I was born in England in 1947 into a world where the national watchwords were “make do and mend” and “waste-not-want-not“. That was in part attributable to post-war austerity , but mostly it was simply a continuation of what had always been the case.
Packaging was still in its infancy. Most things which are now ready-wrapped , especially food, were sold loose. People routinely took their purchases away from shops and market stalls in their own bags. Where stores provided bags they were made of paper which decomposed rapidly and naturally. .
Many glass bottles were could be returned to retailers for which the person returning them was paid a penny or two a bottle. The retailer then sent them back to the manufacturers for re-use. If not returned for re-use bottles , together with jam-jars were, commandeered to store home pickled fruit and vegetables , conserves such as chutney, jam and marmalade and home brewed drinks like elderberry wine. Milk was almost always supplied in glass bottles which were commonly collected by the milkman and re-used more than once
Paper was commonly re-pulped. As with bottles, paper could be collected by private individuals and sold either to those collecting it for re-pulping or to businesses which used paper as packaging. Where it was not sold it was frequently used around the home in functions as diverse as insulation, the lighting of fires and the preservation of food (fruit such as apples could be made to keep throughout the winter by wrapping each individual fruit in paper which cut off the supply of oxygen.)
Clothes and footwear were not considered things which should be thrown away at the first sign of wear. Instead, they were repaired, normally in the home, when torn. As they became worn clothes and shoes would be relegated from best to workaday to suitable for rough work involving manual labour .. Or they might be given away or sold to second hand dealers. Even the rich were not as profligate as they are now ,for they frequently passed their clothes down to their servants or donated them to the poor. Material which was beyond further use as clothes or household items such as sheets was pulped to make cheap paper re-worked into fresh cloth.
What applied to soft goods was generally the order of the day . Hard durable household goods, from crockery to electrical items were used for as long as possible. If they broke down, became damaged or worn through use they were repaired.
The Rag and Bone man was a familiar sight, a breed of men who hoovered up all manner of things now sent to landfill and incinerators., sorted them and sold them on to anyone from the general public to dealers in anything from clothes to scrap metal.
There was a strong second-hand trade in virtually all durable manufactured products. Today the second hand trade in everything apart from motor vehicles and furniture is a pale imitation of what it was 60 years ago, being largely confined to charity shops and car-boot sales.
There were far fewer machines, both in the home and the workplace. In 1948 even a middleclass home would be unlikely to have more than a refrigerator, boiler for the water, a radio, a cooker, a telephone, an electric fire and a washing machine and many would not have as many machines as that. In a working-class home a radio, cooker and fire would be the most which would be found and a minority would have no machines at all, gaining their power from the burning of wood, coal, paraffin or coke.
Britain manufactured most of what it consumed . Where the country was not entirely self-sufficient it had a manufacturing capability for every widely used manufactured product and all of the essential ones. Unlike now, Britain built its own ships, aircraft, trains and road vehicles using British-owned and controlled enterprises. Our manufacturing base was so comprehensive we could supply our armed forces with virtually everything they needed. Of course, a larger manufacturing base meant more raw materials were imported than now, but that entry on the debit side of the green ledger was dwarfed by the savings on the import of manufactured goods, even when the greater export of manufactured goods then than now is added into the balance.
Most of the food consumed was grown in Britain and much of it was consumed locally. It was rarely wasted because it took a larger proportion of the average family income than now and refrigerators and convenience foods were not the norm. The lack of refrigerators meant food was brought as it was definitely required not in anticipation of when it might be required, while the fact that most meals had to be prepared from scratch provided a natural check on preparing more than would be eaten because of the time and effort involved. . What was not eaten ended up re-appearing on the diner table on another day or was re-constituted into another dish. People, even those in towns and cities, often grew some of their own vegetables and fruit with urban allotments and gardens being an important source of many a family’s food.
Cars were still comparatively few in number and, consequently , for most public transport was the order of the day. People tended to work within easy travelling distance of where they lived, frequently walking to work. When people went on holiday it was normally in Britain and often not that far from home. International travel was still very much the province of the better-off.
Public transport even outside the larger urban areas was adequate and much goods traffic went by rail in the pre-Beeching days when the railway network was truly national. and there were no motorways to promote the use of gigantic HGVs.
