Monday, 26 March 2012

Waiting for the Great Leap Backwards

Whenever I hear a politician wibbling on about "progress", it is usually time to take out the smelling salts.  In the last week, the Conservative side of the Coalition has forced through a Health and Social Care bill that will take public health provision back several decades.  The last vestiges of meritocracy are being replaced by the marketisation of higher education.  Cameron has reintroduced the bizarre concept of Private Finance Initiatives for road construction and maintenace - the former of which is to be funded by a toll.

In the case of roads, this is an incredible stepping-back beyond three centuries, to the days when turnpikes were build and funded by the users - but usually on the basis that the fees paid would pay for the capital and upkeep of the roads rather than making a tidy profit for the many parasitical intermediaries who make up such a large proportion of contemporary capitalism.  As a supporter of road pricing (of which Ken Livingstone's Congestion Charge in London is a brave and reasonably-effective example) I can only expect that the narrative will move towards selling off the existing road stock and then extending charges all over the system - paving the way for the Tories' pavement tax to be the centrepiece of their 2015 manifesto.  After all, pedestrians do get in the way of entrepreneurial limousines that pollute the environment and generate tax revenue.

The destruction of the health and education systems in England is unwinding reforms that commenced in the Victorian period and moved apace with the reforming Liberal administration of 1906 and the Attlee Government's strength to stand up to the vested interests.  Whereas many of the medical profession's big hitters opposed the formation of the NHS in 1948, they have generally been vociferous in rejecting the forced marketisation and the introduction of spurious competition into the sector.  All this was to no avail, and the sight of a craven Clegg advocating an illiberal, privatising measure that will merely drive up costs was a nauseating reminder that the Liberals need to stick to the Coalition agreement and no further.

Education, particularly beyond 18, is another prime example of regression.  The generations who grew up between the late 1950s and the late 1980s did not enjoy universal access to higher education, but where they merited entry to it the state at least funded the tuition costs - and where means-testing required, grants ensured that a reasonably provident student would enter post-educational activities without debts and with a strong expectation that their education would stand them in good stead professionally and culturally.

Nowadays, we have a bloated sector where students are consumers, where the average debt for those without parental bank-rolling is likely to be above £50,000, and where the currency has been devalued.  Hardly egalitarian - simple maths ensures that if 50% of people go to university there will be significant numbers who are earning at or below the average for the wider community.  And disheartening - but it least it keeps youth unemployment figures below the catastrophic, merely at the grotesque.

This all limits social mobility - and links it solely to the availability of cash, either from inheritance or from the dubious confines of "entrepreneurship".  Hardly progress to be looking in 2012 towards the universalisation introduced by the People's Budget of 1910 as being significantly more radical and reforming than anything a government has done since the 1970s.  Disguised, until recently, by the impacts of contined growth in material wealth, the inequality and immobility are likely to come back and bite the perpetrators.

For people saddled by debt, crippling housing costs and uncertain employment, the 1960s and 1970s must seem like a golden age.  Any party that can start articulating an alternative that reflects our times may suddenly start clearing up, as it is clear that driving inequality further forward is not going to make England a safer or happier place in the decades to come.

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