Daily Archives: November 5, 2010

How Britain supposedly got richer and its people became unhappier

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.

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