Anybody working in the public sector or providing products/services to government bodies will be sat in an uncomfortable place right now. Thirteen years of a Labour government, with interventionism and centralisation built into its DNA, combined with a debt-fuelled economic bubble, has left the UK with unsustainable levels of both public expenditure and government debt.
As might be expected n the light of the recent election, opinions have tended to follow party lines, and I believe that this has resulted in an unfortunately narrow debate. Two of the key issues raised during the election were whether £6bn of public expenditure cuts should be made this year or next and whether National Insurance should rise by 1% next year or not. I would liken this to choosing the colour of a new car; it changes the way the car looks, but it does not alter whether or not the car will still be running in ten years.
It is too simplistic to just slice up the situation on ideological lines such as whether the state should supply certain services or whether taxation policies should be redistributive. The example of what is happening in the USA right now shows how unhelpful such an approach can be, with political point scoring taking precedence over answering difficult questions. I would like to make two observations that go beyond these ideological brickbats, ones that have been ignored by both sides.
My first observation is that there has to be a move away from a culture of entitlement. This is often thought to be an issue just for the lower socio-economic echelons, but I would extend this much wider to include examples including:
- The entitlement to cash benefits by virtue of circumstance with no reference to contributions, either in cash or by way of service to society.
- The entitlement to use nature’s resources without a second thought, merely because:
- It is convenient;
- It is a “better” school / “nicer” supermarket / “ideal” holiday destination;
- It doesn’t effect me.
- The entitlement to take as big a “slice of the pie” as possible without any (or a token) consideration of the needs of others.
The world has changed beyond all recognition over the last 50 years, but the political and social structures we have were formed in this earlier age. None of the political parties appears to have the “balls” to face up to this, as they know the majority of the population do not want to hear uncomfortable truths.
The UK has a population of 60m, all of whom expect to have living standards amongst the highest in the world, but no one ever asks whether such expectations are justified? What do we provide? We have some pockets of excellence in both manufacturing and services, but far too few of them. As a country we have too many people engaged in low value added services, but who still expect the full fruits of a high value economy.
To put it simply, you can only go on for so long paying each other rich-world pay rates to make coffee while borrowing money to buy goods made overseas and expecting the value of your house to rise at double-digit levels forever.
This is not a call for a return to the “good old days” of large scale traditional manufacturing; there are many basic industries in which Britain would be unable to regain competitiveness, but we have failed to replace the old “smokestack” industries with something that truly adds value. This is not a political point, as this neglect spans governments of both sides, which brings me to my second observation.
The pervasive culture in the UK does not celebrate or even encourage learning, innovation or excellence. Adoration is poured on footballers, TV talent show winners, soap opera “stars” and models, while engineers and scientists are branded as “nerds” and geeks”, science and maths subjects are viewed as “boring” and “too difficult”, and efforts to encourage and pursue excellence are regarded as “elitist” and “divisive”.
The last 30 years has seen a massive expansion in the number of people attending university, but has the economy really benefited from a dramatic influx of media studies, psychology, business studies and leisure management graduates? People come into the workforce with more qualifications than ever, but are they truly better educated than a generation ago? The use of information and communication technologies has exploded, but where is the British Google/Microsoft/Apple?
There is an advert for Lastminute.com with the strap-line, “do more of the goodstuff”; the problem with our culture is that we want to do more of the “goodstuff” but we do not want to put in the hard work to pay for it. We also seem to have an increasingly narrow view of what the “goodstuff” is. Hedonism is “good”; self is “good”; helping those less fortunate is “the responsibility of the government”; community activities are “boring”; buying things is “good”; going places is “good”; appreciating the simple things in life is “unfulfilling”; learning new things is “too time consuming”. Can this situation be improved; yes. Will it be improved; I wish I could be hopeful.