I can take or leave Peter Hitchens but his grumble in the Daily Mail today about privatisation strikes a chord with me. What we see is a little buyers remorse from one who so completely bought into the ideas of the Thatcher era. Hitchens laments much of what we have lost.
...it’s all very well being able to buy cheap goods from all over the world, as we fling our borders wide and abandon the protection of our own industries that everyone says is so wicked and will make us poor and backward.It would be easy to write this off as the bitter grumblings of a kipperish dinosaur because some thing are manifestly better in the modern age, but there's a sentiment here that must be examined. At the grand old age of 37 and a child of Thatcher, grounded in libertarianism, I share the feeling that there is something missing from this modern utopia.
How I miss the old names of trusted brands, and the knowledge that these things had been made for generations by my fellow countrymen. But the new broom swept, and it swept pretty clean. In towns I know well, car assembly lines, railway workshops, glassworks engineering plants, chocolate factories vanished or shrank to nothing.
A journey across the heart of England, once an exhilarating vista of muscular manufacturing, especially glorious by night, turned into archaeology. Now, if it looked like a factory, it was really a ruin. Someone usually pops up at this stage and says that we still manufacture a lot. If you say so, but then why are the drug-dealers so busy in our new factory-free industrial areas, and why can I never buy anything that was made here, except from absurdly expensive luxury shops?
Why are our warships made of foreign steel? Why are the few factories that do exist almost always foreign-owned, their fate decided far away by people who don’t much care about this country?
And why is our current-account deficit with the rest of the world the worst it’s ever been in peacetime, and nearly as bad as it was during the Great War that first bankrupted this country a century ago? If it’s all been so beneficial, why do so many of the containers that arrive in British ports, full of expensive imports, leave this country empty?
Sure, some things have got cheaper, and there are a lot more little treats and luxuries available.
The coffee and the restaurants are better – but the essentials of life are harder to find than ever: a good life and an honest place; a solid, modest home big enough to house a small family in a peaceful, orderly landscape; good local schools open to all who need them; reasonably paid secure work for this generation and the next; competent government and wise laws. These have become luxuries, unattainable for millions who once took them for granted.
And now the remains of our steel industry are vanishing, not because nothing can be done (any determined government could save it if it really wanted to) but because we’re all still worshipping that free-market dogma that captivated us 30 years ago.
I never thought I’d yearn for the National Coal Board or British Steel or, good heavens, British Leyland. But I do begin to feel I was fooled into thinking that what was coming next would be any better. At this rate it may soon be much, much worse.
While I am not sure I qualify as a millennial (whatever that actually means) I feel like those addressing millennials are speaking to me - as a spoiled whiney generation who have it far better than their parents who have never known real hardship, who live in times of unprecedented opportunity.
I call bullshit. We live in an era where jobs are increasingly Uberfied. My most recent secure employment was on a rolling contract. The court system has been entirely mechanised to favour the corporate parasite and the shake-down artists. It's the era of "firstname.lastname@example.org". They can do what they like to us. They can strong arm us into giving them permission to take money directly from our accounts. They can use credit algorithms to make us second class citizens. We are without power.
Meanwhile, my generation isn't saving. I grew up in an era where the local news was always Mr and Mrs Fred Smith weeping to the camera how all their savings had vanished. I very much got the impression that unless you work for the council a pension is one of those things where you put money aside so that somebody runs off with it when you need it.
Returns on savings are minimal and you don't play the shares game unless you really know what you're doing. Nobody I know of may age ever imagines retiring. Unless you were lucky enough to have your shit together in that very short window in the last decade, you missed the boat on buying a house - and now you're condemned to pay offensive rents to people who do nothing and produce nothing.
And so what are we? A cash rich, asset poor society with no moral centre, few reasons to congregate, few places to go and every single town looks and feels the same. Worn out Tesco towns still scarred by the vandalism of post-war architecture.
And for all the talk of Airbus quitting the UK if we leave the EU - to all intents and purposes it already has. The runway at Filton is closed, it only makes parts of wings and for the most part, Filton airfield is now offices. Everywhere I look I see real heritage being erased by new build identikit huts, each dormitories for armies of desk workers each looking for the next scam, selling services, financial instruments or insurance. Nobody is making anything, nobody is building anything and nobody dare go into business. Who would?
And yes, to an extent I am making excuses for myself. I have made some bad choices but actually those around me who didn't are still caught in a trap of existential angst as we muddle through this modernity induced ennui.
We have opened our borders to good and services and people and that's kept the cash flowing but there is a spiritual void in Britain. All the safety nets are gone, everyone is on the make, nothing is secure, and though we notionally have gold plated EU rights, in practice they mean nothing - and certainly not if you can't afford representation in our conveyor belt courts.
And so I feel a great sympathy for Hitchens's views. We are lacking a moral centre, we have lost anything that binds us culturally, and government is one of those things that happens to you rather than something you have a say in.
We can never go back to heavy industry, we can never wind back the clock, but we can at least govern in our own interests - and nowhere does it say we must sacrifice everything on the altar of globalisation. Why are we watching the obliteration of dairy farms and seeing fields covered over with solar panels? Have we stopped eating meat and drinking milk? If the aim is to reduce food miles and "carbon" should we not be concerned with stimulating local food production?
Nobody but for the Labour dinosaurs is suggesting that we renationalise the railways and start building tractors, but there is a massive UK wide imbalance whereby London is the primary concern and the rest of us get the dregs. Our economy is entirely geared to the vagaries of the financial markets and we have become passengers rather than citizens.
In this we have no real democracy to speak of. Powers are granted by the Treasury office but there is no recognition that the people are sovereign. We are merely economic units to be farmed like cattle and policed so that we don't get ideas above our station. A society where those who conform the best reap the most reward.
For all you can say we are notionally free and that we have never been materially better off, there is an emptiness to modern life and one cannot help, as Hitchens does, look around mournfully at the relics of industry in the knowledge that we used to be something, and we used to fight for our rights rather than being passive recipients of government munificence.
We complain that Muslims do not integrate, but what left is there to integrate with? We no longer know who we are as a nation or what we are for. Even our kneejerk military interventions are without purpose. They are acts of virtue signalling.
Our politics is driven by narcissism and everything is a bidding war as to who can be the most right on. Our entire political class is salivating at the thought of handing over yet more powers to the euro elites in the name of "internationalism". All the while the joke's on us. Nobody else seems locked into this grand ideal of self-immolation on the altar of neoliberalism. Nobody. Not even the USA.
And all the while, libertarians applaud at the total dismantling of everything that makes us distinct. We're becoming the worlds call centre and even then we outsource those jobs. At what point do we stop and say "not this, this is ours?". At what point do we defend that which makes us distinctive? At what point do we say no to government? When do we start saying that it isn't ok for entire industries to be wiped out at the stroke of a pen? Why should our jobs be bartering chips for some Portuguese trade diplomat? Since when did free trade mean throwing away every last scintilla of democracy?
I'm no dinosaur. I believe in free markets. I accept the need for regulation. I hope that one day we will achieve a global single market and that people will be free to go where they choose - but it should be we who decide where we draw the line.
If we are to leave absolutely everything to market forces we might as well throw in the towel, abolish elections and hand over the keys to Brussels. If nothing is sacred then we have no need of democracy. If we are not going to defend the national interest then we might as well become a hollowed out province of a managerialist EU oligarchy. If you want to be globalisation's bitch, go right ahead. Vote to remain in the EU.