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Comfortably dumb

  • Published at 06:08 pm June 7th, 2017
  • Last updated at 10:08 pm June 7th, 2017
Comfortably dumb

When I was a child, I caught a fleeting glimpse of a society becoming more equal and fair.

It was the mid-1970s in a medium sized English town. One of Britain’s largest industrial cities was a 40-minutes drive away, but most of the 10km radius surrounding the town was farms and green fields.

The area comprised a scattering of villages, one castle, three Royal Air Force bases, and part of a heritage trail for American tourists whose ancestors sailed with the Pilgrim Fathers.

Aside from a few commuter outposts, the villages around the town were flourishing working-class communities, in which everyone’s livelihood depended on the area’s famous coal mines.

Buses were plentiful and virtually free for all, hospitals and schools well-funded, and students paid to go into higher and university education.

Fast forward a couple of decades, and by the end of the century, the mines and RAF bases were all closed, and public sector professionals had become conditioned to expect the worst from management.

The big city down the road lost most of its manufacturing jobs in the first two years of Thatcherism.

The area’s once famous and liberating public transport services became a sad, costly joke, blighted by Whitehall diktat and dogmatic deregulation.

This may sound like rose tinted nostalgia for a world that was bound to be changed. But not all such changes over the past 40 years have been inevitable.

It is only the rightward shift of the centre of gravity of economic politics since the 1970s most exemplified by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s, but pursued across party lines across most of the Anglosphere ever since, which makes it appear that way.

Undoubtedly, moves towards greener energy would have reduced Britain’s reliance on its large coal reserves anyway. But the vindictiveness with which Margaret Thatcher defeated the year-long miners strike of 1984-5, accelerated the rundown of UK coal mining, leaving some communities so devastated they still feel the after-effects today.

Even in the 21st century when the UK manages many coal free days, over a fifth of electricity generation capacity depends on the ability to burn coal. It was political preference and an economic choice to import millions of tons of coal, not Greenpeace which shut British mines forever.

More happily for those who remember public information films about what to do during impending nuclear exchanges, the area’s three RAF bases, which had mushroomed during the Cold War, have mainly been transformed into housing estates and a new airport.

But it is a telling indication of changing times that one of the officer’s quarters was redeveloped as an out-of-town base for a local private prep school that prepares parents for English public schools by charging 14,000 pounds a year for their eight-year-olds.

During the 30 years after WWII, the UK became a much more equal society. Never before had British governments done so much to raise living standards for the great majority.

For large swathes of the population, mainly (but not only) in poorer areas, central heating and indoor toilets only arrived with colour television, as post-war rebuilding ensured the working class finally started to share more meaningfully in the prosperity from which it was largely excluded during the heyday of empire.

But it didn’t take long after the oil price shocks of 1973 boosted inflation in Western economies for the post-war consensus to be trampled underfoot by Thatcherite economics and dogma.

In 1945, the richest 0.01% people in Britain received 123 times the mean national average income. In 1978, it hit its lowest ever multiple of 28 times average income. By the time the Thatcher-Major governments left office, it was back up to 99 times the national mean in 1997. And has been rising ever since.

Whatever happens this week, the more voters see of Jeremy Corbyn and compare party manifestos, the more his ratings rise from hitherto dreadful depths

Yet, for all the rising inequality of recent years and visibly reduced opportunities for ordinary British people compared to the 1960s and 70s, it remains hugely effective for the Conservative Party and others to scaremonger about the pre-Thatcher decades.

“Don’t vote for Corbyn because he wants to take Britain back to the 1970s” has been the one attack on the Labour leader during the current UK General Election that has proved its staying power.

Relentless media-led personal attacks on Corbyn’s character have failed to undermine the popularity of Labour manifesto pledges to re-nationalise railways and abolish tuition fees, especially after Theresa May unpopular dementia tax announcement.

Whatever happens this week, the more voters see of Jeremy Corbyn and compare party manifestos, from railways to Saudi Arabia, the more his ratings rise from hitherto dreadful depths.

As Theresa May turns up the volume on combating Islamist extremism following Saturday’s terror rampage, it is Corbyn of the awkward squad -- one of only 13 MPs to vote against the Cameron-Sarkozy Libya intervention, and one who has consistently criticised arms sales to the Middle East -- who makes more sense.

The more people see of May, and think on her record as home secretary or ask how she plans to control Facebook when her party is throwing record pots of dark money at it for “below the radar” targeted advertising, the more distrust in Conservative policies deepens. What I and others had mistakenly assumed was that Theresa May’s “grown-up” persona, so seemingly similar to Jeremy Corbyn’s dignified demeanour, would neutralise his strength.

Far from it. By calling an unnecessary election, May has only exposed how brittle her personality is under scrutiny, undermining her authority and appeal while Corbyn’s has grown.

However, precedent still suggests a Tory majority is more probable than not, if only because Labour starts further behind than normal, due to Brexit and the rise of Scottish nationalism.

In only one of the five general elections Labour has won since 1970 has it not had a clear poll lead going in, while in six of the seven general elections the Conservatives have won since 1970, Labour has had at least one late opinion poll surge to give supporters false hope.

Paradoxically, it is over 45-year-olds, including the generations that benefitted most from the greater social mobility of the 60s and 70s, who are most willing to vote May because they are scared of “going back to the seventies.”   

There are various reasons for this, but I bet memories of cold houses, poor plumbing, closed shops, and telephones so expensive you did not have one in the house, play a part in enabling myths about everything to do with the 1970s being bad, to take root.

More equality enforcement, helping more women at work, Moore’s law making the communications revolution accessible to all, more cheap air fares, and globalisation not only making goods cheaper but exporting local pollution to Chinese rivers; people over 50 feel better off for many reasons even though a greater share of national wealth than the 1970s is being systematically siphoned off by elites.

The young who pay the price may be more likely to back Corbyn, but are also less likely to vote, hence the still-above-the-line Tory lead.

Should it turn out Jeremy Corbyn loses the election while winning more of the arguments mainly because of older voters perceptions of the decade they remember best, this may be a new nadir for the phenomenon of electorates voting against their better interests.

Niaz Alam is a member of the Editorial Board of Dhaka Tribune. A qualified lawyer, he has worked on corporate responsibility and ethical business issues since 1992. He sat on the Board of the London Pensions Fund Authority between 2001-2010 and is a former vice-chair of War on Want.

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