Quick one: so, is the United Kingdom now sh1t?

The estimable Theordore Dalrymple had a simple view at the Poverty event: the UK is utterly corrupt and terrible and you need to leave if you want to escape ‘real’ poverty.  This prompted a big discussion at the bottom of the post I wrote about it.  Then Philip Stephens today issued a call to end the Politics of Pessimism, and I thought: hello, we have an issue here.

So: is life now sh1t?  Is it worse than 1995?  I remember 1995 in particular because I was sat in a miserable council house estate on £10k, reading stories of NHS decline and carjacking.

What are the figures?  Well, teen pregnancy is high in the UK.  But it has fallen from about 50 to 42 since 1996.   A trend you see in the US as well. Divorce is also high, but again lower than in the 1990s.  Lone parents are far more likely to be employed now.  In my view, our cities have really tidied up; like Skapinker, I really love living in London – it has made me what I am.

The British Crime Survey thinks crime has fallen a long way.  But there are real concerns about these sorts of surveys. And it may reflect crime becoming way more concentrated:

If you really want to understand the reality of crime in this country, the figures that matter are in the research which shows that just 1% of the population suffers 59% of all violent crime; that just 2% of the population suffers 41% of all property crime. And where are these victims? Most criminals commit their offences within 1.8 miles of their front door. In other words, they rob their neighbours. And overwhelmingly, those offenders live in the shabby tower blocks and council estates which have been consumed by poverty and criminalised by the war against drugs. That is where the crime is booming, where, as a single example, an 18-year-old lone woman with a child is more than five times more likely than the average to be a crime victim, far away from the statisticians and the politicians and their celebrations of success. Almost invisible

Much of this is quite open to conspiracy theory (“they would tell you that, wouldn’t they”).  But I am fairly sure than NHS waiting times ARE lower than they were before, and am willing to believe from my own experience that the NHS is in fact as popular as it has been in 25 years. The NHS may have helped my family in all sorts of ways, so I’m biased.

The same survey finds that antisocial behaviour is a continuous plague on society. Well, littering for sure.

But, in general, most of these factors – even crime (I was burgled in my own house in 1999, three huge Jamaican guys, us two cowering under the covers) – do not matter as much as others quite beyond the control of the public sector.  I don’t credit or blame politicians for most things in life.  I prefer life to 1995 because of the Internet, because we have cheap travel, an end to the Cold War. I think life is pretty free and liberal, on the whole. I like seeing increased immigration, like meeting people from Poland Perhaps I have been dealt a good hand – well, I certainly have.

And I don’t think that the debt changes all this.  Endless posts and columns today talking about this, most of the sensible people agreeing: we need some austerity, we need to be clever with the timing. Martin Wolf, for example, and Wynne Godley in the letters.  Duncan finds plenty of evidence that people doubt the timing of the Tories on quantitative easing.  Martin Kettle as well find the Tories ‘doctrinaire‘ in their small-government thinking. .

The reality is that economic recovery, not budget cuts, holds the key to reducing the deficit. The public sector certainly needs radical reform, but the national debt has been higher in the past, and cutting it must not be allowed to trump all other objectives. The next government should be patient, and wait for the revenues to begin flowing. The course set by Cameron and Osborne is not just doctrinaire. It is also dangerous.

The FT is talking about this already as well.

So in my view, life is not sh1t.  But it may well be if the Tories go for it Andrew Mellon style in 2010.  A hopeful note: Stephanie thinks they know perfectly well what they’re doing:

If any government does too much, too soon, then that could endanger the recovery as well. David Cameron talked of a plan today – not a timetable – because I think he knows that as well.

Here’s hoping.


Disclaimer: reading miserabilist writers in the Spectator was a formative anti-Tory moment for me.  I can’t bear the pessimism, it often elides into conspiracy theory and a very mistaken nostalgia. If I learned anything on my course, it’s that the current 6bn people alive are hugely more fortuante than the 74bn that had short brutal lives before them – and the 60m living in the UK are in the top 5% of those living.  So quit whining.

Published by freethinkingeconomist

I'm a mid 40s, former special adviser (Downing Street 2017-19, BIS from 2010-14), former FT leader writer and Lex Columnist, former financial dealer (?) at IG, student of economic history, PPE like the rest of them, etc. This blog has large gaps for obvious reasons. The name is dumb - the CentreForum think tank blog was called Freethink, I adapted that, we are stuck now.

