Reader, I sucked it up so you don’t have to. After diligently searching the library for a copy of Britannia Unchained, the 2012 tract authored by Kwasi, our Dear Leader, Chris Skidmore and a couple of also-rans, I failed to find it. So I sucked up the Amazon price of £16. I don’t suggest you do the same 😉 I am tempted to list it as an investment expense. After all, you need to know what Liz Truss is thinking, and since she didn’t have to put any of it in a manifesto, this is as good as it gets.
I expected to hate it, but though I found it somewhat studenty and one-dimensional in places, I found much to agree with. My main philosophical charge against the tract was the strong tendency to infer the general from the particular, heavy on anecdote and light on tested principle. You could, however, level that charge against most of the dismal science of economics. What theoretical principles I have seen in economics often doesn’t come out well in the testing, or there is a replication issue where it works in some circumstances but not others. This is not terribly surprising for something attempting to make sense of a multivariate system rammed full of independent and resourceful actors with varying degrees of knowledge and emotion.
But I’ll run with it, because for better or worse, this philosophy is guiding the country for the next up to two years. So far, what’s appeared has been consistent with the book, but I can promise you, dear readers, you ain’t seen nuffink yet. About 90% of the idea hasn’t been voiced yet. So let’s set the scene from Britannia Unchained itself, in the intro.
All five authors grew up in a period where Britain was improving its performance relative to the rest of the world. The 1980s, contrary to the beliefs of many on the left, were a successful decade for Britain. They were a time when, after the industrial chaos of the 1970s, business and enterprise began to flourish once more.
I’m not really going to dispute that. I saw the 1970s and started work in the 1980s. I saw a gradually improving economy, such that it blinded me to the single worst financial mistake of my entire life to date, buying a house in 1988. Because I inferred the general from the particular. The only defence was I was in my twenties and a greenhorn, but it’s not like wiser heads, both my parents and colleagues in the office, hadn’t suggested prices were high and there might be value in not acting right now. It is the nature of the world that young folk and believe themselves all-wise and invincible. It is the job of the world to disabuse them of that belief.
These authors ascribe this successful decade to Margaret Thatcher. She had something to do with it, for sure, but I would say that North Sea oil might also have had something to do with it. Outcomes are not always due to a single cause. But Thatcher did seize the opportunity, and did fix some deep problems that did need fixing. Seeing Arthur Scargill, or any union baron in general, still makes me want to throw things at the telly, because Art and his flying pickets and secondary action was running the country in the 1970s. Where Thatcher failed was not in taking the miners down IMO, but in leaving the twisted wreckage of those communities to rot – you can still feel it passing through some of the Welsh valleys. However, in the round, I’ll give the point.
They observe that in 1950 the UK was still richer than France of Germany, but lost its mojo and did not benefit from les trente gloriouses in the same way. We know the litany of 1970s decline. The surprising difference in belief comes with
a comparison of social mobility puts Britain near the bottom in the Western world. Yet the suggested cures to this disease — abolishing grammar schools or redistributing wealth — have been, if anything, counterproductive. This is not just a problem of the left, however. Right-wing commentators are apt to argue about natural ability and talent, as if success is solely a result of destiny rather than persistence.
Much of the following discussion is about the decline in educational attainment of Brits relative to our developed world peers according to the OECD PISA scores. And I’m surprised by Kwasi, Liz et al.
All the experience I have had in my decades on Earth is that intellect is innate, slightly inherited, and broadly immutable. Some people are brighter than others. Intelligence isn’t necessarily an indicator of success, particularly in the past, because there are many other skills – intelligence is broadly reflected in academic prowess, but doesn’t make you a better human being. It wasn’t even particularly advantageous in times past.
I formed this viewpoint in primary school, . In 1960s London, they were short of teachers, and some of the kids who had mastered spelling and some aspects of arithmetic were set to try and teach the slower ones. I was one of the child tutors, not electively, and found the experience frustrating, because I could not see why others could not see what I had learned/derived. Although I am probably to the right of the bell curve I am not MENSA bright, but the range of pupils at this school was wide. In a later repeat performance I saw a quarter of the class lose the plot when they introduced fractions in arithmetic. Many never really mastered spelling. I was not the brightest in the school, however, and even at that age could see that, though I was in the upper reaches. At secondary school O level maths, calculus1 in the form of differentiation did the same again.