Oil consumption was low compared with today because of the small number of private vehicles, the widespread use of coal. and the relatively primitive state of the chemical industry - plastics were in their infancy – which meant oil derived products other than petrol diesel and paraffin were few.
The widespread use of coal meant more carbon dioxide going into the air, but against that most of the coal was produced from British mines which greatly reduced the need to transport the raw materials of energy to and within Britain. Industrial pollution was less tightly controlled than today with much dumping of waste into rivers. However, that is balanced by the fact that farming was much less reliant on chemicals which today are a major cause of environmental contamination.
The general mentality of the population was to get full value from whatever they owned. There was no widespread desire to replace things with the latest model simply because the thing a person had was out of date. Of course, people wanted new devices such as televisions and washing machines, but once they had one they expected it to last for a long time.
People paid cash for almost everything and if they wanted something saved for it. Sixty years ago credit was difficult to get. There were no credit cards, mortgages were given out very grudgingly after an extended period of saving with a building society and a bank loan was something only readily available to the middleclass, the majority of working people not having bank accounts. Even hire purchase was far from easy to obtain if you were not in an employment which you had occupied for at least a year or two.
There was a general horror of debt. Bankruptcy was seen as little better than theft.. Most people lived from payday to payday. The welfare state was in its infancy and provided far less than it does today. All of this meant that people had to take responsibility for their own lives.
Advertising was far less potent in 1948. It had been growing in strength since the rise of the popular press in the latter part of Victoria’s reign, but sixty years ago it was still an infant compared with what it is today. Not only was there no Internet, there was no commercial radio or television and newspapers and most magazines were thin and drab. Full colour, high quality printing for general consumption was a long way in the future. Cinemas were more important than today as advertising conduits, but these were places people went to perhaps once a week and the advertising was fleeting and hidden amongst a host of trailers, shorts, government sponsored propaganda films such as “This is life” and the normal double bill of two full length features. The opportunities for companies to create a “must have more and must it now” mentality were very limited.
The world today – how we got from A to B
Today we have a society whose watchword is throw it away if it is not brand new and buy something else. Manufactured goods are discarded not because they are worn out but because people are tired of them; items which could be repaired are not repaired because it is cheaper to buy a new and “improved” model; large amounts of food are thrown away; most things come in packaging derived from petroleum products which do not naturally degrade; debt is taken on in astonishing fashion without a visible qualm and bankruptcy is commonly seen as nothing more than a shame-free and legitimate means to avoid paying your debts; our industrial base has withered, we import nearly half our food and most people appear to have no sense of wanting to get full value from what they buy by using what they own to its fullest extent.
Why have things changed so much in sixty years? It was not a rapid reformation for the make-do-and-mend, waste-not-want-not mentality took a long time dying. Even today older people find wasting food and discarding things which still have wear in them unsettling – I do myself.
The rot really began to set in during the Thatcher years in the 1980s as the post-war British political consensus dissolved and Thatcher began the process of deliberately dismantling private British industry through the removal of protectionist barriers, most notably by her agreement to the Single European Act. At the same time Thatcher ruthlessly diminished directly provided public services by means ranging from the wholesale privatisation of the nationalised utilities to piecemeal disengagement by allowing private firms to take on vast swathes of work previously done in-house by the British state. Some of the newly privatised industries such as ship building and mining , which other states still protected , were, unsurprisingly rapidly destroyed by the removal of state protection. The Thatcherite mantra was continuously repeated: Private enterprise good, public provision bad. The work of Thatcher has been religiously continued by Major, Blair and Brown.
The consequence of a quarter of a century of Thatcherite economics allied to liberal internationalist politics has been the wholesale export of jobs to the Third and Second Worlds., most notably to China. Manufacturing has suffered most, but increasingly service jobs have been lost. In the past ten years the middle-class have discovered that their jobs are at risk as well as those of the working-class.
Job availability and security has also been attacked from within. Immigration has run riot since Labour came to power in 1997, especially since new countries such as Poland joined the EU and were allowed free access to Britain to live and work. This recent immigration has put intense pressure on scarce resources such as housing and healthcare and undercut the wages of many Britons, especially those in manual trades and unskilled and semi-skilled jobs. Often Britons have not merely been undercut but have found themselves wilfully excluded from jobs because employers prefer to employ immigrants because they are easier to control.