10 thoughts on “Quick one: so, is the United Kingdom now sh1t?

  1. “the current 6bn people alive are hugely more fortuante than the 74bn that had short brutal lives before them – and the 60m living in the UK are in the top 5% of those living. So quit whining.”

    Amen to that.

  2. Perhaps they should have told Fiona Pilkington to quit whining, and quit cowering in her home while she was at it? After all, you no longer cower in yours. Maybe they should have recommended that, because we once had the Black Death, and there are poorer people in India than there are here, she should just man the f*ck up?

    Maybe they could say the same to my grandfather, who is 90 and can’t leave the home my mother grew up in – on what was once a nice, quiet street – for fear of the yobs who spat at him and told him to get the f*ck out of the way the last time he did so?

    Or Asher Nardone – read her story here and try not to cry http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/uk/article6860065.ece

    OK, I know there’s an election round the corner, and I assume you’ll be voting Labour (I can’t think for any other reason for you to choose 1995 as your comparator) but it doesn’t seem like many other people share your view. They may not like the Tories much (I certainly don’t) but they recognise a Grade A clusterf*ck when they see one.

    Philip Stephens says things are cool? Well, I guess they must be, then. Obviously, he must be a different Philip Stephens to the guy who wrote in the FT a week or two back that ‘Britain faces the biggest budget deficit in peacetime history. The public realm faces swingeing cuts in resources; taxes are set to rise… the next government will take once-in-a-generation decisions on the economy, public services and on war and peace.’ Can’t you just feel the optimism?

    Teen pregnancies and divorces, yadda yadda – I thought Dalrymple was the conservative? Either these things are bad things, and way too high, or irrelevant. You must think they’re bad things, because you’re pleased they’re declining – yet you sound like Julie Andrews doing My Favourite Things.

    Sure, NHS waiting times are down – let’s not count the people who are driven round the corner in an ambulance, or checked in and out of A&E, or ‘admitted’ to a corridor to fit the stats – but Christ, it ought to be, we’ve hosed billions and billions of pounds at it. You’re an economist, right? So you know about productivity and outputs? How’s that looking in the NHS at the moment, as compared with the private sector? And how’s our cancer and heart disease survival doing?

    You don’t mention education – can it be that even you don’t believe government stats on the ever growing brilliance of the state school system?

    The British Crime Survey… well, yes. But they don’t ask anyone under 16, they don’t ask anyone who’s been a victim of more than five crimes and they don’t get to ask people on sink estates cowering behind their doors because they’re cowering behind their doors and are terrified to answer them to researchers from the BCS or anyone else.

    By the way, have you read the famous Home Office Research Paper 217? I say ‘famous’ but I don’t think they got round to putting it out on a press release. It was internal thing from 2001 and it estimated that there were 61 million crimes in that year, compared with the BCS’ 12.6 mill. Well, what’s 48.4 million crimes between pals?

    But this is all hot air.

    The question is not whether life is ‘sh1t’, and we’re living somewhere as bad as Malawi or Albania – no-one, including me, Theodore Dalrymple, Dave Cameron or my granddad, thinks that.

    It’s whether we are living in the best possible United Kingdom – and for that we don’t need to look to Dalrymple, we can look at you.

    We stand on the shoulders of giants, in one of the richest countries in the world, and by your own statistics – thousands of pregnant 14 year olds, millions of crimes, millions on the dole or incapacity benefit (at a time, incidentally, when we apparently have the best health system in the world – go figure) – things are way worse than they should be.

    That’s the scandal and Dalrymple is no miserablist, he’s a realist and a prophet. But as Orwell said, the most grossly obvious facts can be ignored when they are unwelcome.

  3. Hi TC, thanks for the reply, and for providing some of that Dalrymple angle. . . .

    No, I don’t think that we’re living in the best possible UK – did I give that impression? I would probably fail as a politician though, because there the dominant view HAS to be “how terrible things are, how angry it makes me”. Which I can’t do – I keep wanting to thank the Lord for being alive at this time, and I’m not even religious.

    On the BCS thing – yeah, I doubt that any survey can capture all crime, and in a big way I’m relieved it can’t: only in an unbelievable police state COULD we know what all the crime figures were. Singapore/Soviet Union – and then a lot of crime would be hidden because it’s ok if the state commits it . . . The point is the BCS’s failings for what they are are probably consistent through time, so trends are still valid.

