Friday, 17 July 2009

Late 20th century UK political history, a perspective

I first wrote this a year ago, but never posted it: Prescient or what?
Well, it’s happening. Mrs S and I knew we’d have to leave the UK because a) the kids were all growed up now and wanting to stretch their wings, and b) Six years (then 2002) ago we could see that Britain was going to hell in a hand basket no matter which way you cut it. ID cards, the reduction of Civil rights and the growth of the all powerful ‘State’ (Again).

Now I’m old enough to recall the mess successive Labour governments have made before this. If there’s anyone out there who remembers the 1970’s like I do, you may be persuaded to agree. Massive industrial unrest exacerbated by a complete governmental inability to manage the proverbial piss up in a brewery, and an ineffective looking opposition. Sound familiar? Not yet? Read on, the list of scandals throughout the 20th century is enlightening too. Tories seem to get caught (Predominantly) with their trousers round their ankles, Labour (Mainly) with their fingers in the public till. Why do we trust politicians?

Historically speaking; from 1964 onwards, when the Wilson led Labour government was elected the economy wasn’t in bad shape. There had been a few ‘scandals’ with the predictable public outcry (Does this sound awfully familiar?) and the MacMillan Government was unpopular because of events like the Profumo scandal. It wasn’t all sweetness and light, but economically speaking, things weren’t all that bad.

Post 1964, after a honeymoon period the economy began to slide because of industrial unrest and increased social budget requiring ever higher taxation; major prestige high-tech projects were cancelled on cost grounds (Blue Streak, TSR-2) putting people who might have generated more economic activity out of work (‘Backing Britain’ indeed – Hah!). A torrent of new legislation poured out of the new government, but to little benefit. On to 1970, and the centre ground Conservative party led by Edward Heath was elected because the economy wasn’t so hot.

Following the conservative election victory, the economic situation did not improve. At least partially due to politically motivated industrial unrest as well as a Middle East oil crisis. The economic slide began to turn into a nosedive after the second election of 1974 and we were treated to power cuts in the middle of Winter, one of the factors which eventually forced Edward Heath to ‘Go to the country’, which showed it’s dissatisfaction by narrowly voting in a Labour administration. Matters (again) did not improve, and at one stage in 1976, the UK (Labour) government was forced to go to the IMF for a £2.8bn loan to bail the whole country out.

Following massive industrial unrest and the notorious ‘Winter of Discontent’ a new conservative government led by Margaret Thatcher was elected, promising more freedom for the individual and less state intervention. This decentralising agenda proved a very messy business. The highly unprofitable, overmanned and inefficient nationalised Coal and Steel industries were mostly reduced and sold off. This pattern was repeated throughout much of the manufacturing sector. The highly government subsidised Rover (Previously British Leyland) was privatised and reduced. The financial industries were partially deregulated, beginning a renaissance of Britain’s economic fortunes. Taxation was eventually reduced. After two ‘boom and bust’ cycles the economic situation began to stabilise and improve. The north sea oil boom revenues helped restore UK fortunes.

Now let’s have a quick fast forward to 1997. There was the ill-fated Major government. Unpopular because of repeated scandals such as Aitken and Archer, and the aftermath of the poll tax protests and other inner city unrest. Yet the British economy was in moderately good shape and pretty stable, despite the recession of the early 1990’s. There were some ‘stealth taxes’ but these were manageable. Jobs were relatively easy to find; but as I watched the election results come in, I wondered about emigrating there and then. "Things can only get better"? Oh the bitter irony.

Since 1997, not only the economy has come in for a battering. The UK constitution is in a complete mess. Most power seems to be ceded to Brussels, and the House of Lords; to many a bunch of over privileged old duffers who seemed to like to get in the way of 'progress', has been emasculated. I think it was a shame. Love them or hate them, the Lords was a constitutional bulwark against poor legislation. The ‘old duffers’ had a collective constitutional memory that went back centuries “Tried that in the 1700’s – didn’t work old boy.” Sort of memory. Under the guise of ‘reform’ this constitutional memory was reduced to the point where the House of Commons (and Brussels) can railroad through almost any legislation they like, and there is no one to stop them. The British were promised some form of elected upper house, but have ended up with a bunch of political appointees and unelected peers who seem only accountable to the ruling party. The torrent of poorly drafted legislation increased. Despite the creation of new laws and 1000 new ‘criminal’ offences, (and fudged figures) lawlessness increased. Despite the 1998 ban on hand guns; gun crime and fatal shootings happen more often than they ever did before the Dunblane inspired ban.

Moving forward ten years, in 2007 Britain has a similar economic situation to that of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, economy on the downslide, bureaucratic inroads into everyday life, increasing regulation, industrial unrest, and a weak 'centre ground' opposition. It’s all looking depressingly familiar. There’s no sign of anyone with the statesmanlike nous to give the whole mess a thorough and much needed shaking (And for embittered Socialists to blame everything on twenty years on). There’s no substantial North Sea Oil revenues to fall back on at present, despite the recent West Rinnes discovery and hopeful articles in the financial press.
Upon very careful and sober reflection, I think Mrs S and I have made the right choice. Things right at the moment of writing aren't so hot for us, but there are signs of an upturn out there, and from a personal perspective I think we've ridden out the worst of the economic storms. Canada is our future, and providing the current Harper Government are fiscally prudent enough over the next year or so, it will be a prosperous one.

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