on 19 April 2010
Quoted at the head of the introduction to Sean Glynn's short book "No Alternative?" are some wise words from the late Guardian columnist Hugo Young - "mass, long-term unemployment is the worst breakdown a society can experience, the most damning evidence of political failure." This seems a reasonable assessment of the last three or more decades of British political life, and judging by the parlous nick of the economy, at least for the next decade too.
For it's size the book covers a remarkable amount of ground looking into the phenomena of unemployment as it relates to Britain. The history of it as it arose in post-feudal Britain is covered, through the nineteenth century, the depression, onto post war full employment, then the horrendous rise under Margaret Thatcher's regime during the 1980's; the books title being a play on her famous declaration that "There is no alternative" which she used in relation to her policies that brought about the high and long enduring level of unemployment.
Glynn reflects on such matters as the history of the support provided for those out of work, initially by the Elizabethan poor law (famously updated in 1837), the efforts of trade unions and friendly societies, and onto the state provision that grew from the early twentieth century. A chapter is set aside to look at how unemployment has been calculated, and how accurately the figures reflect reality with particular regard to the perceived "massaging" of the figures during the Thatcher era. The economy and economic policies are strongly tied into Glynn's analysis, particularly as he reviews the post war era, and he includes an interesting chapter on economists thinking on this issue ranging from Marx, to the reformists Keynes, to the monetarist and apostle of unregulated markets Milton Friedman.
Glynn's conclusion is that "there is always an alternative", and regards the failure to deal with unemployment as a failure of political will, and considers in whose interest the phenomena has been allowed to persist, and indeed be normalised. "No Alternative?" is an excellent introduction to the subject, written with a clarity that is always to be welcomed from an academic writer and worth picking up second hand at the current cheap rate; unfortunately it only covers up to 1991 when it was published.