I was drawn to the article, "Broken Britain: Nothing is left of the family silver" in the November 2011 issue of Harper's Magazine, because of my interest in England. Not only did my late father come to Canada from England as a child, but also my education has involved reading a lot of English literature and works on English history (including social history). This article, by leading journalist Ed Vulliamy (senior correspondent for Britain's Observer and Guardian newspapers) is a troubling tale with implications for Canada.
"Criminality" was the explanation given by both Conservative and Labour Party leaders in response to the August 2011 riots in Britain. Vulliamy contends that the "moral collapse", a phrase used by Prime Minister Cameron, started at the top of society. He notes scandals in which prominent Conservatives and Labour politicians have been implicated. Vulliamy describes his country as "greedy, obsessed with commercialism at the expense of any other value or norm, xenophobic, belligerent and hubristic."
Vulliamy blames Britain's "decomposition" on the devastation of manufacturing under Margaret Thatcher's administration, in parallel with drastic privatization of infrastructure, utilities and services. Traditional industries were replaced by retail and service ones, especially financial services "so that the economy came to rest on the whims and needs of supranational banking." Prosperity didn't "trickle-down" to the public; rather, taxpayers' money went to bail out the "very institutions that have looted our economy."
Vulliamy says that dependence on the financial sector has "changed the geography of opportunity." In the past, there were apprenticeships and opportunities all over Britain, but now, he says, "the only real money is in London", and the "ethos of London" governs the way the country thinks.
Although Vulliamy blames Thatcher for "selling off the nation's collective assets", he says that Blair proved to be her "natural successor." The title comes from a 1985 speech by former Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, in which he compared privatization to selling the family silver.
Vulliamy mourns the loss of publicly run and owned industries and services like the now-defunct National Coal Board, British Rail, the Gas Board, etc., saying that they were run by people who "knew what they were doing and provided what they promised." In 2006-7 ,Vulliamy's aged father endured a winter without heat, due to a snafu to do with privatization and outsourcing. The family took up the matter, which was not solved until the end of March 2007, the day before his father died.
Privatization, says Vulliamy, has led to increased consumer prices, rewards to civil servants who were "selling off the silver", and loss of jobs. He notes a number of indicators that all is not well in Britain. It rates low among nations when the well-being of children and economic equality are measured and compared. There has been a marked increase in fatal accidents since British rail was privatized, and the new privatized company is still government subsidized. Authoritarianism is on the rise; Britain has more closed circuit TV camera surveillance than any other country in the world.
Canadians who are concerned about our Wheat Board, the spending on the G-8/ G-20 conferences, the suppression of the protests against them, and the growing gap in Canada between rich and poor will find food for thought in Vulliamy's article.