This article is taken from The London Economic’s bi-weekly email, Elevenses.
At last count, 1.74 million people in the UK were unemployed. That’s no great surprise; we are a year into a pandemic after all. Yet nearly half of Brits believe that someone who lost their job in the coronavirus crisis did so not because of the virus or efforts to contain it, but because their individual performance at work was not up to scratch.
Of more than 2,000 people polled in a King’s College London survey, just 31 per cent said workers made unemployed during the pandemic had been unlucky – proving, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, that the British public “sets great store by individual responsibility”. Margaret Thatcher said in 1981 that “economics are the method; the object is to change the heart and soul.” Her economic policies were not merely aimed at metrics like prosperity or productivity. They were designed to alter Britain’s character – to hardwire ‘hard work’ and ‘frugality’ into the nation’s DNA and create, in her words, “the personal society”.
More than two decades later Gideon Rachman – the Financial Times commentator – argued that the Thatcherite “link between virtuous effort and just reward” had been “destroyed by the spectacle of bankers driving their institutions into bankruptcy while being rewarded with million-pound bonuses and munificent pensions.” That now feels like wishful thinking. You’d have thought if anything could dent what King’s calls the “meritocratic and individualistic tendencies” of the British people it would be the pandemic. Instead, the survey suggests “Britons are more likely to think that job losses caused by the crisis are the result of personal failure than chance.”
It’s easy to see where blowing the “individual responsibility” bugle can lead. One-in-eight surveyed said Black people are more likely to be out of work or paid less because they “lack motivation or willpower”; four per cent said inequality existed because Black people have “less in-born ability to learn”. In other words it’s not the state’s job to help close the inequality gap between white people and BAME groups – they should pull their socks up and do it themselves.
The King’s report concluded that Brits care most about addressing geographical disparities, indicating support for Boris Johnson’s long-trailed “levelling up” agenda which, researchers said, “has the potential to bring people together”. Really? The idea that moving a chunk of Whitehall to Manchester will spark a sudden outbreak of altruism seems far-fetched. It might be better to look local. Whereas the state’s response to the pandemic in the early stages of the crisis was often lacking, the public’s Covid-19 was cause for optimism. As think-tank New Local has pointed out, thousands of spontaneous Mutual Aid groups popped up across the country – supplying the vulnerable with food and medicine, working to alleviate loneliness and marshalling community resources.
That spirit of collectivism – which Thatcher admitted “irritated” her – should be harnessed. New Local has called for a ‘Community Power Act‘ to give people more power over their places and services, codifying a community’s right to influence how public services and spaces are run. Not only could it improve societal cohesion – especially in places experiencing demographic change – but it could offer a compelling template for tackling transnational issues like climate change. And it might finally go some way towards toppling Thatcherism from its moral high ground.
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