The Olympics ceremony celebrated the best of Britain. But in the past three decades so much of that has gone into reverse
Thanks, Danny Boyle, for that magnificent parade of Britain as the deep-dyed social democratic nation it feels itself to be. That was an exuberant hymn to imagination, ingenuity and irreverence. But above all, thanks for the story of the struggle of the powerless against the forces of conservatism. Suffragettes, Jarrow marchers, CND, punk or hip hop, all these were fiercely resisted by the right, so often proved pleasingly wrong in the end. All our happy endings tell of forces of repression falling under the wheels of people pushing for democracy and a fair share of power and wealth.
Boyle gave us a tear-jerkingly optimistic sense of the inevitability of progress. Here was social history as taught to my generation and Danny Boyle’s, where we learned how – from Factory Act to Tolpuddle martyrs, from Chartists and Reform Act to the Butler Education Act – power was gradually wrenched from a small elite. See how the Voldemort tendency is still trounced by the people’s enduring affection for the collective good of the NHS and the BBC.
That’s the romantic history, the struggle retold in most of literature and art, where ragged-trousered heroes are pitted against villainous landed aristos and satanic mill owners. (Blake’s song is so strangely purloined by Tories who plainly never listen to the words or understand the spirit behind them.)
However deep the Tory blue in his blood, David Cameron knew our modern island story has become social democratic, more Windrush than empire, not hideously monocultural or culturally prim. That’s why before the election he pretended to support the Danny Boyle Britain with those beguiling but bogus cameos staged on Arctic snow sledge or in grim estates, promising to abolish poverty and embrace equality. Even so, despite all that cleansing, the smell of his Conservatism was still too pungent to give him victory against a Labour party on its knees. And by now voters are thoroughly undeceived.
Here’s the catch to the Boyle vision. Since the days of those confident history textbooks charting milestones of social advance, so much has gone into reverse. Imagining ourselves social democratic doesn’t easily make us so, when economic forces are stronger than the power of mere votes. Our postwar founding myth as social democrats is in danger of becoming as unreal as the prewar empire-building story. We can no longer count on the march of progress.
The welfare state, painstakingly built over many decades, is shrivelling. The civil service, with its long memory and high-calibre intake, is being dismantled, its functions contracted out to the KPMGs and PwCs who drive the marketising of everything. Locally and nationally those who know how to manage public services are branded useless bureaucrats and parasitic pen-pushers.
Michael Gove is turning back the clock to O-levels and grammar schools. His back-to-the future is sheep-and-goats elitism: fewer into university, a diminishing proportion of 16-year-olds in full-time education, free Bibles yet fewer eligible for free school meals, no education maintenance allowance and no need for teachers to be trained. Adults have lost their second chance at education, unable to afford high charges for courses; for first chances, nearly 300 Sure Starts are closed, many of the rest drained of professional staff. Libraries and swimming pools close, the post office is to be sold off shortly, canals and waterways have been already.
Furious rightwingers were surely right: Boyle deliberately challenged the government on the NHS, now it’s up for sale to any Virgin Care or Circle wanting a slice. The same week as Boyle’s dancing nurses took to the stage, figures slipped out that 4,500 nurses have been cut in the last two years, though the public complains about a lack of nursing.
The BBC narrowly escaped the fate Jeremy Hunt intended when Rupert Murdoch was denied overlordship of the broadcasting universe. But Hunt’s department still threatens ominously to deregulate broadcasting and put pressure on the BBC to “ensure it is more accountable” – but to whom?
All that is recent, but stand back and see how over the past three decades in the broader sweep of economic history, progress has gone into reverse. The late 70s saw the most equal time in British history, but since then the rich have got richer and the poor poorer. The City burst its bounds in the 1980s, its hubris still unabashed by scandal, far mightier than mere politicians. Strong unionism had its dysfunctions, but unions prevented the explosion in unfair pay that followed their abrupt decline. The High Pay Commission reports that BAE’s top director is paid 8,000% more than in 1978, while median pay rose by just 556%. The link between pay and performance is broken: in the past decade the average bonus for FTSE 350 directors rose by 187% while share prices declined by 71%. If these were benefits, they would be called “something for nothing” pay.
Stratospheric top pay contrasts brutally with the fate of the half of the population that has fallen back, with no pay increase since 2003 according to the Resolution Foundation. In 1979 only one in seven children was poor: by the mid-80s that rose to one in three. The minimum wage is now lower than eight years ago. Home ownership is falling, homelessness rising. Insecure, part-time, low-paid work grows, not good jobs. After motherhood 48% of women are reduced to jobs well below their qualifications.
Labour slowed this back-sliding, with a million fewer poor children, a million fewer poor pensioners, free nursery schooling and more into university. But they only managed to slow the inexorable rise in inequality. Hints that social mobility increased, with a lessening of the iron link between social class and GCSE success, can’t be judged for a couple of decades: by then all that caused any improvement may have gone.
So Danny Boyle’s history of progress was a nostalgic reminder and a heart-warming hope, but only a partial truth. Easy to see why some Tories of the toxic tendency were spitting with fury, as the left would have done if a Telegraph and Niall Ferguson version of Britain had won the day. As it was, Boris Johnson, the London mayor, had to pretend to celebrate a social democratic history along with the rest, comforting his party with this: “The Games won’t be remotely inclusive, not on the track. They will be ruthlessly, dazzlingly elitist.” Now it’s for Labour to dare to embody those social democratic virtues most people see as the national identity.