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.

48 thoughts on “Behind Brexit lies a yearning for a past we destroyed.

  1. This is exactly what I have been told by older friends; the world has changed, I don’t like it, it must be Europe.
    Actually, only slightly more than one third of your fellow Britons. So not quite so bad.

    1. What happened was Thatcher and Neo-liberalism – the unions were decimated, council houses were sold, public assets sold off cheap in privatisation, manufacturing destroyed, a boom in credit and one of Capitalism’s many collapses. This was not all accidental, but intentional. I would prefer an economy for the many not the few.

      1. Brilliant piece. Perfect reading for my life Tory voting (remainer) dad who now thinks the EU made Dewsbury have no go areas.
        He will retort that the unions were entirely to blame for the seventies of course which lead to the thatcher years. What’s your take on the 1970’s?

    1. FWIW, if you exclude NI, and you happen to fall in the £100,000 to £150,000 income range, the peak marginal income tax rate ends up being 60% (well short of the 95% of the past, though) – 45% on all earnings over £100,000, plus the impact of the tapered withdrawal of your personal allowance (which is reduced to £0 at £150,000).

      Add in NI (13.8% employer’s NI at this level of pay, plus 2% employee’s NI), and your peak marginal tax rate on income is around 75%. Once you get beyond £150,000 per year, your tax falls back down to around 60% total (NI + income tax).

      And it’s worth noting that at those pay levels, most people calculate the take home they want and derive the needed gross pay to get there. If we raise taxes on people who are paid at those levels, they will simply demand more gross pay to maintain their standard of living. This continues until the employer can successfully say “if you move to [country], we can pay you more, and you will have a higher standard of living”, at which point that person is likely to leave the UK completely.

      My gut feeling is that there’s a Prisoner’s Dilemma hidden here; at the same time as we had 95% marginal tax rates, the USA had similarly high tax rates (70% or so federal tax, plus state income taxes), and was also booming. As long as all players (tax authorities, in this case) co-operate and maintain a high tax rate, we all benefit; a player who defects by lowering taxes gets a burst of extra money (as high paid employees move there), but lowers the standards for everyone in the long run.

  2. Good, if anything a bit rose-tinted. My mum told me of the smog in London in the 50s. That was when London girls started wearing black knickers; they ended up black whatever colour you bought. My folks got a £7,000 mortgage on a house in the 70s and we had no holidays for years and lived on cheap food and worse hand-me-downs or jumble-sale clothes. This only ended when roaring inflation made the mortgage much smaller. I remember having to wear school uniform to my uncle’s wedding because it was the poshest clothing I had.

    1. Well yes. But what makes you think millennials working zero-hours contracts are any better off? I’m 46, I remember the 70s clearly, and I know it wasn’t perfect. But it was, for 95% of people, significantly more stable, predictable and rewarding than their existence now. Basically, people who voted for Brexit were voting to leave what the UK has become: but it didn’t become that because of the EU. Brussels, if anything, has moderated the worst excess of British governments.

      1. Although many don’t acknowledge it we all see life in relative terms from time to time. And in those terms the UK has become less equal. High unemployment but over a million in the gig economy earn less than £6000 pa. I was born in the 50’s, my sons in the 90’s. I don’t earn for the past but I do yearn for a better future; nothing suggests Brexit will deliver that.

      2. How does someone who is 46
        ► “remember the 70s clearly”
        when he was at most 7 years old at the end of 1979?

      3. I wrote this a few years ago. I was 10 in 79, and remember much of the 70s. But regardless, not remembering something doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. Nobody alive remembers the birth of Winston Churchill, but he was definitely born. It’s not sensible to ignore historical facts because you personally didn’t witness them, or because they conflict with your beliefs: the facts don’t care what you believe – they persist as facts anyway.

    2. The Clean Air Act was, I believe, the result of a private members bill introduced by Robert Maxwell MP before he became the thieving newspaper mogul we remember his as. So somewhat ironic. Always the opportunist, he sought to benefit from Government cowardice towards taking on the industrial lobby.

  3. During the period you’re talking about the government took over most heavy industry in the UK. In the name of keeping unemployment low. The unions you idolise regarded their members’ interests as paramount so they paralysed most of those industries and prevented them from modernising. The reaction to that led to all of the problems we have today. I was around in the seventies. It weren’t fun. We need to do better but it can’t be in the same way that failed then.