But I could see that some people were slower, and no effort seemed to redeem the problem. My valedictory primary school report had the phrase doesn’t tolerate fools gladly, and the succeeding decades has still not shown me why this was such a bad thing, fools should be kept well away from things they are foolish in 😉 I am foolish at all sorts of things, that house purchase was something I should have been kept away from! I have never, ever, considered teaching as a profession – not as a child, not as a young adult and I wouldn’t entertain the idea now.
In my grammar school, about half the class cleared off at 16, to go to work. These were the less academic, but the employment world of the 1970s was not the same as the employment world today. They could start earning – some of them worked in garages fixing cars or apprenticed to trades. The world of work presented opportunities for a much wider range of aptitudes than it does now, where analytic skills are much more to the fore, particularly if you want to earn well, and that roughly correlates to academic ability, and often to STEM areas, due to some of the analysis being mathematical, or at least arithmetical. Th 1960s and 70s had good earning positions for people without academic qualifications who could learn a skilled trade.
A lot of Britannia Unchained laments the poor academic and specifically STEM aptitudes of the output of Britain’s schools, and the tendency to favour arts and humanities because it is easier to get decent grades in these.
Instead of hard choices, students apply for a degree in media or business, which will often allow for the study of easier A Levels. As with US college courses, science A Levels are more harshly marked than those in media and sociology, the difference being up to a grade. In a culture of equivalence, where all subjects are deemed equal, students make the seemingly rational choice of going for the easier option.
Kwasi and Liz are of the belief that perseverance, hard work and application can compensation of a lack of innate ability. That may be true in many areas, but academic ability I am not so sure, although I have not darkened the threshold of a school for 40 years. Perhaps it’s all different now. This matters, because if an increasing number of jobs require academic ability, then the flipside of that is that the proportion of the workforce who are employable for anything other than national minimum wage will fall – the polarisation into some lovely jobs and lots of lousy jobs2, which seems to be what we are seeing. I am one of those commentators that are apt to argue about natural ability and talent, as if success is solely a result of destiny rather than persistence.
Success in some areas of life may well involve persistence, but academic ability is more innate IMO than persistence. Sure, it needs teaching to focus it, I am not saying teaching is irrelevant, but it won’t improve the material. It’s the same as indeedably’s tale of the second-rate athlete.
For whatever reason, often through no fault of their own, they just don’t have what it takes
The difference is important, because of the implication that the academically challenged can raise their game by putting in a lot of hard work. In which case, Kwasi and Liz are of the view that the problem is a lack of grit and determination of Britons to raise their game.
In Britain, there has been a massive rise in welfare dependency. The generosity of income support has risen sharply since the war. In today’s money, the taxpayer now spends ten times more on social security than in 1950 — with a fivefold rise in the number of people claiming unemployment benefits. The number of people claiming sickness and disability benefits has increased thirteenfold.
[…] The British state has made it too easy for too many people to take the easy option.
We know what’s coming. Massive cuts in benefits. So far very little has been said about this, but the authors of Britannia Unchained do not stint in their admiration for the American model of unemployment benefits, which have a time limit of about half a year. I believe that there is also a 99 week lifetime restriction. We will see Hoovervilles in the UK 3 in the coming recession and destitution if Lasi Trussteng have their way, because trailer parks and people sleeping in cars is how the US solves this conundrum, although to be fair that US is large enough that is some areas the climate makes this more possible, and it has a much lower population density, so the strife with the settled population is probably lower.
Before you FI/RE sorts get all complacent here, Lasi Trussteng would like a word about all that early retirement, you lazy bastards.
Our baby boomer can look forward to a long retirement, based on estimates of life expectancy nearly a century out of date. Most of his universal benefits remain ringfenced by the government, while his defined benefit pension is unlikely to ever be experienced by his children.
One has the feeling that your State Pension is going to be means tested at some stage 😉 The clue is in universal benefits, although it is possible that their position has changed on this – the recent rolling back of the child benefit withdrawal for higher-rate taxpayers goes against the grain.
