21st century Britain is often presented (by the British) as a thrusting, dynamic, forward-looking model of modernity. And it certainly delivers constant, chaotic, ever-accelerating change. But in truth Britain is actually a regressive and reactionary state where the more things change the more they stay the same. The evidence is all around us:
Surprised that 1 in 5 people go hungry or rely on foodbanks in the world’s 6th richest state? Don’t be: it was ever thus. While the aristocracy feasted, they presided over 95 British famines during the Middle Ages alone, long before starving the locals became an instrument of policy during the imperial era. Then, having become the world’s wealthiest nation, the time-worn system of local parish relief was abolished in 1834 because the paltry scraps of aid it provided “discouraged work and encouraged dependency and fecklessness” – sound familiar? The soup kitchen and the workhouse followed. Lately, famine has been exported, allowing Brits to run to fat on cheap food, bought by Agribusiness giganticism, subsidised eco-destruction, species wipe-out and overseas poverty, a situation that lasted just as long as the collapse of the banking system in 2008. Someone had to pay for those banker bailouts – and that someone would be YOU. As far as the UK government is concerned it’s preferable that you starve to death rather than clip the profit margins of the global food commodity traders who, of course, happen to be based in the City of London. Let them eat cupcake.
Being in employment doesn’t make much difference to standard of living in low wage Britain. De-unionised and hyper-individualised, and thus unable to provide any counterbalance to the might of employers, the British worker is left to sink or swim in the dog-eat-dog ‘jobs market’. After a brief half-century in which trade unionism flourished, only because two World Wars imposed a collectivist outlook, we’re back to the 19th century: atomised individuals at the mercy of big business. As a result 1 in 3 earn less than £15k a year and must survive as best they can by moonlighting, scavenging and robbing Peter to pay Paul. Like vultures homing in on easy pickings the money-lenders have moved in, charging larcenous interest rates for the small loans the big banks aren’t interested in providing any more, fleecing workers of their miserable wages the moment they’re received and entrenching a compliant debt slavery not seen since the Iron Masters’ truck shops.
Piece-work, casual labour and job insecurity are the norm again after over 30 years of monetarist ‘deregulation’. The hard-won principles of a job for life, annual pay rises, the right to sick pay and holidays, a contract of employment and specific terms and conditions of employment have been swept away to allow the bosses to hire and fire without let or hindrance and squeeze out more profit per man hour. We’re like our agricultural labourer forebears, trekking from farm gate to farm gate speculatively touting for work and hoping for the nod. The chances of accruing specialist expertise or rising from the bottom over a long career have gone; obedient gratitude is the main qualification sought for a few more hours of mind-numbing agency work.
One look at who sits around the Westminster government’s cabinet table reveals the stubbornly enduring grip on power of a completely unrepresentative tiny elite weaned on class privilege and special advantage. 18 of the 23 full-time members are millionaires and all are cut from the same private school/Oxbridge cloth, with the six Old Etonians including Prime Minister David Cameron particularly prominent. Outrageously, the Labour shadow cabinet is taken from the same wafer-thin strata of society. Spitting in the face of the concept of a representative democracy, this state of affairs has hardly altered since the age of lords of the manor and rotten boroughs. In the country with the least social mobility in Europe, spasms of egalitarianism and idealism are soon reversed so the ruling classes always rise to the top again, meaning the House of Commons is essentially an elected dictatorship of identical political philosophies, impervious to the electorate and addicted to the kind of systematic self-enrichment exposed in the expenses scandal. Little wonder then that British democracy, like British justice, is a contradiction in terms. With 2o% not registering to vote and 40% of the registered not bothering to vote, support from only 20% of the population delivers an outright majority. The British people have given up on politics, because here they really are “all the same.”
The oldest profession is making a comeback. It never went away, but always gets a boost when poverty and inequality flourish. Since we’re all commodified and forever urged to “sell ourselves”, at least 150,000 in the UK have taken those dictums to their logical conclusion and are now, in the po-faced equal-ops jargon of our era, “sex workers”. That’s 1 in 600 of the working population, far ahead of the 1 in 800 who flogged their bodies for a living in whoring’s Victorian heyday.