    1. I was around in the 70s too. In no way was it glorious. I wouldn’t argue it was. Nor would I idolise unions. There are as many bad unions as there are bad people, but they do serve a role as a counterbalance to the (equally bad, equally common) bad employers. Currently, and for 35 years, greed and short-termism has dominated at the expense of, well, most workers. The average British worker (excluding the top 10%) hasn’t seen a real-terms rise in income since 1987. In the meantime tax cuts for that richest strata have been enormous. The Taxpayers Alliance (a right wing pressure group) states that 49% of income of the poorest 50% goes in tax. Tax on the richest 10% is 45%, and almost a third of that is avoided.

      The absence of a countervailing power to stop these excesses is overwhelming our nation. I doubt you’d agree, but I honestly think most Brexit voters were choosing to reject Britain, not Europe. They’ve simply been told, for 40 years, that all these income inequality and job insecurity issues emit from Brussels. Not so. Westminster is the problem: Europe is a politically convenient scapegoat.

      1. Exactly. 40 years of blaming the EU for literally everything.

        And cracking article, too. Very beautifully written.

      2. Great article. It would have been nice if Labour had confronted the out of control unions in the ’70s. Might have kept the Thatcherites out. Scargill et al took it all too far, a different form of selfishness.

  4. I,m sure in the 50,s some scribe wrote how great it was in the 20,s and 30,s.It was for some, but I,m sure the little matter of the Great Depression and the rise of Facism undermines this.I think the way Sunday’s have been hijacked by big business and totaly destroyed the day of rest(I,m not religious) has been monumental.Immigration was cheap labour and still is to this day.I think calling people stupid who voted Brexit serves no purpose whatsoever.Maybe some people wanted the whole shithouse to go up in flames,on a positive note just think that would bring house prices down in London.I have just recovered from Cancer and one of the hardest things to getting your life back on track is the bombardment of advertising(posters,TV) telling the tragedies,I know.What we need is answers and like politics the days of people of stature are long gone. History shows us amazing facts like the Guardians vehement opposition to the N.H.S and I can,t for the life of me think Why? Change? Thank God the Labour government did,nt listen.

    1. Nostalgia is toxic. Data is real. The 40s-70s weren’t a utopia, but the data shows the average Briton (practically everybody except the top and bottom 5%) were significantly happier, more stable, and had better prospects. I won’t say richer, because in purely numerical terms they weren’t. But you could buy a 3 bedroom semi in London for the equivalent of £25,000, and today you’d need to be earning £400,000. So yes, we had no iPhones, but we did have stable employment, homes and pensions. Sorry to hear about your cancer, been there too (kidney in 2010)

    2. And your voting to leave the EU, which is fairly clearly being done to further tax avoidance (EU laws coming in won’t apply) and to allow primary care to be privatised!
      Your cancer would have cost you your house and left you homeless and hundreds of thousands of pounds in debt under private health styled after the USA. Instead? You’ve still got your house *and* your health.

  5. Brilliant article. I grew up in the 60s and 70s and liked Britain then, it was a great time to be a kid and teenager. Basically the right wing Brexit brigade want back what the right wing destroyed

    1. @David Pomfret. Do you not remember the long periods of Labour government under Blair? With his promise to start a war every year, whether we needed one or not?

      1. What are you on about, @Scotboy?

        Blair wasn’t in power in the 60s and 70s.

  6. The first thing that needs to be noted is that one of the reasons for near full employment through into the 70s is the number of people who died during the War and the rebuilding that had to be done afterwards. Prior to the War we still had an Empire. The claim that the UK did fine before joining the EU are somewhat ludicrous in that light. What do people who make that claim suggest, WW3 or asking India et al if we can bring back the Raj?

    1. The UK didn’t do fine before joining the EU. It had almost 25 years of repeated failures to create international treaties and trading agreements, which is why we eventually gave up trying to go alone and joined the club. I’m not making any other arguments. It’s odd, I think, that people take issue with me on matters about which I’ve expressed no comment. Is this simply that it’s assumed I’m a lefty (therefore unequivocally back that idiot Corbyn) and I think Brexit it stupid (therefore unequivocally cheer for everything the EU does)? Neither assumption is remotely true. Read my other posts on Brexit and you’ll see I’m perfectly aware the EU is a damaged, imperfect, stupid institution. It’s simply better than the alternative, as Britain found to it’s enormous cost in the 20 years before we joined.

  7. PS As an immigrant, I can tell you it was a disgrace how so many BME immigrants were treated! “No Blacks Need Apply” , No Irish Need Apply” were a common sight on the Evening Standard Classifieds.

  8. While I could quibble at parts I think you’ve hit the nail on the head for a lot of people. Nicely written.

    One small fact…BBC didn’t show any live league football. Sky does. They paid the FA a lot for it hence starting the spiralling money cycle in the “game”. But it’s a different service than was available before.

