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Welcome to real Britain

Image: David Howard
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Prior to 1965, August bank holiday was sensibly held on the first Monday of the month.  A trial period between 1965 and 1970 led to the holiday being moved permanently to the last Monday in August from 1971.  And so, rather than being a summer bank holiday, it became a marker of the passing of summer and the onset of autumn; the point at which the holidays were over and it was time to return to work.

Whether 2020 will follow the post- 1971 trend is a different matter.  Certainly members of parliament will be returning to the Palace of Westminster later this week.  And with them will return the neoliberal commentariat of the establishment media.  This year, though, they may be alone.  This is not simply because the SARS-CoV-2 virus has not gone away; or that so far no treatment or vaccine has been approved.  Rather, it is because the response to the pandemic has accelerated the economic trajectory that Britain has been on since the financial crash of 2008.

In the course of those 12 years, prosperity for the few was bought at the cost of stagnation and impoverishment for the many.  Crucially, this division manifested geographically; not just as the north-south divide of the 1980s, but as what has been termed “somewhere versus anywhere.”  In the neoliberal delusion that Britain had become a meritocracy, place was deemed to no longer matter.  People who couldn’t find work in the place where they grew up, were expected to take out a student loan, learn to code and move to places where new jobs in tech and finance were being created.  But Britain wasn’t – and isn’t – a meritocracy; and place matters to a far larger majority: the old, the infirm and disabled, the many who cannot succeed at academic learning (who were shown to be the true “essential workers” when the pandemic arrived).  Faced with an erosion of living standards which began in the mid-1970s, this silent majority understood that family and community support networks provide far more security than can be gained from the various service industries that have grown up around the London-Cambridge-Oxford triangle and the archipelago of top-tier university towns where the living standards of the few continued to rise.

To Britain’s enormous cost, the cultural elite are also based among those islands of prosperity which, at least prior to 2020, have sat within a wasteland of decline.  Believing their own propaganda, this manifestation of H.G. Well’s “Eloi” have refused to venture out beyond the city walls to observe the plight of their nominally fellow citizens.   Among other things, this explains why they were so shocked by the result of the Brexit referendum in 2016; why they have resorted to conspiracy theories to denigrate the result; and, indeed, why they continue to argue that we should dispense with democracy altogether when the masses vote in what they believe to be the wrong way.

The real Britain though, has been in decline for decades.  This is no longer just the smouldering ruins of the cradle of the industrial revolution; so savagely undermined by Thatcher’s Tories.  The rot continued during the all too brief debt-based boom of the New Labour years.  Like acid eating its way through the fabric of society, neoliberalism spread stagnation from the ex-industrial heartlands into small town Britain.  Anywhere that couldn’t sustain a top-tier university (pretending that the local technical college is on a par with Oxford or Cambridge doesn’t count) witnessed its brightest youth leave for the few prosperous metropolises.  Those who remained commanded smaller incomes which had to be put to solving increasingly complex social problems.

Local government in real Britain suffered too.  On the one hand, they were an obvious target for Tory austerity after 2010; since failure could be blamed on local elected politicians rather on the central government which had cut their budgets.  At the same time, they faced increasingly struggling local populations who were more likely to require housing and social care support and local tax relief than to be net contributors to the council coffers.

It is notable that much of the European funding made available in these circumstances – and blown out of all proportion by the establishment commentariat – was only permitted to be used for capital investment.  Used properly, it might have funded replacement businesses to fill the gap left by older industries.  But in the hands of central and local government, it was often squandered on vanity projects which could never survive beyond the term of the EU grant.  Indeed, all too often, European funding became an additional drain on local economies as local councils had to raise the revenue to fund the maintenance on EU-funded capital projects.  In the South Wales town of Ebbw Vale, for example, the EU contributed to the construction cost of a new college, an elevator linking the railway station to the town centre, various town centre improvements, and a by-pass.  The latter diverted custom away from the town centre, while maintaining the other developments became additional spending commitments for an already over-stretched local council.

