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Thursday, 17 November 2011

The First Million

UK government figures released yesterday report the number of unemployed young people in the country to be in excess of one million. Labour politicians have made ludicrous attempts to attach the blame for this to the present government. Anyone who has followed this blog knows that the responsibility lies with the entire 'political class' and over forty years or even longer. The story is not just the lack of jobs: the greater crisis centres on the absence of productive jobs in agriculture, industry, education and healthcare; and it applies to all age groups and  it is a part of the contemporary paradox that a significant and growing proportion of the people who carry on working after reaching the age of 65 are in productive activities.Industrial skills, in particular, are held by a smaller proportion of the people in each successive generation.

Between 1945 and 1980 a slow process of deindustrialisation happened spontaneously, despite half-hearted government policy in favour of expanding material exports. Policy was dominated by Keynesian ideas that the system must be fine-tuned to ensure that people were 'fully employed'. In practice this worked out as a series of inflationary 'stimuli' interspersed with periods of raised interest rates and restricted credit. Industrial investments take place over several years between design and the operation of new plant: every time that market conditions and the costs of investment were arbitrarily worsened by the government at the time when investment decisions had to be taken, companies were likely to cut their losses on the design of plant and just shelve the project. This happened again and again. Then from 1980 the Thatcher government had a deliberate policy to rid the country of 'smokestack industry' by removing all protective measures that had been maintained even during the supposed free trade era of the nineteenth century and declining to subsidise 'failing firms' or under-funded start-ups. What Thatcher began, Blair and Brown enthusiastically followed.

There was also a cross-party consensus that state schools should be funded to adopt educational theories that  stressed that 'students' experiences' should take overwhelming preference over orderly instruction. Ignoring the axiom "those who can, do; those who can't do, teach; those who can't teach train teachers'. 'Educationalists' in the latter category developed the theories that supported the comprehensivisation of schools on the cheap. The order and discipline of the Grammar Schools were ditched, together with the emphasis on practical technology - which requires workshop health-and-safety discipline - that had characterised technical schools and the good secondary-moderns. Margaret Thatcher as the education minister in the Heath government [1970-4] was an enthusiastic comprehensiviser and she never showed any subsequent awareness of the ruin that she had wrought. Thus there has been a multi-decade dumbing-down of education precisely where it hurts most: both in intellectual and industrial disciplines. This progressed step-by-step with deindustrialisation and the increase of manufactured imports.

With both industry and education lain waste, high unemployment among young adults is an inevitable consequence: and it is unsurprising that those employers who still have jobs available to fill prefer people from countries where the educational system has been less undermined. Within the UK there is an increasingly conspicuous differential in employability between products of state and private schools.  Parents who can afford to exercise choice in their children's education buy schooling that is anathema to the theorists: schools with order and discipline, pupils sitting in rows for class, plenty of sport and a concentration on 'hard' subjects. What a shock! How dreadful, so to privilege some children over others.

This is very much a British story; no other European country has so recklessly undermined its educational system [though some have gone quite a long way in that direction]; and no other country has so persistently suppressed industry. In the USA there are great doubts about the state of the educational system, and youth unemployment is close to the British level [with very much higher peaks among some ethnic groups in some states] but industrial development has continued across the board, and especially in the higher technologies, despite the collapse of some sectors of low-value-added manufacturing. Rebuilding the US economy can be accomplished within five years: the ruin of the British economy will take at least three times as long to replace.

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