    I’m not saying that in a country of 60m souls/word of 6bn there are no terrible horrible stories. You can stick someone’s nose up against a miserable story and say “happy now?” and it then proves . . . what? That I should spend the next hour trawling the archives of the Times going back to 1900 to show that horrible individual stories have always happened? Reread the Dickens, Zola, Orwell? Perspective is very dfficult if it is just a war of anecdotes. What I can’t imagine is any future state of affairs in which we did NOT have miserable, heart rending stories. Some periods of history have covered them up more successfully than others, or subsumed them into other descriptions. The cruelly bullied mentally ill would once have been in the asylum, far away, or endlessly dogged as the village idiot. The pregnant 15 year old hounded from her village, or forced into some institutions. Murder and other dreadful practises were hidden within the (wonderful insitution) of the family. Things like this were commonplace.


    (by the way, the pregnancy rate for under 16’s is about a fifth of the teen pregnancy rate. The average age of a single mother is 32).

    The NHS is much better than in 1997. It could be even better if productivity had not been botched. But I prefer the social choice to the one we were making 13 years ago. Most people do as well.

    So I’m really not sure what your diatribe proves. When was the UK as good as it could be – when was the peak? name your favourite decade. Or don’t – I suspect our worldviews are in different languages if you think that Dalrymple is a prophet. I suspect that every 5 years has its dozens of moaning Dalrymples, convinced that their country is going down the drain/that we’re all threatened by (teddy boys/skin heads/mods and rockers/hippies/delete where appropriate).

    I’m more phegmatic about the debt – i’d have to refer you back to about 20 previous posts, or “a balancing act” (see right)

    All I know is that argument by emotional anecdote sells newspaper columns and proves little about long term trends.

  4. Er… you don’t like emotional anecdotes, but “I remember 1995 in particular because I was sat in a miserable council house estate on £10k, reading stories of NHS decline and carjacking.”

    You like figures but… oops! You don’t: “I doubt that any survey can capture all crime, and in a big way I’m relieved it can’..”

    I’m liking your logic, it’s kind of funky and different. (Though I notice you don’t confront the small issue of an unheralded government survey revealing 40 million+ extra crimes.)

    You mention Singapore. Well, I’ve lived in Singapore and Hackney, and I know where I felt safer. Actually, I KNOW where I was safer: a third of the houses in my street in Hackers (1996 to 2004) were burgled over the eight years I lived there, two people were murdered, most cars were keyed or had the wing mirrors smashed off, nearly everyone had been mugged or knew someone who had been and you often couldn’t sleep for the sound of the bass reverberating up and down the road. In Singapore, in three years, I never knew anyone who was a victim of crime, State-sponsored or otherwise (and most of the people I mixed with were locals, not expats). Sure it wasn’t perfect, and it’s just anecdotal, but…

    As for which decade etc, FFS, it’s not a question of picking a decade – as you must know, because you aren’t stupid – it’s a question of saying, Of course things are way better in many ways than they were ever, but how much better could they be? Hackney doesn’t have to be a violent toilet, but it is.

    Actually, I think you’re the pessimist here, for all your posturing as Dr Feelgood. You think crime and violence and squalor are a natural state we just have to accept, whereas I think humans can live better.

  5. I’m not sure I associate believing TD is a prophet with optimism. From my conversation with him, which was as fascinating friendly and entertaining as you might hope, there was little of optimism to take away.

    My 1995 story was just scene setting: of course I don’t think it proves anything by anecdote. I think the anecdote method is akin to taking 5 minutes’ movement in a stock price and thereby telling someone whether stocks have had a good year or not. It is of course impossible to stop polemicists politicians and taxi drivers from using the technique, but it remains fairly unreliable.

    My point on the BCS is simply that its unreliability – which is inevitable, 40,000 responses are not enough to tell you the whole story of crime in a 60m population – is probably reasonably constant over time. If there are errors now, they probably also existed before.

    On Singapore, of course it is less crime ridden- that is the point. I was pointing out trade-offs. If we were closer to being an authoritarian state, we would have less crime, and less liberty.

    I am optimistic because I believe that, dire as some statitistics may seem, it is possible that a great number of them have been improving for the last 12-15 years since the last recover, and that this may well continue if we sort the macroeconomy out. TD, with all respect to him, felt it was much deeper than than that and that no amount of economic success or policy could fix it. That is what I call pessimism.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: