How to lose an Empire, an economy, reality, legality and democracy in 75 years.
We have lost any sense of personal or public responsibility in the West. The Slog looks at Britain as an example of how it happens…and the little we still have left to lose.
I am sometimes asked how I got into blogging. There were many reasons, but one particular sequence of events actually got me to buy some software and get started. The software wasn’t user friendly at all. I doubt if it was friends with anyone, to be honest: it was quirky, positioning photos back then was a nightmare, and as always the ‘instructions’ were impenetrable. But I persevered because of one bloke. A sort of borderline psycho-fantasist who crossed my path….and was left to go about his dirty work unmolested by ‘the authorities’.
In every sense it was an extraordinary case, and yet – as it proceeded, and I began to write about it – it dawned on me that it was a very ordinary case indeed. It was, in fact, quite normal.
This fellow’s ‘game’ (funny how crooks call everything a game) was ‘social internet’ via cafes and local council schemes. At the time it was in its infancy, which was how wide boys like him could set up in business knowing nothing. As a front for the scam, he ran a pc repair shop in our local village – where he was, day and night, a nuisance for the local populace, cheating on every bill and claiming to repair things he clearly hadn’t.
He was a three-times bankrupt. He was running a VAT fiddle. He was stealing ID information off the computers he was given to ‘fix’. He was then using these to keep on making EFT withdrawals from their accounts. From the detritus of his two previous businesses, he was doing the same: simply carrying on the withdrawals to infinity. Behind him, in a coastal town further down the coast, he had cheated a café owner, bad-debted two landlords, and been involved in a variety of affrays. Towards the end of his time in our village, he assaulted the next door shopkeeper (a bloke half his size) and pushed him through the plate glass window of the shop. The police called that a ‘knock for knock’ incident, and refused to prosecute.
During his brief but lucrative career, chummy was reported to the VAT, the Trading Standards Office, Devon Council, the local Council, the police, his shop landlords, and the local MP. Multiply signed letters were sent to the Chief Constable. Nobody did anything. It was nothing to do with any of them apparently, yet it was somehow somebody else’s job. So he just carried on until one of his creditors began to make reference to rearranging his knee/scrotum configuration…and then, of course – once threatened – he skipped town. The landlords who had refused to take responsibility lost all their rent, which was a fitting reward for their social input on the matter.
But it wasn’t the case itself that got me blogging regularly. It was where it all led: the rackets, the lack of accountability, the strong evidence of corruption within the Devon & Cornwall Constabulary, the cynical ignorance feigned by local MP Hugo Swire, whistle-blowers within the police, a scam the D&CP clearly had going in Plymouth, visits to Plymouth to investigate, the link between social services and child molestation supply routes, the obvious corruption of a local MP, the bizarre sentencing of paedophiles by a local judge, the police neglecting their duties to work with social services, social services bribing the neighbours to give evidence against an allegedly dysfunctional family, and the mysterious connection between a local firm of expansionist lawyers, and virtually everyone holding the levers of power in Plymouth.
In the years since this eye-opener came and slapped my consciousness very hard, I’ve spent time now and then wondering when all of it became commonplace in the United Kingdom. And on balance, my potted socio-cultural history looks something like this.
During the War, and for some years afterwards, it was hard to source stuff. Everything was rationed, and it took a long time for the economy to start supplying demand as opposed to uniforms and weapons. The criminal classes took up the slack by creating the so-called Black Market. By around 1952, almost everyone in ‘normal’ life had bought something from a ‘spiv’ on the Black. The process represented a massive expansion of contact between good citizens and crooks. I had uncles and aunts (and my Dad) who had bought everything from bananas via nylons to petrol and cheese off spivs. My Dad’s business partner bought all the Champagne for his daughter’s wedding off a spiv. The local butcher secretly supplied spivs.
This had two effects. First, it got ‘law-abiding’ citizens used to the idea of fraternising with criminals. And second, it made all of them accessories to crime. It was a crime being committed by everyone, everywhere, seven days a week. It was so widespread – and this is key – that the cops turned a blind eye to it.