The transfer of much of our manufacturing capacity by both off-shoring British operations and the simple substitution of home-produced goods with imports has produced very cheap consumer goods in certain areas, most notably clothing and electronics. This has certainly been the main cause of the constriction of the second hand trades and one of the prime drivers prompting people to change goods more regularly.
These policies have created of a large reserve army of indigenous labour, mostly from within the working class, whose natural employments had been destroyed wholesale, and a general feeling that nothing is permanent any more. This sense of insecurity has been religiously fed by the political elite. For a quarter of a century British Governments have routinely spoken of “being in a global economy” and that “there is no such thing as a job for life now” and how “people must retrain several times within their lifetime”. In the past 15 years the elite generally have taken up the cry. Most morally damagingly perhaps, the British have been constantly told by those in positions of power and influence, directly and by implication, that to be rich is the ultimate end of life, that the pursuit of wealth is morally desirable without regard to its consequences, a mentality summed up graphically by Gordon Gecko in the film Wall Street with the line “Greed is good“. Life, the neo-liberals imply, is no more than a web of economic relations.
The sense of powerlessness felt by the ordinary person has been enhanced by the growing power of the EU over British affairs and the persistent denigration of the nation state by those with access to the mainstream media, a denigration which was couched by the political elite in terms of how the nation state was a thing of the past at best and a positive evil at worst.
Most damaging in the long term is mass immigration. This both introduced a fracture into British society which had never existed before and provided the liberal elite with the means to suppress native disquiet about the immigration and promote the internationalist creed under its new title of multiculturalism. The message of multiculturalism was stark and simple: all people from wherever they come and whatever their culture and loyalties have equal rights and the indigenous population of Britain has no special place or rights within their ancestral land. Those who opposed the new creed – and the vast majority instinctively did – were censored, threatened with the criminal law, lived in fear of the loss of their employment and were subjected to a totalitarian tide of “anti-racist” propaganda. Unsurprisingly, overt public opposition of any sort was rare and those amongst the elite who were disturbed by what was happening remained entirely mute. The natural emotional mooring posts of a society were cut down and the individual left to drift in a soulless materialist world.
At the same time as their world was made impermanent and feelings of insecurity grew and they were denied the comfort of both feeling part of a nation and of expressing their sense of belonging, , the majority became steadily richer, despite the high inflation of the late eighties and early nineties and the housing slump of the early nineties. The average wage increased remorselessly in real terms until recent years, and those who managed to get on the housing ladder before, say, 2000 saw their equity in the property shoot up dramatically , a most significant fact because around 70% of the adult population now live in properties in which they have some equity, in most cases substantial equity. A significant part of that equity has been released. through the taking out of second mortgages or other borrowing against the property. The consequence of rising wages and equity release was an immense amount of money swilling around in the economy. To that must be added the vast growth in other credit .
The home ownership boom was driven by two main developments. In the twenty years after 1979 mortgages became virtually granted on demand as lenders relaxed the rules and made ever laxer checks on the information given by applicants. The multiplier of a person’s income rose from the traditionally cautious two times salary to three or four times by the late nineties. Deposits were reduced until 100% mortgages were common. Eventually, a healthy market even developed in mortgages for more than the value of the property as lenders gambled on the seemingly ever rising house prices rapidly covering the difference. The second driver was the introduction of the Right-To-Buy law which transferred large amounts of public housing to private ownership by giving those in public housing large discounts on the market price of their dwellings.
Similar irresponsible behaviour was seen in the other credit markets. Private individuals were bombarded by offers of credit cards, bank loans and store cards . Even more than in the case of mortgages the lenders were lax in checking the veracity of the information given and people frequently managed to obtain a dozen or more credit lines, the repayment of which were utterly beyond their resources.
Add together the growing sense of uncontrollable impermanence, the suppression of national expression, the incessant pro-laissez faire propaganda and the rising disposable wealth and it is not surprising that rampant consumerism took hold.
Can the mentality change?
Will we go on in this fashion or is there a possibility that we might return if not exactly to make-do-and-mend to a less economically hectic way of living? There are good reasons why we might. Governments including our own are starting to acknowledge the dangers of being dependent on foreigners for fundamental things such as energy and food and the frighteningly large recent immigration has at last forced some honest public discussion of the ill-effects of massive numbers of foreigners having free entry to our country.