The move towards an insurance based NHS is also lauded, thankfully more admiration for the European (French and German) way of doing that than the obnoxious US model. Supporting evidence is the pulling of the health inequality white paper by Therese Coffey. Although once you’ve done the work I’d be in favour of publishing it, it is going to be a statement of the bleedin’ obvious.
The rich are bound to live longer in general because they have more control of their lives. As a child I used to get bronchitis, because it was cold and damp in 1960s London before central heating. I never had it after my mid 20s – because I didn’t live in exceptionally damp and cold houses.
If you are poor you will fill yourself and your kids up with cheap carbs. That won’t be that varied, it will be ultra processed foods with all the problems that go with that, and that will not do you any good in the long run. There are whole supermarket aisles that I don’t recognize as food – nobody needs family packs of crisps or tins of noodles in alphabet shapes. Michael Pollan was right – eat foods your grandmother would recognize. But it’s all more time and aggravation. There is very little that can be done about this unless we decide that poverty is not allowed to happen.
Redistribution is very much a no-no in the Truss-Kwasi-verse. It is at the root of what has gone wrong with Britain, arguably redistribution and the everyone’s a winner approach are the Chains that bind Britannia, and This. Will. Not. Do. Any. More.
You know what to do to get out of the firing line.
- Be rich
- don’t be disabled
- don’t be stupid.
- If you are young enough to have the option, study maths and science at school.
- If you are shit for brains then simply Work Harder, you’ll get there in the end.
- Best not have bought a house in the last couple of years, if you have a mortgage, that is. You may be in for some interesting times
Although it’s easy to satirise because of its simplistic approach, there is a lot of truth in Britannia Unchained. Some of their examples haven’t aged well – the admiration for Brazil would hopefully be muted, because while Jair Bolsonaro may well appeal as a strong leader, but de Gaulle’s epithet that Brazil is the country of the future and always will be is ringing more true in the second clause than the first.
I agree with Lasi Trussteng that thirty or forty years the work ethic was stronger in Britain – working class people disliked going on the dole, and there was some sense of pride in not doing so. But there were more jobs right across the ability range 30 or 40 years ago, and the culture was more homogeneous, there was more commonality of media consumption (no talking heads TV and social media thriving on fomenting outrage, for example). People’s expectations were much lower, and they tended to raise their children themselves, rather than going to work and paying others for large amounts of childcare. Everyone was poorer, and there was less wealth disparity. Britannia Unchained will struggle to recreate those times nowadays.
You could make a much better case in the past that work was the path out of poverty. I just don’t think that’s true any more, because a larger and larger proportion of the working-age workforce can’t really add enough value to raise themselves out of poverty.
There is some argument that if people didn’t have children they couldn’t feed 4 they might be better off, and it staggers me that so many people bring up children in poverty, but every technocratic solution to that vector of poverty has ended up creating serious evil if it is coercive, so either everyone else gets bailed in to pay for the fecundity or the progeny have to suffer as a lesser evil.
Even without the problem of children they can’t afford, a life on the minimum wage is probably not going to rich in experiences. The privately educated journalist Polly Toynbee wrote a book about that called Hard Work, and it really doesn’t sound like the greatest amount of fun you can have, and ISTR she got to take some time off, possibly weekends, in her leafy middle-class home.
Liz and Kwasi haven’t gotten off to a good start with their attempt to implement the principles of Britannia Unchained, largely because the markets asked to fund the interim shortfall have taken one look at the project and thought to themselves ‘Nah, not gonna work, not a prayer, guys’ and raised the premium they want to lend against the collateral. The markets would have been a lot more convinced if Lasi Trussteng had first outlined the cost-cutting part of their project:
- Massive cuts to benefits >10%
- immiserate the poor in Hoovervilles. Much admiration for US tough love.
- Public spending cuts – Think 10%. There is admiration for the Canadian cuts a few years before the 2012 publication of Britannia Unchained
- Privatise the NHS (along the European model, in fairness to them)
- Raise interest rates closer to the 5-7% long run average for the UK, crushing house prices, which would genuinely improve affordability for the young and transfer capital from the economically inactive oldies. How that will go down with the core Tory constituency remains to be seen
- Make planning and zoning more like the US, pretty much build anything anywhere
- Do something about the State Pension to reduce its cost – reduce eligibility, make it payable later, whatever.
