There’s a cognitive bias which supposedly causes emotional disorders, whereby you minimize your own achievements while maximizing those of other people. I feel the authors of Britannia Unchained, a new book about how to save the UK from national decline, suffer from this bias. They are far too pessimistic about the UK’s achievements, while seeing other countries through rose-tinted spectacles.
The book is by five Tory MPs who joined the House of Commons in 2010: Kwasi Kwarteng, Priti Patel, Dominic Raab, Chris Skidmore and Elizabeth Truss. It’s generated a fair amount of headlines, as its central message is a popular one for the right-wing press: “the British are among the worst idlers in the world”. We need, the authors say, to emulate the rising economies of China, Brazil, South Korea and Canada, by working harder, slashing taxes, embracing free enterprise, and no longer paying out such generous welfare benefits.
It all sounds like Mitt Romney speaking off the record and praising Chinese labour camps where the teenage workers sleep on bunk beds. But these young Tories are willing to say the same as Mitt while on the record – witness Kwasi Kwarteng, the intellectual leader of the group, telling the Guardian how impressed he was by a visit to a Chinese factory, where if a worker met their productivity target for the hour, they were allowed two whole minutes to rest.
I read the book because I wondered what it might mean for the politics of well-being. David Cameron has, to some extent, embraced the well-being agenda, and suggested we should not focus so relentlessly on wealth, status and GDP growth, but instead seek higher goals like well-being, fulfillment and the common good. Well, that all sounds incredibly wet to the authors of Britannia Unchained. To them, the well-being agenda is the sickness, not the cure. It’s an example of how the defeatist British have somehow come to think that “business is a dirty word”, economic growth is an illusion, and we should all work less. The new economics foundation, pioneer of the well-being agenda, is not their favourite think-tank, as you can imagine.
So what is the book like? Not good. It has a feeling of being dashed off by busy young people. Most of its sources are newspaper articles, as if they’ve just googled their ideas and used the first media source they find to support them. There are typos: on the third page, ‘if we are to prosper in the future, we have to much learn’.
The book’s central claim – that we’re the worst idlers in the world – is made on page two, where the authors insist that “5.7 million people receive some kinds of benefits, which is one of the highest proportions in the OECD”. Jonathan Portes, director of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research, writes:
What’s wrong with this? Where do I start? What does “some kind of benefits” mean? Not pensions, child benefit or tax credits, I can deduce that, although the average reader won’t know. Does it include disability living allowance and housing benefit (both of which can be claimed by workers)? I think the former but not the latter. Grown since when? It certainly grew rapidly in the 1980s and early 1990s but the number of people claiming out-of-work benefits fell steadily from its peak in 1994 until the 2008 crisis and, despite the recession, is still well below the levels of the mid-1990s. So the drama is less than compelling. As for “one of the highest proportions in the OECD”, the last OECD study on this topic found nothing of the sort.
As the Economist points out in its cover story this week, the UK has the highest employment rate in the G7. Still, unemployment is at 8%, and there are thousands of Brits who were left behind by the bourgeoisification of the working class over the last 50 years. They became ‘chavs’ – an object of fear and hatred for the newly-expanded middle class. But demonising the underclass is not the solution. I would suggest we need to create the same networks of public services and mutual support groups that helped the first working class to raise itself into the middle class in the 19th and 20th centuries. While Kwarteng slags off the poor, his school-mate and fellow young Tory, Danny Kruger, left politics and set up a charity to work with (and even live with) former prison inmates. That’s doing more good than simply shouting abuse from the ramparts.
The authors are right to worry about the size of the national debt, and to emphasise the need for us to balance the books, as families and as a country. If your debt gets too big, you lose control of your national policy, and are dictated to by foreign lenders. Imagine having Angela Merkel tell us how to live. That’s why we need to reduce our public and private debt over time.
But it’s a bit rich to blame that national indebtedness on the working class, while also claiming that the City is ‘a small pocket where the work ethic still exists’. That’s an obviously inaccurate and unfair description of what’s happened in the last five years. It wasn’t worker welfare that increased the national debt by £1 trillion in two years. It was corporate welfare – bailing out the banks, their shareholders, their private bond holders, their high net-worth investors. That corporate welfare is still going on, through the Bank of England’s cheap lending support for the banks.
The authors say blithely that financial crises are “a fact of life”. If you criticise the bank system for being under-regulated and for rewarding reckless incompetence, you’re giving in to “national defeatism”. Well, that’s just nonsense. The reason trade union militancy has increased in the last two years is not that British workers are idle. It’s that the trade unions, along with the rest of us, think it’s deeply unfair that our public services are being slashed while the private financial sector has received such incredible beneficence from the tax-payer. We want our money back, and we want protection against further crises (in fact, George Osbourne’s bank levy is a good step in this direction).
The BRICs want quality of life too, not just economic growth
Perhaps the most glaring mistake of the book is the way it holds up the rising economic powers as paragons of “individual initiative and free enterprise”. This betrays a serious ignorance about what is driving economic growth in China, Brazil, Turkey, South Korea, Russia, India and elsewhere. These economies are far more state-dominated than ours, and growth has been driven by enormous state companies like Gazprom, Petrobras and Bank of China, or chaebols like Samsung. These are not economies full of plucky individual entrepreneurs. And much of their economic growth comes not because they’re innovating incredible new technology. They’re simply catching up with the West, rolling out pre-existing technology like modern banking, cars, mobile phones, TVs and so on to their large populations.
Once their material quality of life has caught up with ours, much of the new middle class in BRIC economies are asking the same post-materialist questions as we are: what’s the point of working incredibly hard if you make yourself ill, harm your family and damage your environment in the process? Is it worth ruining your mental health for bling and credit card debt? See, for example, this article on South Korea’s existential crisis:
Chief among their concerns is the stress and expense of putting their children through “exam hell”, even in the knowledge that there are too many graduates chasing too few well-paid jobs. No wonder Korea’s birth rate has plummeted — to 1.23, well below the 2.2 replacement rate and lower even than Japan at 1.4.
