Issue 237 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published January 2000 Copyright © Socialist Review

The future

PRESENT TENSE, FUTURE PERFECT?

We asked a number of contributors to look at prospects for social and cultural change in the new century. Here are some of their ideas

'The battle against inequality and unfair treatment will have to be fought again' Dan Atkinson and Larry Elliott: inequality

Ford workers lobbying management over pay

A particularly vicious but nonetheless highly amusing game used to be played in the days before railway privatisation, when the longest single journey on BR (Penzance to Edinburgh) lasted 14 hours. Player One would list the seven people with whom he would least like to share his compartment on that voyage (second class compartments sat eight in total). Player Two would then put forward candidates he believed equally gruesome. Player One had a choice--either reject the new no-nos, or exchange some or all of his original choices for some or all of Player Two's selection.

In the same spirit, here's a useful antidote, available to anyone aged between 35 and 45, pummelled and nauseated by corporate propaganda about 'the pace of change' and the 'explosive' developments in technology. Wind back a couple of decades and assume you are presented with a choice. Either surrender all the advances in consumer technology, or trade off real items from the middle Britain standard of living your parents either enjoyed or aspired to in return for some of the gizmos devised since then.

Unless one is a gear freak of the first order this little mental exercise puts some perspective on the tawdry 'Aladdin's Cave' on offer at the turn of the century. Given that colour television, stereo sound, video recorders (albeit expensive) and mobile phones (ditto) were all available 25 years back, it's hard to identify a single consumer 'breakthrough' since then for which the average person would willingly sacrifice any of the comforts of the 1970s homestead. To which the obvious objection is that this exercise is fundamentally dishonest, because no such sacrifice is called for. Quite right, but this has nothing to do with the general rise in living standards experienced in the 30 years after the war, and everything to do with the fact that technical developments in the consumer field are nowadays effectively given away. In an era of general downward pressure on most people's incomes they have to be. Nobody would pay for them.

Since the publication of The Age of Insecurity early last year, we have taken a fair bit of stick for our alleged lack of interest in the (again alleged) enormously significant technological changes that are supposedly transforming all our lives. The trouble is that behind all the flim-flam about the internet and digital television, we can't help noticing that the big battles at this century's end appear to be about rather earthier matters.

Food, for example. The giant retail chains are (belatedly) being investigated for simultaneously paying derisory prices to Britain's farmers--triggering the biggest crisis in agriculture since the Depression--and charging unjustifiably high prices to consumers. Then there's land and shelter. It seems an unstoppable migration is under way from northern to southern Britain, a consequence of the destruction of regional policy. House builders, salivating with ill-disguised greed, have demanded to be allowed to build more than 5 million homes in the south. In East Sussex there are warnings of civil disorder as local people seek to protect their communities.

And, as always, there's money--a commodity one may have thought, from some of the stranger punditry about our new technological era, to be practically redundant. At a conference in Birmingham last November, Chancellor Gordon Brown, in one short speech, managed a) to insist that workers do not 'throw away' Britain's economic recovery with an irresponsible wages spree, and b) announce huge tax breaks for executives holding shares in their own companies.

On the same theme we are indebted to David Thomas in the Saturday magazine of the Daily Telegraph (hardly an oracle of radicalism) on 27 November 1999 for unearthing the sobering fact that in 1980 a skilled worker at Ford earned an average £5,700, while the chairman of Barclays Bank took home £60,000. That gap then would have been touted as evidence of an 'us and them' society. Today a skilled Ford worker earns £17,185 while the chairman of Barclays earns £523,000. The differential has yawned from ten times to about 30 times.

Which brings us rather neatly back to where we started in the sense that-- before we can go forward-- it seems all the battles of the 1970s are going to have to be fought all over again: the battle against the food and drink combines with their processed, mutated, expensive products; against the bulldozer and the property tycoons; against inequality and unfair treatment.

It could be a long haul, so ensure you're making the journey with people you like.

Lindsey German: the family

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