A century ago domestic service was Britain’s biggest employer. Gradually, progressive attitudes, redistributive taxation and Keynesian economic policies seemed to put an end to the debasing iniquities of servitude, but today at least 75,000 are again reduced to this barrel-scraping work, lickspittle minions cleaning up after the filthy rich. That’s the tip of the iceberg; a vast black economy of forced labour lies beneath, from those taking in washing and ironing and doing odd jobs, via exploited ‘interns’ paid nothing for the honour of getting on the white-collar ladder through to the estimated 10,000 who are the out-and-out slaves of gangmasters and crime syndicates.
When the government of Margaret Thatcher (1925-2013) abolished rent controls and tenants’ rights in 1988 while simultaneously selling off the public housing stock it set Britain on a return journey to its core value and founding motive: land-grab. Correcting the scandalous legacy of successive accumulated centuries of violent seizure, clearances, evictions, enclosures, shanty towns, slums and rack-renting avarice had at last begun to be tackled in that brief period of social conscience and hope of a better future following WW2. Now the basic human right of a roof over your head is a lottery again, and a staggering 1 in 10 are either functionally homeless or are in hostels, squatting or sofa-surfing while whole streets are forests of ‘to rent’ signs, there are 750,000 empty homes sat on by property speculators, 2 million live in overcrowded conditions, benefit changes ensure anywhere desirable is class cleansed to further boost values, unregulated rents have rocketed to ½ average earnings, average homes are now half the size they were in the 1920s and buy-to-let hucksters become millionaires out of other people’s misery. The old landed gentry in their stately homes were more sympathetic.
The UK is the most indebted country in the world, with personal debt totalling £1.5 trillion and government debt of £1.3 trillion, 91% of GDP. This is in effect a bankrupt state, kept going by mortgaging the future, printing money and actually turning debt itself into another market, controlled of course in London. The live-now-pay-later never-never-land of mindless consumption launched by Thatcher’s abolition of the strict panoply of rules covering banks’ capital reserve and liquidity ratios and mortgages and borrowing eventually brought about the banking collapse of 2008 – but, after forcing the poorest to pay the price through savage cuts to public services and social security, it’s back to business as usual, enriching a few by pumping up another bubble that will inevitably burst and so give more excuses to attack what remains of the public realm. In the 19th century Charles Dickens (1812-1870) made the debtors’ prisons of his era infamous; today they don’t need to cram the poor and the unlucky into the Marshalsea cells for decades – it’s enough that millions are prisoners of their credit rating, condemned to toil perpetually to service their debts, controlled, castrated and conservative.
The hereditary principle, rejected by rational, civilised, democratic countries the world over, persists and indeed thrives in Britain as nowhere else, the better to inculcate the values of toadying, forelock tugging and fawning subjugation. The biggest and most costly royal clan on the planet, who entirely owe their unimaginable wealth to violent burglary and in-breeding programmes with other royals, are the ultimate welfare recipients, costing £200 million a year without including their property portfolio of 21 palaces, castles and mansions, stockpiles of priceless art and collection of shire counties. The UK has the lowest state pension in the developed world and the unemployed must submit to an inquisition and jump through hoops of fire to get the lousy £70 a week Jobseekers’ Allowance their national insurance contributions supposedly guaranteed; but nothing is too much expense to keep the royals at preposterous levels of extravagant luxury. With the head of state decided by the hereditary principle, and the 780-member House of Lords the 2nd biggest unelected legislature in the world after the Chinese politburo, corrupting consequences have seeped into every facet of British society, passing on disadvantage and unfairness from generation to generation, consolidating wealth in fewer and fewer hands, and institutionalising nepotism, back-scratching, cronyism and palm-greasing as a way of life.
