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.


23 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.

  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.

  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

  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.

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