Britain isn’t working – the sloppy arguments of “Britannia Unchained”

When politicians are unable to answer difficult questions, they answer simple ones instead. Voters, for the most part, prefer it that way. Their own questions are simple, they would rather not think too deeply, and they favour proposed solutions that are intellectually lacking in rigour and blame anyone for the country’s problems rather than the voters themselves.

So it’s hardly surprising that, as the party conference season looms, a multi-racial group of five Tories have come up with a book claiming that the reason our economy is a basket case and the Asian tiger countries are inheriting the earth is that basically, Brits are a nation of slackers. A leaked extract from Britannia Unchained – Global Growth and Prosperity sets the tone: “Once they enter the workplace, the British are among the worst idlers in the world. We work among the lowest hours, we retire early and our productivity is poor.”

It sounds plausible, doesn’t it? We all know someone who casually calls in sick the day after England wins a national sporting event. We’ve all heard stories, many of them true, about fruit growers in Lincolnshire having to import armies of Eastern Europeans to do the casual jobs that indigenous Brits can’t be arsed to do. Of course, they don’t apply to us. Or our friends. We’re all working hours of unpaid overtime, and sneaking off to catch up on work e-mails in the evenings. But yeah, basically most people out there are lazy sods; look at the immigrants working all the hours God sends.

What’s the answer? It has a familiar ring, and that’s probably what makes it appealing. To quote Britannia Unchained:

“Britain will never be as big as China or Brazil, but we can look forward to a new generation, ready to get to work. If we are to take advantage of these opportunities, we must get on the side of the responsible, the hard working and the brave. We must stop bailing out the reckless, avoiding all risk, and rewarding laziness.”

It’s hard to argue with that. Except, why are so many Britons apparently glued to the sofa, producing too many kids with no intention of earning the money to feed them? Could it possibly have anything to do with the Thatcherite policies of the 1980s, that threw whole communities of miners and unskilled factory workers onto the scrapheap?

Back then, when memories of the Winter of Discontent were fresh, it seemed like a great idea to bring in Tebbit’s Law and make sure the trade unions would never again be able to hold the country to ransom. There was North Sea Oil money to pay unemployment benefit to three million people, and nobody stopped to think about what it might do to the working class to live in places where nobody remembered what it was like to have a proper job.

Now the results are all too apparent. And we can’t afford them.

We have an underclass of people who live in a world where actions don’t have consequences. You can clear off and leave your wife and kids, and they won’t starve because they’ll be able to claim welfare benefits. You can bunk off school, because what’s the point of getting GCSE’s when there’s no prospect of a job? You can take home a violent man you met when you were drunk last night, then when the beatings become too much to bear, and he torches your flat, the NHS will patch you up, put your traumatised kids in foster care and find you a new address where he can’t come after you.

It’s a caricature. But that’s the default position for communities where the causal link between not working and not eating has broken down. I don’t believe that working class parents, given the prospect of an opportunity to do so, are any less committed than middle class ones to wanting their kids to get ahead and have a better life than their own. However, that has to be a real possibility, not just a theoretical exercise. And it starts not with lectures about stereotypical national idleness, but with targeted interventions like Sure Start centres to break into the cycle of low aspiration before it’s too late. Exactly the kind of public services that are being slashed by Cameron’s administration, in fact.

I haven’t read Britannia Unchained yet, but I suspect that for all their rhetoric about personal responsibility, the Tory party will remain stubbornly silent on the little matter of an underclass locked in entrenched, multi-generational welfare dependency. It’s a lot easier to call all those other people outside the conference hall lazy buggers, and it makes the rest of us feel better about ourselves. And that’s what sells books, not to mention getting political parties into power. But when politicians face up to the tragic waste of human talent and aspiration that stems from casually throwing whole communities onto the scrapheap, and leaving future administrations to pick up the tab, then I’ll feel that they’ve got something meaningful to say about why the country’s in the state it’s in.

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