyone in Britain today wants to throw their woes at government instead of accepting their own part in the decay of our society to the extent where rampant criminality caused massive rioting on a level we'd not seen in Britain for over 150 years. Where were the parents in the recent looting sprees?



A few years back, the priest at my local parish told the congregation that a boy of 16 had been caught smashing in a back window of the church. In over 120 years a window on the building had never been touched. Not one. The child (and that is what a 16 year old is) was followed back to his parents' house by a member of the congregation before the police were called. The boy turned out to be from a very respectable white, middle-class family where the parents were respectively an accountant and a doctor. They were absolutely mortified with shame.

Now here's the part of the story I found most worrying: this all occurred at 8.45am in broad daylight whilst the boy was absolutely blind drunk on his way home from a party. What in God's name is going on when a kid of that age can be out getting wasted at 8am in the morning and his parents don't have him at home where he should be?

I am tired to extinction of hearing people call themselves "Liberals" and then proceed to condemn pretty basic facets of a cohesive society as "backward" or "old fashioned". There is nothing backward about parents preventing their children from making horrendous mistakes that ruin their lives. That boy ended up with community service and the threat of a criminal record. But for the intervention of the parish he could have got worse.

I know that there are times when criminality is not a familys fault, yet good people are overwhelmingly produced by good parents and a strong social contract where adults will correct each others' behaviour and challenge immoral conduct in the public sphere. That doesn't mean prying into a person's sex life (God forbid I should ever be so bored as to worry about a person's sex life), but it does mean that if I stop a person on the tube for jumping a barrier and not paying their ticket I should expect to receive the support of others and a legal system empowered to punish.

And before anyone tries to question this one, Yes - Punishment has been proven to work; the threat of imprisonment categorically lowers crime.

We want our country to step back from perceived social anarchy, see, but we don't want to risk the wrath of those who do whatever they please.

It doesn't help when politicians make a thoroughly good job of passing the buck; failing to admit their faults and then blaming the man after them for the mistakes they themselves made. It is for this reason above all that I find the current round of Labour mudslinging on the economy and the decay of our society to be absolutely unforgivable.

I recently had a very interesting conversation with a Labour activist with a lifetime of experience in policy and outreach, a man who has had a truly fascinating career. The one thing that surprised me was the extent of his admiration for Labour leader Ed Miliband, a man who has blamed almost all of the country's current social problems on Prime Minister Cameron instead of admitting the responsibility of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. It seems to me, as someone who voted for Blair, I confess, that Labour is playing good short-term politics and very bad long-term moral integrity on all this.

Britain's national debt is around the trillion pound mark, depending on who you ask. That debt began an awful long time ago and skyrocketed under the Blair government after a decade of massive spending even when the warnings were already on the wall about a possible meltdown. Granted, Thatcher was technically a conservative but Thatcher was a Thatcherite economically, and given that PM John Major worked incredibly hard to return the UK economy to some semblance of normality it would be both disingenuous and factually flawed to blame UK debt on the Tories. And that's the bit that really pisses me off.

We now have a generation of debt-ridden students who are forced to double their student debt by taking second degrees in order to be considered as being at the level of proficiency my generation were at in 1999. By which I mean that most of them will need to get a masters or a Phd if they wish to be noticed in commerce or the other major sectors of British life; a first degree just isn't worth the paper it's printed on today due to the vast numbers who own one. Well over 70% of middle-management executives polled by the Times recently stated that "the quality of university graduates in the UK has fallen dramatically over the past decade" - that is the tombstone of Blair's unjust, foolish tampering with a tertiary education system that put him and his pals through uni for free just so they could force working class kids to pick up £30k of debt for jobs they'd never get.

What this means is that under a supposedly socialist government we have now approached a point rapidly approximating to the American system where student debts of $100,000 are quite standard!

I don't advocate rolling back social welfare; welfare is a central tenet of a just society and I don't go in for all the bigoted rubbish that some fringe Tory backbenchers spout. Yet I also don't think the global economy can now continue to sustain so many of the social experiments Labour undertook without a drastic increase in corporate and personal taxation, and to do that is to play with fiscal fire.

This isn't a socialist country à-la-France or Germany and it never has been. The Brits have a very strong and broadly agreed upon sense of compassion for those who suffer and as a result they do have a weird combination in them of free market capitalism mixed with socialistic tendencies. They simply want things to be "fair" - that one Uber-word of British life.

If there is anything I want the hundreds of thousands of genuine protesters to understand about Britain's economy today it's that they ought to be rioting at the Labour conferences and not attacking the Lib Dems and Tories for a mess we could have mostly avoided, even given the global downturn. Banking will always contain theft and inequality, I assure you- it's the inevitable yet containable by-product of capitalism that people at the top steal. Yet that doesn't mean the average UK citizen should be exonerated from the colossal private debt statistics the British public has. Britons have been maxing out their credit cards on luxury items and lifestyle expenditure for a two-decade period now and it has got to stop; it is causing runaway inflation and leaving the banks laughing.

If you don't have the cash, don't buy the goods.

Until the global downturn is fixed (and it will be) this is all pretty academic. What Britain needs more than anything is a control on expenditure and a return to solid banking restrictions covering profiteering and rate hiking.

We could also do with avoiding any more neo-colonial wars which send the oil price out of the atmosphere.

Call it a "British Common Sense" plan for debt-control: a decade of saving, paying off the spiraling national debt, balancing the budget, and avoiding any further political alignment with a US government now almost entirely at odds with global investors. Britain's genius has always been to go where the money is and 'ideology be damned'; the Empire was never ideological, it was always founded on the corrupt and sustaining principle of wealth procurement for wealth's sake. Given that the empire is long gone we should return to what we knew in the 50s: money flows from having a diverse global political horizon, not becoming dependent on one source of wealth.

We can't turn the clock back, but we CAN learn from our past and not repeat it. I am sure you quite agree.

Above all, bear in mind one simple fact: Had Britain been part of the Eurozone in all this, we would have had absolutely no power to affect our interest rates. None.

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