After the war until 1951, a pioneering Labour Government dramatically increased social welfare: healthcare became completely free, council houses were built by the million, and the Old Age State Pension was introduced. All around the beneficiaries of this largesse were blokes who (by one dodgy spiv racket or another) made it obvious to working class people that it wasn’t that hard to get an easy life.
More specifically, the more they dealt with officialdom, the more council house dwellers and shirkers began to realise that official folk were naïve softies of quite astonishing incompetence. The TUC encouraged this idea, using its mass strength in numbers to get their members higher and higher wages for doing less and less work. Time and Motion at work, child benefits at home, Union support for your sick-note, jobs for the boys in the Council, and a toddle down to the Labour Exchange once a week to say you’d tried to get a job and couldn’t. The dole cheque soon followed, and all was well.
By the mid 1960s, everyone knew someone fiddling everything from sick leave to Council work that simply hadn’t been done. Suppliers and clients of the State quickly realised that, within such a vast system (and with almost zero commercial experience among the people running it) it was possible to cheat: bump up the profit margins, insist on five workers for a job that only required three, claim unemployment benefit when there were plenty of jobs…..until a frightening proportion of the population had become used to the idea of dishonesty. With every year, such actions were increasingly normalised. Everyone from the pharmcos to the advertising business and the TUC saw government supply as a ‘cushy number’. Less and less did they see it as defrauding the State.
The late Sixties and early Seventies were years in which a casual attitude to licentious sex was widespread among the intelligentsia, and became the subject of endless plays, newspaper articles, TV documentaries and musicals. It was hip to shag around, but unlike their upmarket ‘examples’, the working class didn’t have friendly access to abortion, and didn’t bother with the Pill. They didn’t need to: not only would child benefit reward their lack of caution, it would thrust them to the head of the Council House queue as well.
The reaction of the various Labour administrations after 1964 was to ignore the obvious abuse of the systems (reliant on TUC support, they had to) and consequent ballooning costs of welfare. Instead, the Party chose to put up taxes, and abolish the one thing that had emerged as the outstanding success of the 1950s: selection to free Grammar Schools. Gradually – over three decades – as excellence was removed from the educational process in favour of ‘equality’, standards fell: a sufficiency would do. Stick to the syllabus, don’t read round the subject it’s a waste of your time, let’s just hit the targets and move on.
The media dealt with this disaster by reducing the reading age required and – further downmarket – encouraging the idea that almost everything could be reduced to Jack-the-Lad humour, bigoted cruelty and large-breasted girls. The dumbing-down of Britain was well under way.
By 1976, employee tax-rates were so high in Britain, the middle and otherwise professional classes became complicit in a near-universal form of tax evasion: the expense account. Accomplices to this crime included the Revenue itself (which happily took corporate tax monies up front in return for the blind eye), employers (who tempted talented executives to the ranks with huge allowances on cars, travel costs, suits, entertaining bills and even holidays) and of course the employees themselves.
At this point, the tax accountancy sector suddenly took off. Spawned by destructive levels of taxation, chaps emerged with Schemes. All of them involved loopholes in the tax system, and all were propagated with entirely criminal intent to pretend something totally contrived was actually normal practice. By this method were bonuses paid in pork futures, invested in small businesses, and rebranded as exports or capital gains. Once again, everyoneturned a blind eye.
It was this declining manufacturing output/rising wage cost/lousy productivity/high tax/systemic fiddling culture that presented Margaret Thatcher with a landslide victory in the 1979 General Election. She offered to slash the civil service growth – alongside a return to more competitive standards, lower taxes, hard honest work, an end to trade union militancy, and putting Britain back up there in the Big League. To understand why she failed to achieve all but one of these aims requires me to summarise briefly again how we got into the mess she inherited after that first victory.