The most obvious trend though, was the hollowing out of Britain’s high streets.  Impoverished local communities cannot support the thriving mix of small commercial and retail businesses that typified the high streets of the post-war boom years.  Gradually, the shops and offices were shuttered up, leaving only charity shops, bookmakers, tattoo parlours and nail bars as what passed for a local economy.  The problem was exacerbated by Britain’s antiquated local business tax, which assesses businesses on the size and location of their property rather than on their annual turnover.  And since town centre property is considered the most valuable, town centre businesses faced the highest taxes.

Britain prior to 2020 can be summed up in a single image produced by the European statistics agency Eurostat:

While London had become the richest region in northern Europe, nine out of the ten poorest regions were in the British wastelands beyond London’s walls.  But even before the pandemic, questions were being raised about how long London and the archipelago of top-tier university towns could continue before the growing retail apocalypse arrived on their doorsteps.

The answer is that we will never know, because Covid-19 has brought the retail apocalypse to London with a vengeance.  Writing in the Daily Mail, Head of the Confederation of British Industry, Carolyn Fairbairn warns that Britain’s city centres risk becoming ghost towns unless people are encouraged to return to their offices.  Late in the day, it would seem, the metropolitan liberal establishment has woken up to the fact that without core businesses, even the biggest city centre can see a host of small satellite businesses disappear without trace:

“‘The UK’s offices are vital drivers of our economy,’ says Dame Carolyn, who speaks for almost 200,000 firms. ‘They support thousands of local firms, from dry cleaners to sandwich bars. They help train and develop young people. And they foster better work and productivity for many kinds of business.

“‘The costs of office closure are becoming clearer by the day. Some of our busiest city centres resemble ghost towns, missing the usual bustle of passing trade. This comes at a high price for local businesses, jobs and communities.’”

Importantly, the towns with the best post-lockdown recovery are those which had already fallen prey to the retail apocalypse; places such as Blackpool, Birkenhead, Middlesbrough and Southend.  Meanwhile, the hardest hit cities include top-tier university towns like Oxford, Cambridge, Birmingham and Cardiff; as well as London itself:

In this light, the shift to home working – which resulted in increased productivity as well as a big saving on rent – looks more like a continuation of the slow motion economic collapse that has afflicted real Britain for decades, than an aberration caused by the pandemic.  And despite the alarm of the metropolitan liberal class that they, too are about to be cast into the wasteland, businesses with an eye on the bottom line are not about to bankrupt themselves just so the commentariat can continue to buy over-priced sandwiches from Pret-a-Manger.  As Simon Jack at the BBC reported last week:

“Fifty of the biggest UK employers questioned by BBC have said they have no plans to return all staff to the office full-time in the near future.  Some 24 firms said that they did not have any plans in place to return workers to the office…

“Some smaller businesses are deciding to abandon their offices altogether. Tara Tomes runs a PR agency with an office in the heart of Birmingham’s business district.  Her team of eight cannot fit in the space they have if they are to obey social distancing guidelines and she will not be renewing the office lease in September.”

For the time being, businesses and consumer spending are being supported by UK government grants, loans and protections for non-payment of rents and mortgages.  But these schemes will come to an end in October.  It is only then that we will see the full extent of the new economic landscape.  It does not bode well that tens of thousands of city centre job losses have already been announced despite the government spending billions of pounds to subsidise wages and to bail out businesses.  The fear is that this may prove to be but a trickle compared to the flood of job losses when government support comes to an end.

There will be political problems too.  The metropolitan cities which enjoyed rising prosperity while real Britain was left to sink, are unlikely to win any sympathy in the so-called “red wall” constituencies which make up Boris Johnson’s governing majority.  It will be difficult for government to get away with providing cash support to the metropolises without also providing development funding to the much larger swathe of small towns and ex-industrial districts which make up the majority.  Despite their stated pre-pandemic aim of “levelling-up” the UK economy, the post-pandemic economic environment may leave them with little choice but to watch the few remaining pockets of prosperity prior to 2020, level-down to the wastelands where most of the population has been living for decades.

As you made it to the end…

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