South Korea has the highest suicide rate in the OECD because of pressures at work and in education. It also has very high levels of personal credit card debt (35% of GDP). And Koreans are now asking the same questions about quality of life as we are. The global hit ‘Gangnam Style’ is a satire on South Korea’s obsession with bling, and you see the same sort of anti-bling satires appearing in other BRIC countries. Koreans are looking to ancient sources of wisdom for stress cures, like philosophy: a local publisher paid around $200,000 for the School of Life’s self-help series, my book’s doing well there too, and Seoul recently hosted the 11th International Conference on Philosophical Practice. In the words of Dr Oh Kyung-Ja, professor of clinical psychology at Yonsei University, Koreans are “desperately searching for things to do to divert themselves from stress. They just don’t have a good model.”
Likewise, China may have an unquenchable appetite for bling, but many of the new middle class are also asking questions about what it means to live well: witness the national fondness for the ideas of Confucius and Marcus Aurelius and the government’s interest in the politics of well-being. We also read, in the FT, that the Chinese rich are “starting to spend more on wellness as opposed to luxury goods”.
So I suspect that the new rising powers are moving very rapidly from bling to post-bling. They are rising rapidly up Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, and arriving at the same quality of life questions we’re asking in the West.
Truss is right that we need to improve science education
The best chapter in the book is Elizabeth Truss’ chapter on the importance of improving science education to help us compete in the global knowledge economy. I agree that too many young people choose arts or social science subjects as cushy options. We may have too many students taking psychology A-Level and psychology degrees, and are in danger of turning into a nation of life coaches (I count myself among the growing ranks of well-being obsessives so mean no offence to life coaches, just…there’s a lot of you!) Some of these psychology grads have a remarkable lack of respect for scientific evidence.
But Truss doesn’t offer radical ideas about how to improve the level of scientific education in this country. I’d suggest, for example, that we reform the undergraduate degree system, so that students don’t study just one subject for three years – that degree of specialisation is harmful to their intellectual growth and to the country’s culture. If you study a humanities subject, you should be expected to take science subjects as well, and vice versa. We have too many arts graduates who leave university like me: desperate to write a novel and with an ingrained prejudice against scientific evidence. I’d also like to see the Baccaulaureate replace A-Levels, which demand too much specialisation too early. And the debate on education shouldn’t be framed as well-being or academic results: critical thinking, reasoning skills and creative thinking are good for both.
We should also acknowledge what’s good about our arts culture – how it fosters excellent journalism, writing, theatre, film, art and fashion. Our culture sector is one of the best in the world, so it’s bizarre that it should be so uncelebrated in a book on reclaiming national pride. It’s also a good example of combining creative and technical expertise, as in our flourishing computer games industry, or music production, or film special effects. It may be that the authors ignore our creative economy because it doesn’t fit their Thatcherite model of self-reliant entrepreneurs – instead, it flourishes through a mixture of public and private funding, and through state-sponsored schools like RADA. Or it may be that they are simply deaf to culture, like many old Thatcherites. Hopefully Boris Johnson is less so.
Another point which the book could have made more strongly is the importance of attracting skilled immigrants into our country, including into our universities. The Home Office is doing its best to repel such immigrants from our borders through its heavy-handed treatment of London Met University. And there’s no discussion about the importance of adult education and community learning to a knowledge economy. Nor do the authors consider the one policy that would really improve our education sector: take away public schools’ charity status. That would encourage more middle class people to send their children to academies, and open up social networks of privilege and excellence. If that’s too un-Conservative, then at least insist public schools do more to support academies.
The book does express something in the British national mood. The latest British Social Attitudes survey found that only 28% think governments should spend more on benefits, down from 58% in 1991. More than half think people would “stand on their own two feet” if benefits were less generous, compared to 20% believing that in 1993. But I don’t recognise the book’s claim that Britain is weighed down by defeatism and pessimism. The authors clearly wrote that before the Olympics, which were a resounding affirmation of our country’s strengths – our belief in individual excellence and our belief in fairness, volunteerism,technology, creativity and fun. You can believe in Britain’s greatness without wanting it to turn into a Chinese labour camp.
In other news:
Here is a great piece from Intelligent Life on the ‘mass intelligent’ – we’re not dumbing down, it argues, we’re wising up. Here is an online debate The Economist did on the subject. And the CEO of the Economist Group referenced it in a recent presentation on the ‘mega-trend of the mass intelligent’ (here’s a slide from it, below).
The young Spanish boy who was chosen as the reincarnation of a Tibetan lama talks of why he left the monastery and abandoned his monastic vows.
Here’s a review of a new book on the Quantified Self movement and the digitization of medicine.
Here’s a good Re-Think pamphlet on recovering from mental illness:
Jimmy Soni, managing editor of the Huffington Post and the author of a new book on Cato, gives five reasons why Stoicism matters today.
More Stoicism: here’s a piece by Ian Hislop on the history of the British stiff upper lip (based on a program which will be on BBC 2 on Tuesday October 2)
Here is a piece on how technology is about to disrupt and transform academia, and here, by way of counterblast, is a good piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education challenging the hype around MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses).
See you next week,
PS I have a brief segment about self-help on the Culture Show on Wednesday, BBC 2, 10pm. It’s somewhat ridiculous and may be the last thing I get asked to do on TV, so check it out. And also some American publishers have finally made offers for the book. Hooray! Thanks for your positive thoughts and kind reviews on Amazon (I didn’t write any of them, in case you’re wondering…)