My thesis is a fairly simple one. From a combination of increasingly accepted criminality after the War, generous welfare services that could be abused, civil service naivety, filtered-down permissive morals, a media set that exacerbated the trend by complying with it, and the State blaming its failures on the taxpayer, several key features of traditional British life were gradually eroded.
These included working class aspiration, the desire for excellence, straight dealing with officialdom, clients and customers, obedience to the law, familially strong social units, evasion of duty among the middle class, steeply declining ethical standards in the professions, and a disastrous decline in the emerging generation’s perceptions of knowledge for its own sake, theories of civics, questioning certainties, and maintaining an interest in current affairs.
Mrs Thatcher really had only two desires, and in their own way they were entirely laudable: to put the TUC back in its box, and free everyone in business up to expand quickly, while keeping more of their own money.
The problems with her aspirations were twofold. First, she completely underrated how profound was the rot in social standards and professional ethics. And second, her ambitions were far too narrow. She promised to cut down the State, but soon grasped the all-conquering blackmail of Whitehall. By the time she was ousted, the Iron Lady had been given the Uri Geller treatment by the mandarins: there were more of them in place – at far higher salaries – than when she arrived.
She promised to break the grasp Unions had over business, and she succeeded. But she also promised to regenerate the wastelands she produced as a result of this process. In fact, she ignored them…and as a result, standards of community behaviour in those places sank lower still. Further, in politicising the police against the likes of Arthur Scargill, she made it clear to police leaders that an easy life could be had by signing up to whatever political mood might be in power. As a result of this, today we have police who are leaders in diversity and tough on hate crime, but not remotely interested in the sort of chummies I described at the outset of his essay.
But it was in her underestimation of sociopathy’s rise to acceptance that Margaret Thatcher made her gravest errors. A woman with a pronounced weakness for scoundrels (she married one and had another for a son) she was forever soft on male Cabinet colleagues of very dubious morals. The Middle Britain she imagined had all but disappeared. Her image of the banker was frozen in time, similarly that of the accountant and the auditor. She heaped praise upon Rupert Murdoch as a Union-smashing buccaneer – omitting to notice that he was an incorrigible liar and dedicated to turning Britain into a tabloid culture of cruelty and simplistic bigotry. And she spoke in bromides about disadvantaged people of whom she had no experience….and far worse, little or no grasp of how feckless and lacking in stoicism a large minority of them already were.
As a result of this, Thatcherism (if there ever really was such a thing, which I doubt) acted as a catalyst to the interconnection of a spectrum from poor manufacturing performance, lower-class indiscipline and declining community values to professional spivvery and borderline criminality.
Thus did the City’s Big Bang unleash an army of barrow-boy credit salesmen onto an unsuspecting, dumbed-down public. It hugely increased the tax take, but made the economy as a whole both obscenely lopsided, and dependent on ‘services’ which turned out (and are still being turned out) to operate as bits of smoke-and-mirrors paper that earn huge bonuses – but never expand the real economy. Above all, it recognised and celebrated ludicrous levels of debt.
And thus did first the inner cities erupt, and then the Poll Tax riots heave her from office.
While it has to be accepted that, by this time, Mrs Thatcher was starting to give the impression that she might be a little tonto, the irony is that even her departure taught all the wrong people another false lesson: that by burning down your own environment and turning Trafalgar Square into an anarchic battlefield of flying helmets and Hard Left banners, the truculent citizen could eject a Prime Minister.
John Major came in as the taciturn self-made chap who liked cricket, spoke quietly, said all things would happen in due course….and insisted that Britain needed to return to family values. He was, in this sense, the vanguard of a movement that dominated under New Labour – “if I say it, then it’s happening” – but by then things had gone too far in terms of sexual mores and public-life ethics. Major himself began an affair with Edwina Currie, and by the end of his term, almost every male in the Cabinet had been caught in the wrong nest at some point.