    1. The BBC (and ITV) did show live league football in the 80s. Whom do you think televised the famous Liverpool v Arsenal 1989 League decider? (ITV) Just not 4 games a weekend…

  9. Thank you for articulating so well many of my feelings and thoughts on the last 40 years. As a 60 year old, I too remember the 1970s and much of the 1960s. Although things were far from perfect, the period was a golden age compared to this decade.
    If you haven’t already read it, I can recommend the preface to the late Ian MacDonald’s Revolution in the Head book where he analyses the social, political and cultural currents of the 60s and concludes that these resulted in many working class people voting for Thatcherism in 1979.

  10. Many of the job losses were due to technological change rather than policy. For example many steel jobs were lost because of recycling, as electric arc furnaces used for recycling steel require far fewer workers than blast furnaces for producing steel from scratch.
    Even offshoring was dependent on new technologies: specifically ISO-standard shipping containers, and computers to help manage world-spanning supply chains.

  11. The main problem was Thatcher. She came into office at the start of the UK oil and gas bonanza, and frittered away the oil revenues to cut taxes in order to keep herself in office.
    Most of those tax cuts went to City Boys who in turn squandered that money on champagne lifestyles.
    The £400 billion should have been invested in infrastructure, railways etc. Norway invested their income from oil and gas, and still have $1 trillion oil fund.
    The UK has spent all it’s oil and gas revenue.

  12. Whilst perhaps there’s a little bit of rose tinting around the edges I broadly agree with what you are saying. I was born in 1955 and therefore grew up during the sixties and seventies. I think the general populace became politically complacent and were taken for a ride by men offering ‘shiny beads’. We are paying the price for our collective stupidity. I’m a classic btw

  13. You could buy a house in London, a car and start a family on the equivalent of £25,000. OK – so what was the equivalent of £25k in 1950. According to the BofE inflation calculator it was around £750.

    Trouble with that is that £750 at that time looks like a rather high wage. A quick check suggests the average wage then was £100 p.a. according to the Telegraph. (https://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/tvandradio/8374130/Facts-about-Britain-at-work-in-the-Fifties.html). If that sounds suspiciously low, then the Guardian has it as £465 p.a. by 1953 (https://www.theguardian.com/uk/2003/jun/03/monarchy.martinwainwright)

    Either way, buying a London house looks like it was out of reach for Mr Average in those days. You needed to be well paid to get to that notional £25k.

    1. Did you read the article it linked to? I recommend it.

      And the equivalent wage of £25,000 is a wage that provides the same purchasing power as £25,000 today (or rather, in 2016, when I wrote this). That’s what equivalent means.

  14. Nice line of argument and a good read but a bit flakey on facts!! These kinds of ‘golden years’ arguments always depend on your own personal pair of rose-tinted specs. Was on path for academic career in 1970s then cuts to education (and much else) actually started under Callaghan and Healey with 1976 IMF crisis -100s of people after same job..Got married and bought first house in 1981 in nightmare Thatcher years. Paying a 17% interest rate on £22.7k mortgage having saved a deposit of £5k in our 20s. Mortgages over £20k attracted higher rate. Nice terraced house but couldn’t afford TV or phone or much furniture for first two years…Plus ça change…I’m pretty sure Brexit vote came from much more complex sets of motives for different people.

    1. You’ll note I describe a period from 40s to 80s – excluding Thatcher – and also say that period wasn’t perfect, and included crises. But the overall direction of travel and the determined purpose of government was much better than now.

  15. Very perceptive article. Three comments

    My daughter is 31 years old. She doesn’t own a house. None of her contemporaries own a house and probably never will. That’s limiting, but also has positives. They live communally, because they have to – it’s not so bad. They aren’t tied by mortgages – she’s just off to stay in Norway for a year at least without a care.

    Your article misses that much of the postwar good times were the result of cheap fossil fuels. Classic Kondratiev wave there. Those times are gone, until renewables are fully on stream.

    Third: you are missing the end of the economic dominance of the West. Much of those good times were based on cheap resources, borrowed from elsewhere. As what was the second and third worlds come up, we must go down. Economics is not a zero sum game, but resources are. That adjustment is painful and people look for someone to blame. Immigrants, the Irish, the Scots. This could get nasty. Probably will if history is any judge

    Shit. Now I’ve depressed myself. I will be voting for Scottish Independence as soon as possible. Decent person refugees welcome

  16. A friend of a friend reposted this on Facebook today. Great read and can’t believe it is 3 years old!
    A couple of things I might add would be:
    1. The rise of consumer credit (you *can* spend more than you can afford because why shouldn’t have the nice things that others have). There’s probably a social class debate there too.
    2. The “fear of the other” which seems to appear when there are haves and have nots, which is where we ended up.

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