- A smaller State in general, as a matter of principle
Unfortunately they chose to major on the expensive revenue-losing aims first. It’s like going to the bank and talking all about the des res you want to buy on their dime or the flash car, without telling them about the promotion you are going for to be able to afford it. I’m not necessarily of the view that tax cuts are bad in and of themselves, but it would have been a lot better for the market’s ability to digest the great scheme if Lasi Trussteng had got off on the front foot with their savings first.
The problem is that the solutions outlined in Britannia Unchained are going to be unpopular with the voters or the funders. The unique talents of the Liz and Kwasi double act is that they’ve managed to make them unpopular with both. Well done them. Not only that, but they look decidedly shifty in telling the Office of Budget Responsibility to deliver their report six weeks after the October budget. That just looks shifty.
It is theoretically possible to improve the balance of payments by increasing growth, and undoubtedly some of the proposals in Britannia Unchained might increase growth. The trouble with increasing growth in developed economies is twofold. One is that economic growth means working harder, which is a decline in lifestyle for those of us who want to do something other than working with our allotted three-score years and ten. That includes you lot, dear readers, with your reckless FIRE fantasies, just as much as potential candidates for Benefits Street. Britannia Unchained shows a secular decline in working hours in nearly all economies, good luck with turning that round.
The second is represented by all those keen emerging economies and hard-working Asian students that are lauded in the book. There’s a hell of a lot more competition these days. It will be harder to shift the needle on the dial.
As the Torygraph fulminated, most of the self-inflicted wound Liz Truss and her sidekick made was because they didn’t have confidence in their working. There’s something studenty about the whole project, and particularly ill-suited to a crew who spend a fair part of their book spitting bricks about the lack of analytical skills and STEM smarts in the feckless British workers, students and school-leavers.
To get ahead in the new type of jobs you need to be able to reason and think logically.
While improving these skills helps growth, they can’t be restricted to the few. The biggest effect happens when on top of a large number of people with high-level skills almost everyone has the basic and mid-level skills. On the latter measure Britain needs radical measures.
Yup. I would say start with Dear Leader and Crazy Kwasi. Sticking “and then a miracle occurs” in the middle of your working has been disapproved of in the sciences for a very long time.
Show your working Kwasi, and having independent workers replicating it and getting roughly the same answer is even better. Independent workers like the OBR.
There’s a price to pay for unchaining Britain, which is deconstructing many of the things voters have been used to having. The NHS, benefits and pensions cost a hell of a lot of money, and that offer plenty of savings enough to make it all work. It’ll be a tough sell at election time, but if you have to borrow the money to make all the tax cuts eye candy work, you’re going to have to show your working to the bank manager, and show your plan to the voters.
I’ll leave you with what Liz and Kwasi of you, the voting public, as they open Chapter 4, Work Ethic
Once they enter the workplace, the British are among the worst idlers in the world. We work among the lowest hours, we retire early and our productivity is poor. Whereas Indian children aspire to be doctors or businessmen, the British are more interested in football and pop music.
Just as well they didn’t have to sell this project at an election 😉
- I was shocked to learn that these days calculus is deferred to A level maths these days, so perhaps this is a wider problem and Kwasi et all are right. ↩
- Lousy and Lovely Jobs: The Rising Polarization of Work in Britain, Goos and Manning, 2007. ↩
- For you metropolitan city mice that say you haven’t seen anything like that, I have seen unauthorised camping by the poor in some parts of Somerset. This isn’t wild camping or elective #vanlife ↩
- I’m perfectly aware of the social justice warrior argument that having a child is a 16-20 year project and a lot of ruin and misadventure can happen over two decades in a life, particularly with the increasing precarity of work. I have some sympathy for these unfortunates, but they aren’t the majority IMO. Contraception is free on the NHS. This one grates because I recall paying an awful lot of tax and NI towards New Labour’s largesse snowing parents with public money, to such an extent that there’s a hypothesis that Tony Blair was the daddy of the baby boom. At least Truss and Kwarteng approve of this baby boom for giving the bulge of young people now. They don’t give the daddy due credit for his redistributing ways, but they lambast New Labour for driving up public spending in the last couple of years of their tenure. You can’t have it both ways, guys ↩