By now, the Leader of the Opposition was himself a product of the cultural change this essay has tried to summarise. A fluffy guitarist who didn’t even join the Labour Party at Oxford (he was a Liberal) Tony Blair had thought about rock management as an alternative to the Law. But then he met his wife and everything changed. Not in any sense himself a Socialist, Blair couldn’t wait to relaunch Labour as ‘New Labour’ – about as puerile a rebranding as one might imagine possible. Standards of advice had fallen so far however that he chose the late Phil Gould (one O-level in woodwork) to ‘come up’ with this completely inappropriate and irrelevant brand name.
It was obvious from Day One that Blair was a phoney. But he had, if nothing else, grasped the scale of British professional depravity and electoral ignorance very well indeed. He lied on television, he lied in Parliament, he physically attacked the Attorney General, he blackmailed the foreign office, he invented budgets, and he bent statistics. His end was fitting in that he was ousted by an as yet unclear threat of exposure by Chancellor Gordon Brown, and then went on to profit without shame from his years of wasted government.
Gordon Brown exceeded Blair’s talent in but one area: mendacity. He lied about his depression, his eyesight, Iraq War budgets, his University exploits, his desire for an early election and almost anything else. He seemed the very perfection of Homo brittanicus: a supremely intelligent sociopath with absolutely no common sense.
But of course, we didn’t reckon with David Cameron. One day he too will be ousted, and replaced by someone in a Cabinet crammed with people who have made money from nefarious activities – and lied about how they did it to the electorate. I’m talking here about the likes of Grant Shapps, Michael Fallon, and Jeremy Hunt. And if you look at the process of post-War degradation I describe, the members of the Coalition Cabinet fit a pen-picture of its outcome perfectly: lightweight, dissembling, ruthless spivs who care nothing beyond their power and unelected Might. For this reason do they both admire and fear the Barclay Brothers, Rupert Murdoch, Lord Ashcroft and others of similar ilk.
But they have no fear at all of the Law, the police, the electorate they serve, Committees of Enquiry, or the Opposition. Their fathers bought watches off Flash ‘arry in 1951, their relatives founded country manors based on the Black Market, and nothing in either their educational background or professional lives has disabused them of the idea that there might be a flaw in “Screw society – I want it now”.
Across the House of Commons floor, the Labour leader courted Murdoch until he got into trouble – and then jumped on his head with glee. He was elected leader under highly dubious electoral circumstances. His Deputy and Shadow Chancellor served for a spell as Minister for Families, and did little more than tweet 24/7. When I pointed out to him via daily tweets what an odd modus operandum this was, he got me banned from Twitter. He not only covered up but also profited from the outrageous sell-out of Cooperative Bank’s customers. And his intellect? What intellect?
As for the government’s tax take – well, once you start tax-fiddling, lower taxes don’t stop it: by then, the tax accountants are running things. It becomes multinational avoidance and evasion on a grand scale….with an HMRC so complicit in the theft, its retirees train the poachers in their second career. The blind eye becomes both eyes shut. And both eyes shut means either you don’t want to see, or you’re asleep. In that state – if education has rendered you ignorant and uninterested – denialism becomes easier and easier.
And that’s what we have today: no real rule of Law, lying legislators, no imagination applied to problems by Ministerial lightweights, and an almost complete flight from reality or political comprehension among the electorate.
What you have, in fact, is Plato’s perfect soil in which to grown malign dictatorship.
So anyway, that’s why I got into blogging, and that’s how I think things got as bad as they are today. One can see a similar syndrome, by the way, in Brussels, Washington, in France, in Greece, Italy and Cyprus.
But talking of Cyprus, I return in conclusion to Chummy. Convinced that it was a crook’s haven (and harassed increasingly by violent creditors) he skipped the country and went to Cyprus. He put all his ill-gotten gains into Laika Bank. And lost 80% of it.
A nice twist, but not really an inspiring one. For we must remember that this small-time lowlife was not brought to book by the forces of Law & Order: his demise came from the joint efforts of those threatening broken legs in England, and the ECB’s gangsters in Frankfurt.
Which kind of says it all, really.