There’s a huge group of people in this country causing me more and more concern. It’s a strange sensation. I think I might … actually… care about them.
I’m not talking about the bottom demographic, the low-margin service sector workers who work crap jobs behind counters or carts and – just about – get by. In fact, I hugely admire them. Starting from the back of the grid, coming from difficult circumstances in rough neighbourhoods, millions of people are prepared to work long hours for little money without complaint. That’s incredible. While these people have hard lives, there’ll always be work for them: you can’t export a barista. I don’t worry about these working poor, although I do support a minimum wage to recognise their toil.
(Why would an right-swerving ultra-capitalist support a minimum wage? Because if a quarter of the population wants to work but can’t support itself by doing so, there’d be no civil society – these are the people who’d be decently ashamed about not working. More importantly, without these ten million people there’d be no market for base-layer products and services like hair grips or Zhu Zhu pets. Heat Magazine and Strictly Dancing are modern Britain’s bread and circuses; you’ve no real problems if you can keep the proles amused.)
Nor do I worry about the top tenth: the professionals, the movers and shakers who shape the base inputs of the economy into useful forms. Their tools are brainpower and laptops rather than hands and time; These people are intelligent and flexible; they can move roles, understand change, adapt like the higher creatures they are. Hell, we can just move country (I’ve done that five times.)
No, my concern is for the people in the middle. Let’s say social classes C and a chunk of B. Basically, it’s the people who gave Blair his victory in 1997 and are now paying the price for it. But we should let that one mistake slide, because…
… these people are the backbone of the nation. There are fifteen million of them: skilled workers, white-collar worker ants, mechanics and bookkeepers and long-distance lorry drivers. They’re the bulk of the tax base, but they get a lower proportion of their taxes back in services than any other demo. They’re over-administered, under-managed, and bullied by a State that sees them as the easy target.
These people are having an increasingly difficult time of it. And there’s no easy escape for them. They’re pulled on one side by fragility of their jobs: most office and factory jobs are exportable. They’re pulled on the other by the pressure on their incomes: taxes taking an ever-bigger bite, gushing straightaway from them to Labour’s base of the weak and the workshy. And they’re pulled in another dimension by their Futures. If they’re private sector, they have no certainty of a comfortable retirement; if they have children, little chance of a decent state education for them; and if they’re Londoners, no way to afford a decent sized family home.
These people face a stark choice in the years to come. Get pushed down into the McJobs and spend their lives in simmering resentment. Or try to forge upwards into jobs they’re not cut out for, sectors where they’ll always be at a disadvantage.
I worry about these people. They will live long, but never prosper.
And it’s difficult to fully reconcile these concerns with my core beliefs: that markets should be red in tooth and claw, the drivers of excellence are conflict and competition, and the weak are best left to die so the civilisation can develop. If you’re smart, go where the jobs are; if your economy isn’t competitive enough, move your resources elsewhere. Open borders, free movement of people, goods, services, and capital. There are winners and losers – and there have to be. It’s a big, bad world out there, and the spoils go to the best and brightest.
All of which sounds great in theory, but – I can’t stop thinking about those fifteen million people, who just want to work and live, and are losing the chance to do so.
And if I’m having thoughts lik this, it’s all too easy to see why so many policymakers think protection and tariffs are a Good Thing. (Doing so, of course, would simply exacerbate the problem, as global GDP shrinks into a set of pinched-off bubbles without the Magic Of Trade to help them grow.)
I hope those fifteen million have a decent Christmas, because unless we have a complete change in government next year, it may be the last time they sit down to eat with any dignity.