Britain may be broken, but London is hot. A recent trip to the city exhilarated me.
Everywhere I went it was the crowds of young, ethnically mixed and very hip kids that stood out. They have redefined what it means to be British.
Bin your bowler and your brolly and spit out those plums: London today is cool — in all its awesome array of tongues.
Theaters there are full and shops and stores are teeming. London’s cafe culture is now second to none on the Continent.
And this in a city where, a mere 15 years ago, a friend said to me, “You no doubt have never heard of it, but we Londoners are now drinking cappuccinos.”
“Oh my God,” I said, “and here I’d always thought they were hooded monks or monkeys sleeping in trees.”
But this positive energy and catalyzing activity hides a bleak fact. The “new” Britain also appears to be on the verge of reverting to its class-clogged past.
The drift toward a U.S.-style free market with a failing commitment to social welfare is pushing Britain back toward being a society in which privilege is inherited and social mobility is stymied. If you thought the riots in major British cities this summer were bad, get ready for worse to come.
While I was in London, the Institute for Fiscal Studies there issued a report on wealth and poverty in contemporary Britain, as well as estimates of cuts in spending on education in the coming years.
The grim findings were drowned out in the media by reports on the death of Moammar Gadhafi in Libya and the near-death of the euro in Brussels. Yet the repercussions of these findings are, to my mind, potentially more severe and long-lasting than those of events across either the Mediterranean or the English Channel.
The IFS report estimates an overall fall of 13 percent in spending on public education between now and 2015. “The areas seeing the largest real-term cuts,” it states, “will be current spending on higher education. … Spending on the early years and youth services is expected to be cut by over 20 percent.”
The IFS also reported a “large decline” in incomes, resulting in 600,000 more children being shifted into poverty. And according to The Campaign to End Child Poverty — whose 150-plus member organizations range from faith groups to trades unions and leading charities — some 4 million children in Britain are already being brought up in poverty today.
With unemployment in Britain now standing at 2.57 million, or 8.1 percent of the workforce — higher than at any time since 1994 — the Resolution Foundation, an influential think tank, last month also released a timely, if depressing, report titled “Commission on Living Standards.”
This stated: “Since 2003, long before the 2008-09 recession, middle wages in Britain have been flat. The share of GDP going to those on low to middle incomes has seen a long-term decline.”
The foundation, forecasting that, in real terms, “average wages (in Britain) will be no higher in 2015 than they were in 2001,” went on to comment on the situation, in real terms, across the Atlantic:
“These trends are most stark in the United States, where median earnings have now been stagnant for a generation,” it stated. “Between 1975 and 2009, U.S. GDP more than doubled, but the median worker earned no more in 2009 than in 1975.”
From the halls of the European Central Bank to the shores of Tripoli, there is no worse news for capitalism as it is known in the Anglo-Saxon world than this.
Since the days of Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s prime minister from 1979 to 1990, the country has shifted its model away from a Scandinavian and Western European one based on the equitable distribution of wealth and the use of taxes to uplift and educate the underprivileged classes, to a U.S. one of unfettered competition that invariably favors the cashed-up classes.
But that model only works — and even so with highly dubious success — in a country like the U.S., where mobility is part of the fabric of the social contract and people are relatively free to alter their station. In Britain, class still counts; and, in many cases, all your blood, sweat, toil and tears will not get you out of the one you were born into.
The current economic crisis in the eurozone is impacting Britain too, despite this member of the European Union remaining outside it and wedded to its pound sterling.
The response of the British government has been to reduce real-term spending in more than 200 areas of public life, including such essentials as community-based health-care services, prisons, the railways and education.
Prime Minister David Cameron’s blanket austerity drive is a response to the sharp rise in the cost of debt repayments. But this drive led by the Eton- and Oxford-educated leader of the Conservative Party is sure to widen the equality gaps in a society that already restricts access to privilege and comfort.
However, if you don’t give every citizen a stake in the system, many of them will start grabbing that stake and turning its pointed end on you.
How, for instance, can an ambitious child of low-paid (or unpaid) immigrants to Britain find up to the £9,000 (considerably more than ¥1 million) a year they need to pay for tuition at a university? And that doesn’t include their food, rent or books.
With the exception of Oxford and Cambridge universities and medical schools, applications to universities are down by nearly a third this year. Poor people are naturally debt averse, and very many will opt for a job (if they can find one) to give them a start in life rather than an education that leaves them massively burdened with debt. This will only reinforce and widen the class divide.
A Ministry of Justice and Home Office analysis of 2011’s summer riots reported that gangs played only a very minor role in the violence. More than two-thirds of young people involved were, according to The Guardian on Oct. 25, “classed (in that official report) as having special educational needs, and one-third had been excluded from school in the past year.”
We all love our outings to theaters, shops and cafes; and there is nothing so beautiful as the multicolored rainbow of a vibrant London crowd.
But now is the time to commit to the solid socialization of that crowd, to give it access to the fruits of democracy: an independent voice, a first-class education and a justified conviction that anyone can rise as high as their talents will take them.
Forego that and the only future for Britain is in its class-ridden past; the only path, the one that the U.S. is stubbornly following — a descent down the spiral staircase of decline, disproportion and social injustice.