To this may be added the uncertain state of both the British and the World economy. Due to an abdication of responsibility for controlling credit by governments throughout the advanced world, and nowhere has been more culpable than Britain, there is now a general contraction of credit. In Britain we have the frightening spectacle of a bank created out of a converted building society , Northern Rock, being actively financed by the taxpayer via the Bank of England to the tune of some £25-30 billion as I write (December 2007) with a further £25 billion or so of the Bank’s deposits being underwritten by the taxpayer through Treasury guarantees. To put this in context total UK Government spending for the financial year 2007/8 is estimated in the Red Book as £586 billion. (The Red Book is the Treasury publication which contains the budget details and the estimates for government spending and revenue in the financial year to which the budget refers).
The fact that a single bank has produced a government commitment of 8-10% of total Government spending should put the fear of God into the Government and cause them to keep credit tight. (If they do that it will probably be by keeping Bank Rate high rather than targeted credit controls such as restrictions on the multiplier of income which mortgage providers may offer). However, do not bet on it because modern Governments have made a God of growth and higher rates mean lower growth. The fact that the supposedly independent Bank of England Monetary Policy Committee reduced Bank Rate in December 2007 despite rising inflation suggests that this Government may continue to behave irresponsibly.
But even if the Government does not act to tighten credit the market may do the job sufficiently to make things unpleasant enough to change the public mentality. In fact, it already has, with restrictions on the granting of credit to private individuals , both by a higher level of outright refusal and by less attractive terms for mortgages and personal loans for those who can obtain credit. At the corporate level, credit is becoming more difficult to obtain and expensive where it can be obtained. Small businesses are finding it particularly hard going.. Even clearing banks such as Barclays have struggled to obtain enough credit as they reduce the amount of inter-bank loans. It is also interesting that the Bank Rate cut in December 2007 did not produce an equivalent drop in the short-term lending rate between the banks which is what is causing the immediate problem. It is a moot point whether the central Bank’s prime rate is still an effective credit control instrument.
Unless the credit crisis is quickly overcome it could well drive the world into a serious recession or even a full blown depression. Even if it turns out to be a temporary phenomenon , there are still plenty of other reasons why the British economy could be in trouble. The countries which have been producing manufactured goods at absurdly low prices are rapidly getting richer. This has the effect of both raising their prices to meet higher wages and of creating an ever greater international competition for raw materials and skills In Britain today only one of the four material essentials of life - shelter, food, energy and clothing - is still cheap and even that one (clothing) is starting to rise. People are starting to get poorer. They may be rich in trifles such as an array of cheap electronics undreamt of by earlier generations, but in the things that really matter, especially housing, they are poor.
There may be a another reason why thing may change. For a quarter of a century the people have been fed on bread and circuses through the concentration on trivial materialism, but that is a diet which has little nourishment in it Perhaps most are becoming sated with choice, especially when that choice concerns non-essentials, many of which are either a burden to many because of the learning process needed to operate them, for example, mobile phones, or of passing interest and soon discarded. Perhaps people would prefer a government which defended their jobs even if this was at the cost of higher prices. Perhaps they would prefer to be more secure and a little poorer
On a moral level does it matter that we now live in a society where most seem to have little sense of valuing what they own , of being obsessed with things which are essentially trivial such as having the newest mobile phone? I think it does because people have substituted to a significant degree the worship of the trivial gods of material possessions and the immediate gratification of wants (note wants not needs) for the fundamental gods of the family, the local community and the nation .
The test by which such questions should be judged is simple: has the change in mentality produced a more settled, coherent and happier society than what went before? It is difficult to see how it has. The birth rate has dropped below replacement level and people are more insecure than they were sixty years ago . Most noticeably, the native population now live in an atmosphere of fear generated by the successful enforcement of political correctness by the British elite. Sixty years ago there simply was no fear of losing your job or being prosecuted simply for expressing an opinion about politics and society.
The indigenous British generation which is now reaching adulthood have a bleak future before them if things do not radically change: home ownership is an impossible dream for most , higher education is increasingly the province of the rich, the chances of a secure job paying enough to live a normal life become less by the day, public provision being cut back ever more ruthlessly and the control of their ancestral land being steadily handed to foreigners by a Quisling elite who serve the forces on internationalism A fine inheritance.