On the whole, I prefer the future: it’s where I intend to spend the coming years.
However, I do understand a perfectly natural sense of yearning nostalgia. I suspect that’s why most people voted for Brexit. The good old days were pretty good for most people.
Even people who weren’t alive then know, from their parents, that it was decent time to be starting out. You just have to ask about your dad’s free degree or the full-pay 2 year apprenticeship that led to his job for life; or look around the big family home your mum somehow managed to move into as the owner aged only 22. These things show, unequivocally, that things were – and still should be – better.
Like all economists, trade bodies, corporate leaders and non-UKIP or Tory politicians in the entire world, I think Brexit will make things worse. But I know those who chose it did so because they wanted change for the better. Change that looks like what the post-war period brought. They either remember it, or see it in their parents’ comparative comfort.
It was real. This is what it was like.
From the 40s through to the 80s, governments built up to 250,000 houses a year. They owned and defended major industries on our behalf, and the key strategy of any government was to have full employment and proper apprenticeships for anyone who wanted them.
Was that period perfect? Of course not. Bad things happened, poverty existed, governments screwed up, and there were wars and reversals and crises. But the general trend was for increased wealth, health, life expectancy, security, openness, home-ownership, saving, disposable income, social cohesion, and acceptance of others. In the years since the mid- to late-80s, to put it mildly, the pendulum swung back. Those gains – and for the vast majority of us, they were substantial gains – have juddered to a halt, stagnated, and then begin to slide inexorably back.
Prior to that, wages were high, growth was almost constant, unions ensured jobs were safe, education was free, productivity was strong, healthcare was well funded, and housing was cheap.
On the equivalent household income of £25,000 you could buy a house in London, own a car, and start a family. This is described neatly here.
Public pensions were secure and you retired at 60 or 65, a full 10 or 15 years earlier than young people will in future.
Personal debt was comparatively rare because – aside from mortgages – most things could be afforded on your wage. And mortgages were so cheap you could save a deposit for a London home – an actual 3 bed house of your own, not a cupboard to flatshare – in under 2 years.
Public debt was also low, and we kept it that way while managing to repay WW2 and build the NHS.
Government investment created the road system, publicly owned major industries, hospitals, postal and telephone services, public television, a power grid and a science and space programme. We even managed to introduce the Clean Air Act that started to protect the environment.
And at the same time, we gave away an empire but remained reasonably wealthy and powerful. And we managed to do this whilst accepting 1.4 million non-white (and, in large numbers, non-Christian) immigrants in the 1950s alone, and yet more in the 60s. Immigration – then, as now – didn’t destroy the economy, our traditions or our culture.
What did? Where did this utopia go? How did it all end?
Let me explain.
In that period the top rate of income tax was 95%: it’s now 45%. Business tax was 50%: it’s now 20%.
Since 1980, tax avoidance by the wealthy has doubled. Combined with those giant tax cuts, this means we now get 25% of what we used to from those who own the most.
Union membership was at 64% in the 70s. It’s now around 21%, and a mere 7% in the private sector. Every union in the world was, ultimately, formed by terrible employers. Now union power is gone, and guess what: the terrible employers are back.
And we used to own steel, water, car, electricity, gas, postal and other industries. Then, because it would somehow, magically “make things better”, we sold them to other countries. So now we send all that money overseas.
So what happened was this: every time you voted for smaller government and lower taxes, you voted to cut your income, pension, investment, and the availability of housing for your kids; and now you can’t afford to live well.
Every time you despised those on welfare and chose meaner, crueler leaders, you kicked away a piece of the framework on which your future happiness was built. And now your happiness is gone and you need someone to blame.
Every time you cursed the lefty BBC for charging £140 for TV and radio, you instead elected to give literally 6 times as much to Sky for showing exactly the same football matches you used to watch on terrestrial. And in doing so, you undermined the national in favour of the greedy.
Every time you turned your back on miners or shipbuilders or tube drivers who fought to save their jobs, you helped to destroy your protector; and now nobody sticks up for you.
Bulgarians didn’t do this. Jacques Delors didn’t. Muslims didn’t. The Labour Party didn’t. Jo Cox didn’t.
It’s true that the economy is big, and in pure numbers we’re the 7th richest country. But if one person has £200tn and everyone else has nothing, the country is still worth £200tn. Doesn’t mean the populace is wealthy.
Taking into account inequality and the enormous cost of living, we’re poorer than Equatorial Guinea. That wasn’t the case before we all decided it was good to be spiteful, greedy, short-termist idiots.
Behind Brexit lies this harsh fact: you’re a turkey who repeatedly voted for Christmas. You had multiple chances to vote for enlightened self-interest, and you blew it because you didn’t like how that funny-looking bloke ate a bacon sandwich.
I want to end this post with a brief diversion into 1970s metaphysics. Stick with me, it’s not gonna hurt.
The philosopher Robert M Persig argues that human thought can be divided into two types, which he calls Classic and Romantic.
A Classic person doesn’t care about the label you apply to something, only the function. Yes, the house is ugly, but who cares: it’s well-built and is just a box for sleeping in.
A Romantic person is not especially interested in function, mainly in form. The surface is the most important factor in assessing something – if the house is pretty, who cares if there’s rot in the basement.
There’s a natural “platform problem” here: whether you’re Classic or a Romantic, the platform you’re on means you will describe the other platform in disparaging terms. Romantics are “shallow and stupid”. Classics are “nerdy and elitist”. I’ve probably insulted half of you here, but doesn’t that kind of prove Persig’s hypothesis?
I’m a bit of a Classic, I think, and as such, I can’t help viewing Brexit as a function. It doesn’t matter what labels you apply to it. If you look below the surface at what you’re actually rejecting, rather than at what badge is applied to it, there’s a surprise in store.
I accept this doesn’t apply to everyone who voted Leave. Maybe only to a small minority. But given the narrowness of the vote, that percentage matters.
But in my Classic way, I can’t help concluding you didn’t vote to leave the EU at all, really. You only think you did. Given everything I’ve said about the yearning for what we used to be, everything we lost and want back, everything we blame on Europe without any justification, I have to conclude this:
In reality, you didn’t reject the dream of Europe we were all building.
You rejected the reality of a Britain you destroyed.