Yesterday the British Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond, gave his Autumn Statement. It was his first big set-piece in that role, and the time the government has attempted to set out its financial plans since the country voted to leave the European Union. Amid the noise and kerfuffle that such events generate, it is easy to miss the big picture: Britain’s politicians have no answer to a dismal outlook.
What drives my pessimism? The most important piece of public life that I am involved with is schools. Looking back over the last decade there is much to be proud of in this patch of inner London. The professionalism and dedication of school leaders and staff have grown. The imagination they have used to reach out to disadvantaged children is wonderful to see, and the results impressive. Where once teachers vehemently defended their little classroom empires against any outside scrutiny, and blamed poor results on social conditions, I now see a new generation of professionals, willing to accept advice and scrutiny, and enthused by a team mission to ensure that all pupils achieve potential. Political credit needs to be spread widely. The New Labour government started the process by putting pressure on London schools to break out of the tyranny of low expectations. The Conservatives sharpened the focus on teaching quality. The Liberal Democrats’ Pupil Premium policy led to a step-change in the treatment of disadvantaged pupils, and will be their most enduring achievement in coalition. But the clouds are gathering.
Education funding is being squeezed. London schools are funded generously by comparison with many parts of the country, and so the pressure is being applied there sharply. Teaching Assistants, who do not have professional qualifications, are feeling the squeeze the most – just that section of society that is finding it hardest to make ends meet. And services, slowly but surely, are under threat. Children’s Centres, which provided pre-school support, we the first to be hit. Now nurseries are under threat. A system that was tackling the gap between the haves and have-nots is slowly being dismantled. And this picture is being repeated across public services generally. Health and social care services are gradually failing to cope with the steady rise in older patients. Neighbourhood police teams have been cut drastically, choking the process of community links and intelligence gathering. And so on. All this is slowly creating a society divided by education and the lottery of property ownership.
The Chancellor offered us no hope of relief. The government budget deficit is still 4% of GDP, a level not usually thought of as sustainable. A large current account deficit shows that the country as a whole is consuming more than it is producing, as it has been for the last two decades. To be clear, neither of these deficits is a cause to panic. In current global economic conditions they look quite sustainable for a good while yet. But they show that there are limits to what the state can fund. In conventional analysis what is needed is a bit of economic growth, and more productivity from British workers. But, for all sorts of reasons, that productivity growth has dried up globally. Mr Hammond boasted that growth in Britain compared favourably with other developed world economies. That is not good news, because it demonstrates that the country’s problems are deep-seated and unlikely to be solved by a bit tweaking here and there. We are all in the same swamp.
What we need to understand is that these problems follow from profound changes in the world around us. Developed world populations are aging – by which I mean that the proportion of older people is rising and leaving the productive workforce. Technological change is wiping out working class jobs, pushing economic rewards towards a minority of professionals and the owners of capital. Globalisation was making things worse in some ways for developed economies, but provided solutions in others – but in any case it is slowing down as the Chinese economy in particular matures.
And to this rather gloomy picture we are adding wonton acts of self-harm. Climate change is helping to destabilise the world, creating waves of refugees. In Britain, Brexit will make things worse. It is not that economic integration of the type offered by the European Union was helping particularly, but the act of leaving the union is creating a colossal distraction for both government and businesses. It has also given populism, a turning inwards and the rise of charlatan political leaders bent on self-aggrandisement, a big lift, Donald Trump’s American isolationism promises to do more harm than good both inside and outside the USA.
Politicians left and right are responding mainly by trying to turn the clock back to imagined happier times. The right imagine a world of self-sufficient, ethnically homogenous nation-states undistracted by the pressures of global integration and technological change. The left fondly recalls a time of institutional Keynesianism and an ever-expanding state. Neither confronts the challenges of technological change and the need to heal fracturing communities.
So what about hope? We have some things to play with. The current younger generation is the best-educated and most cosmopolitan ever in the developed world. By and large they are not fooled by the lure of the past – one reason why they are so disengaged by current politicians. That their expectations of an easy, inevitable and prosperous life are being dashed means that at least they will be open to positive change. Technological change has its plus points too, by enabling cooperation and personalisation. The advance of renewable and energy-efficient technologies offers plenty of hope too.
But we do need to start thinking of different ways of organising political and economic activity. Ways that offer less power to corporate monopolies, and better able to tax and recycle their profits (perhaps the most persuasive reason for staying with the European Union is its ability to confront the multinationals). We also need to place less faith in highly centralised systems that struggle to deal with complex problems, while concentrating political and commercial power. We need better schools, better public healthcare, and stronger, local public services to support struggling communities – and controlled by those communities rather than the whims of politicians in a far-off capital.
As blogger David Boyle wrote recently, we are in a dark tunnel, but we need to press towards the light at the end of it, not try to turn back.