on 28 March 2016
Having read quite a bit of left-leaning material recently, I felt that I should read something written by ‘the other side’. I tried to approach this book with an open mind, fully expecting some of my opinions to be challenged. However, I found ‘Britannia Unchained’ to be little more than a collection of the authors’ prejudices, backed up by little or no evidence.
The authors set out their vision as to how we can ensure that Britain remains competitive in the globalised world of the twenty-first century, one of their key themes being that, despite the challenges we face, decline is not inevitable and we must remain optimistic. Among their main recommendations are that British students should be encouraged to study maths, the physical sciences and technical subjects such as computer science, that tax should be lowered, that regulation should be reduced, that welfare benefits must be diminished because not only are these unaffordable but they discourage people from standing on their own two feet, that businesses should be willing to take risks and, above all, that we must work much harder and for much longer than we currently do.
The authors seem to have a very poor opinion of the average British working person; chapter 4, which is all about work ethic, starts, ‘Once they enter the workplace, the British are among the worst idlers in the world’. The only ‘pockets of work ethic’ which the authors are able to locate in the British population are ‘among the industrious cab drivers or in the culture of the City of London’ (page 111-112). Shockingly, these MP authors seem to think that it’s a very good thing that a Polish worker (somewhere in Britain, they do not say where), after commuting two hours to work, puts in ten hours each day fruit-picking, for a meagre £7 per hour (page 64). Far from having anything to say about whether it is desirable to have an economy which relies on people working long hours for such low wages, the authors (who, at the time of writing, were on salaries of at least £65,000) go on to contrast the work ethic of the Polish worker with the fecklessness of the British, by quoting an interview with two jobseekers from a BBC documentary, an interview which is so stereotyped that it is almost beyond belief. These two jobseekers, one of whom ‘opens a can of beer’ at the end of the interview, represent no jobseeker, or any British person for that matter, other than themselves, but the authors hold them up as representatives of the whole British population (page 64).
Indeed, throughout, these authors assert opinions which are incredibly stereotyped and simplistic, and engage in little meaningful analysis of why what they are stating may be the case, if indeed it is so, resorting to blaming things like ‘indifferent parenting’ without explaining what they mean by this; I find this highly concerning given that they are all MPs and at least two of them are currently Government ministers. Just to provide a couple of examples, they write that, ‘Whereas Indian children aspire to be doctors or businessmen, the British are more interested in football and pop music’, ‘… low-income students in Britain do not see study as a way out of poverty’ and ‘The British lack confidence in who they are, but arguably no other country has given so much to the world’.
I also find it very concerning that these authors appear to think that it is a bad thing that, in recent decades, informal and cheap childminders have been increasingly replaced by heavily regulated nurseries, and that those childminders which are left are faced with Ofsted requirements for ‘compulsory registration, mandatory staff-child ratios and a detailed curriculum’ (page 71). The authors bewail the fact that this has pushed up the cost of childcare to the point where this deters many parents on low and middle incomes from returning to work and thus contributing to the economy. I think I am right in saying that not once in the whole book do the authors consider that maybe, just maybe, low wages are contributing to some of these issues.
Moreover, the authors seem unable to even contemplate that everyone working long hours, at the expense of spending time with their children, or looking after ageing parents, or developing an interest outside paid employment, for example, while this may ‘grow the economy’ is not necessarily beneficial overall.
Few British people are safe from the censure of these authors: from lazy students choosing ‘easier’ subjects which are marked less rigorously than maths and the physical sciences, to tube drivers in their ‘cosseted and heavily unionised world’, to benefit claimants, to 15 year old ‘Tuggy Tug, standing on a rough street corner in Brixton waiting for people to mug’ and whose ‘attitude reflects poor primary school education’ (no further analysis of his attitude is engaged in), to baby boomers who not only don’t recognise their good luck (in having reached adulthood at a time when there were plenty of well-paid, highly skilled jobs available and when housing was affordable compared to today, and in now being able to look forward to a long retirement on a decent pension, particularly if they worked in the public sector, etc.) but now ‘seem actively hostile to helping the next generation’ (page 109); for some reason known only to the authors Joan Bakewell is singled out for particular opprobrium.
‘Britannia Unchained’ is one of the worst books I have ever read. Not only is the content appalling, it is also riddled with typing errors. I do urge others to read this before voting at the next general election, but if possible to borrow a copy from a library rather than buying it.