At the same time as global corporations assiduously evade taxation they set up high-profile charitable programmes to show their cuddly, caring side – aid that itself will be written off against tax as a loss and that’s only needed anyhow because they don’t pay their due taxes. Generosity gets an Orwellian twist to mean the opposite: self-interest. Doing “a lot of work for charidee” but “not wanting to talk about it” has become the standard parody of odious celeb self-publicising dressed up in faux humility, and it says it all that the single person who has raised more for charities in UK history than anyone else is Sir Jimmy Savile, OBE, KCSG. Yes, in Britain even virtues are irredeemably soiled. Rather than concrete rights to minimum entitlements, we’ve regressed to the days of the deserving poor hoping for a few crumbs on the off-chance there’s a Lady Bountiful wanting to display aristocratic largesse; only this time round it’s not fallen women and vagabonds but terminally-ill children and Iraq War amputees at the head of the queue.
When in doubt, instigate an aggressive war: it’s been the British solution for centuries. Since the UK was created by the union of England and Scotland in 1707, it has waged 124 major wars, an average of one every 20 months and a world record no other state approaches. Of the 195 independent countries in the world today, 177 of them at one time or another have been invaded militarily by Britain – another world record that’s unlikely ever to be surpassed. Since, like the USA, Britain is a state born from the belligerent theft of territory, the barbaric impulse to resort to violence on the slightest pretext runs deep. Armed to the teeth with nuclear weapons, forever proliferating the arms race, refined masters of high-tech weaponry, surveillence, spying, secrecy and torture, and regular flouters of international law and the Geneva Convention, the UK is a dangerous, menacing rogue state that has the gall to pose as a peacemaker. So the image of Britain peddled by the state’s vast propaganda machine as quirky, creative, laid-back, benign, even lovable, is as far from the truth as it is possible to be – who could possibly guess from Danny Boyle’s cute, humorous, soppy 2012 Olympics opening ceremony that this is a nation directly responsible for more deaths than any other in the entire history of humanity? Selective historical amnesia and determined rewriting of the past prop up the big lies, and clear the path for the blood-lust to go on and on. Right now, as usual, Britain is barging uninvited into foreign fields: war’s good for business when you’re the world’s 5th biggest arms dealer. There are still 5,000 British troops fighting the 4th Anglo-Afghan War, launched in 2001 at the behest of the UK’s overlords the USA (Bulldog Britain always bootlicks the biggest bullyboy). This comparatively small conflict has so far cost 40,000 Afghan lives and 453 British out of 4,000 Coalition dead. Add them to the body count.
After the self-policed state-within-a-state of the City of London was released from the burdens of honesty, responsibility and prudence by Thatcher’s ‘Big Bang’ of 1986 it rapidly evolved into today’s unaccountable, uncontrolled orgy of slush funds, scams, pyramid selling, kickbacks, hedge funds, asset stripping, get-rich-quick schemes, rogue trading, bribes, insider dealing, fraud, tax fiddles and monumental greed, awash with the loot of international crime. No matter how thick and fast the scandals come (Polly Peck, BCCI, Barings, Equitable Life, Bear Stearns, Northern Rock, Lehman Brothers, RBS, etc, etc) and no matter how much the rampant City threatens global stability and wreaks havoc with domestic economies, nothing is done to rein in the monster and those obscenely astronomical bankers’ bonuses for failure just keep on flowing. In an ultimately doomed dance of death Britain’s economy is tied to the fortunes of mobsters and mafioso, simply because 35 years of monetarism has made the UK into a parasitic offshore corporate tax haven and rigged casino fatally dependent on the financial sector for its GDP while the real, non-financial economy has been destroyed. Capitalism was invented in London in the 14th century as a way of monopolising trade, and via feudalism, mercantilism, banking and industrialisation London has maintained its stranglehold and Britain has kept pimping off the unearned income. It is Britain that opened Pandora’s box. It is Britain that created today’s wicked, dysfunctional world of “winners” and “losers”. It is Britain that started the process that has put our planet in mortal peril. Nemesis surely awaits.
Pictures: BBC, Daily Telegraph