May You Live in Interesting Times – Ancient Chinese Curse
When I was growing up in the 90s, the feeling that everything had already happened overwhelmed me.
The great battles were all over is seemed. There was no longer a contest between Communism and Capitalism, between Labour and Conservative, between repression and freedom of expression. The great wars and depressions had happened. Popular culture, too, seemed to be at the point of exhaustion in the era of Britpop. Everything seemed so boring. As if there was nothing to fight for anymore.
1997 was probably the high point of this. In our post-Oasis Vs Blur, post-Loaded, post-Trainspotting and Four Weddings and most importantly, post-New Labour victory world, it didn’t seem to matter that many of Britain’s communities had had there culture, economy and way of life destroyed in the 1980s, because now we could all be rock stars or magazine journos or at the very least go to work in shiny, foreign-owned electronics’ factories where there were never any labour-relations problems.
But now, in a world and a country going through unprecedented turmoil, those days seem almost romantic. And a time when things all seemed a little simpler and clearer is appealing. Even with the knowledge that it was all based on shaky foundations.
It was 9/11 that changed everything. And, since then, they’ve kept on changing, so that the shape of the world in now almost unrecognisable to that of less than ten years ago.
The biggest recession in living memory is now in progress, alongside a collapse in confidence in mainstream politics and the throwing of millions, young and old, on the scrapheap on unemployment. Confusion, anger and apathy are rife, and 2008/9 has undoubtedly been the most unstable period in the country since 1990/91 or maybe even 84/85.
Although many of these events have been happening on a global scale, the crisis has also served to highlight Britain’s inherent weaknesses and its seemingly terminal decline. Pretty much the same path it has been on for decades. We can now see the 90s as simply an opiated high amidst abject squalor.
So, where is Britain heading on the other side of all this? It’s always folly to predict the future, but it’s also inevitable that we will do so.
Like the fate of all great empires, Britain is gradually crumbling into dust, leaving only fragments and stories. The country is slowly but surely losing its grip on technology and industry, and the political, economic and strategic might that comes with it.
Leading in these fields has been the basis of ALL developed economies through history. There has never been a major state of any kind that has survived entirely on banking and the ‘creative industries’ (That’s us folks, apparently plays and paintings are supposed to make up the GDP). Even Switzerland, country of banks, has a big technology and manufacturing base.
The government can talk about ‘the knowledge economy’, but you only need so many lab researchers and software designers, it will never employ many people. Also, if China, Brazil, India etc can make cars, computers and drugs, it doesn’t take them too long to learn how to develop them. And they can also do the graphic design for their logos too, so bye bye creative industries.
Inevitably, as these countries start to take the lead, they will suck away the remaining talent from our knowledge economy. Without the secondary industry of manufacture (or primary industry for that matter, we also have limited natural resources and we can’t even grow enough food to feed ourselves) we have a very limited future as a wealthy state.
Without mass manufacturing, there is also no real way to support large urban populations in anything other than poverty.
There is the mass employment in the service industries, but not everyone can work in supermarkets and call centres in a country with a population as large as ours, and anyway, many of these service jobs will soon be wiped out by online alternatives.
The social outcomes of de-industrialisation can be seen well in our own city, Liverpool. We were the first city in the UK to feel its full effects, but other towns previously better shielded from de-industrialisation, such as Birmingham, Leeds and Stoke-on-Trent, are now beginning to reap what was sown thirty years ago and maybe begin to realise that the unemployment Liverpool experienced in the 1980s wasn’t entirely the fault of the locals as many suggested at the time.
Some towns may survive as interesting historical tourist destinations for the new middle classes that will emerge in the likes of China and India. And Liverpool might be able to pull this off. But I can’t imagine the likes of Burnley and Coventry being able to compete in this way.
People are like animals; we migrate to where the food is, or at least the money to buy it. All towns and cities need an economic reason to exist or they inevitably decline and die. There is no way around this. No economy = no money = decline = brain drain = death of town and its culture. Eventually the only people who are left are the rump or can’t, or won’t, leave.
Public sector employment, such as universities, is propping a lot of these places up in terms of ‘half-decent’ jobs being available. But as GDP declines, state revenues will dry up and talented researchers will be lured away by more lucrative opportunities overseas. Our education system may be completely unsustainable, not to mention the NHS, the welfare system and, of course, arts funding.
For a view of Britain’s likely future, look towards other old empires like Greece and Egypt – interesting tourist relics, but little else going for them. Their societies are made up of top elites: businessmen, politicians, and landowners; the small professional class who support them: architects, accountants, translators and maybe even a small number of artists; tradespeople: bricklayers, sparks and joiners. And then a vast, vast underclass that can only seek low-paid work in tourism, agriculture, general labouring or service work.
But before we reach that point, it’s likely that we will meet China, India and Brazil in the middle in terms of poverty. Where they have their flavelas and slums, their increasing wealth may one day lead to a European style health, education and welfare system. Where as we, no longer able to afford such luxuries, will likely go the other way.
Our ‘sink estates’ could grow to become massive slums, with more guns, knives and drugs than even now. Life would become much cheaper. Ignorance and disease would grow. Social mobility would become almost non-existent. Unless you could get on a big cash prize quiz show Slumdog Millionaire style perhaps.
Your grandchildren, or maybe even your children, might be the modern equivalent of peasants and working all day in a factory or a call centre might become a dream not a nightmare.
So what can you do? Well, become a professional of some sort and emigrate. Canada and Oz are the obvious choices, but China and Brazil may rise up on the horizon.
Or, sod it. It’s the British way. Get on with it, go the pub and wait for the inevitable. There’s no point hang-wringing about massive unstoppable forces which are out of our control. Working in offices never made us that happy anyway, maybe a few decades in the field will do us good. C’est la vie.
Or, the more positive alternative is, that with the added pressure coming from climate change, we could move from this outcome towards small, self-sustainable communities, and us ‘creative types’ could take the lead on this.
Either way, we live in interesting times.
By Kenn Taylor