The wheels came off the British economy in 2007, but that wasn't the beginning of the end for Britain, according to Elliott and Atkinson. The decline started a lot earlier than that - 1914 to be precise.
At the start of WW1 Britain was the world's only superpower, the world's leading exporter, and a major military power. A century later, we've experienced a relative decline as our national prestige has waned and other countries have caught up and overtaken us. We've had no particular strategy as a country, we have allowed a series of imbalances to develop, and there's no obvious way out of it. The economy is "slow-growing, unproductive, unequal, unbalanced and living beyond its means" say the authors. If we don't fix it, the future looks "shabbier, meaner and poorer".
This central premise is pretty much correct in my opinion, and a rather urgent message considering how complacent we appear to be. Unfortunately, the book itself leaves a lot to be desired.
Going South divides roughly into thirds, and only the middle third of it is actually any good. It begins by lamenting Britain's new `third world' status, a hundred pages of whining about how things aren't how they used to be. There are some good points here, but some of it is just downright silly.
The middle pages are the useful bit, where the authors look at the post-WW1 history of Britain's economy. This is a good overview, showing the strategies and government initiatives to stimulate the economy. Taking us up to the present, the book then looks at a series of problems that Britain faces in the coming years, and it is here that it is at its best. It includes the balance of trade, the pensions deficit, energy security, household debt and banking instability. It's convincing, and lives up to the chapter title of `the great reckoning'.
Then comes part three, where there is a tentative look at what we could do about it. The authors suggest Britain can go in one of two directions: a social democracy like Sweden, or a `freeport' capitalist model that would basically turn the whole country into an export processing zone. They then describe how Britain might look under each of these development paths. The former is a fairly attractive portrait, the latter a crass caricature that's more extreme than any other capitalist project yet conceived anywhere in the world. Why they think these are the only two options, I don't know. It's clear that they think Britain should pursue the Scandinavian model. They should just say so, rather than attempting to make the point with a false alternative.
My biggest problem however, comes back to the opening section and the argument that Britain is becoming a `third world country'. The authors recognise that the `third world' tag is used "routinely in pub and kitchen table conversation in response to railway strikes, political sleaze, to the council's failure to empty the rubbish bins." They insist that they "are not using the expression in that way", but then repeatedly do, referring to "Britain's banana republic transport system", or the police tactics of "third world Britain."
This just doesn't stand up to scrutiny, but once they've started they can't stop. Everything becomes evidence of Britain's new third world status. The list includes our politicians' search for a `big idea', bureaucracy, tax breaks for business, and an overcomplicated public service. Then it gets worse - the fact that we have a `tourist strategy', the National Lottery, or the desire to host the Olympic Games. Or consider this: "the large numbers of people employed to stand on pavements handing out leaflets, cheap telephone cards and free newspapers, or attempting to sign up customers for various services, is a sure sign of incipient third world status."
The Sky News subscription team in the mall make Britain a third world country? Seriously?
I know plenty of people like this sort of thing, but the tone of tabloid indignation undermines the very serious points made elsewhere the book. And that's a shame, because there's an important message amidst all the bluster.