Two previous owners, barely used…

When I lived in London I visited the Crown Jewels, and was struck by how perfectly they encapsulated Britain’s morbid fascination with its past riches. Stored in a secure room in the Tower of London[1], these goodies are an enormously tasteless display of confiscated bling, their centrepiece the Koh-i-Noor diamond, which was captured during Britain’s colonial era in Afghanistan. They’re clearly impressive, in a completely gaudy and tasteless way, and the general idea I think is that you’re impressed by how completely awesome Britain was during the empire. They are also clearly worth huge amounts – just the gold on the sceptres and other bits and bobs must be worth a near fortune, but the diamonds are something else again. The koh-i-noor is a 106 carat diamond, and is just one part of Queen Elizabeth’s crown. The whole lot must be worth a small fortune. So it’s amusing when one reaches the end of the Crown Jewels exhibition and encounters, right by the exit, a donation box with a little sign saying “please give generously to help maintain this exhibition.”

Here’s an idea. Why don’t you sell off a bit of the bling, and use it to maintain the rest? There’s a depression on, you know. I wonder how many Indian or Pakistani tourists have got to the end of that exhibition and coughed up a pound? How many have wanted to spit into the box?

This shabby juxtaposition was brought to my attention again this week, not by the diamond jubilee itself, but by the behavior of a company that had been contracted to provide crowd security at the event. This company had been contracted to provide marshalls for the London Bridge area during the flotilla, and as part of its contingent of marshalls it bussed in 80 unemployed people and apprentices to work unpaid for the two days. These people were then required to sleep under London Bridge, and had no access to toilets for the duration. Women had to change in the street. Apparently they were completing the final requirements for accreditation to work at the olympic site, so they worked for nothing. They also weren’t offered accommodation until after the event, when after a 12 hour shift in the teeming rain they were bussed to a swampy campsite. The company’s response to these accusations is not to deny them, but to blame someone else:

The London Bridge incident should never have happened but was to some extent outside our control, the coach drivers insisted on leaving. For this we sincerely apologise, on investigation this morning the majority of the team were happy, fed and looked after as best possible under the circumstances.

Brilliant. Their original plan was to have their unpaid, voluntary staff sleep in buses after an 8 hour bus trip. This company are being paid by the government to provide marshalling services at the most important political event in Britain for a generation, they’ll happily accept free labour, but they can’t be bothered even securing a dormitory for the night. Anyway, it was all the bus driver’s fault.

So, British society can afford a jubilee covering four days and including a rock concert featuring world famous names, a flotilla of a thousand boats, and a series of public holidays that is expected to dent the economy’s growth, but they can’t afford to pay for a dormitory for 80 unemployed people and apprentices who worked for free in the rain to stop the crowds from getting out of hand. I guess there’s a depression on, so we have to forgo some luxuries. Also, could you put a pound in this collection box to help maintain this exhibition of bling? It would be slightly cheaper if we returned this diamond to India, but we have a colonial heritage to respect, so we need your money…

The reality, of course, is that Britain has slid down the wealth rankings over the period of the Queen’s “reign” and no longer has any chance of returning to those prior glories. This article in the Guardian describes the way in which Britain’s economy has declined during the Queen’s reign, from third in the world to 8th. And what countries overtook her in the past 60 years? India, China, Japan, Germany and Brazil. The article describes the fascinating series of policy approaches successive British governments have taken to overcome Britain’s decline, encompassing industrial policy and finance policy to austerity. None of them have worked, and I think this is because of what the article (of course) fails to mention: the collapse of Britain’s colonies. By 1953 (when Elizabeth took the throne) Britain had lost most of her major colonies and was investing increasing amounts of money and effort in retaining the remainder. The loss of those colonies meant that British manufacturing was suddenly forced to compete on world markets where previously it had a captive market place, and at the same time Britain lost access to cheap resources. Is it any wonder that the countries that have overtaken Britain in the succeeding 60 years are countries with no colonies? Britain has wasted, in turn, her industrial base and her resources (coal and North sea oil), and finally turned to gambling as a last desperate attempt to recoup some money in the last 10 years. The result – tragically, for those 80 people sleeping under London Bridge in the rain – was the recent economic collapse.

My theory is that Britain – or more specifically, the British ruling class that fields politicians to rule the country – has a huge blind spot when it comes to understanding colonialism and inequality[2]. Unable to comprehend the true economic and social forces acting on British society, its politicians desperately struggled to find industrial, social, or economic policies that would keep Britain afloat. But there was no solution to Britain’s problems: Britain was wealthy through robbery, and when the larceny stopped they weren’t going to be able to maintain their lifestyle. George Monbiot describes how Britain bought off its working classes with the profits of colonial enterprise while other nations fought against revolution and strife, and the economic miracle Britain was able to work on the back of cheap colonial labour. But with the collapse of the colonies, this welfarist approach to social pacification was going to have to change – to a real economy capable of trading against Germany and Japan. The only solution to buying off your workers is reducing inequality. Did the ruling classes of Britain, unable to accept that in the 1950s,  choose instead to embark on a path of culturally and economically unsustainable welfarism?

This question of what happened to Britain over the last 60 years is fascinating. What do Germany and Japan have that Britain doesn’t? Japan has no resources to speak of, but twice the population – is that all? Is it Japan’s industrial policies (of picking winners, and complex – largely corrupt – relationships between companies, banks and government)? Its relative lack of inequality, which enables it to mobilize its whole society for economic gains, rather than just the top 20%? Is it something cultural? What about Germany, also relatively lacking in resources but similar to Japan in its social welfare and industrial systems? It can’t be ordo-liberalism that is the answer though, because India, China and Brazil don’t have anything like that. And the eight countries immediately below Britain couldn’t be more diverse in population size and economic systems … so what is it that got Japan, China, Brazil, India and Germany above Britain over the past 60 years, when Britain had such an excellent starting position? Even if we discount China and India on purely population grounds (they had to catch up eventually!) then immediately below Britain are France and Italy, both former colonialists as well. What did they do differently as their colonies fell apart, to maintain their positions relative to Britain? Is Britain a model of how to mismanage a decolonization era?

And what can Britain do from now? I get the impression austerity isn’t going to work (not that it will matter – whether it works or not will be a moot point once Cameron is voted out), and the finance/home construction nexus isn’t going to work – in fact the whole idea of supporting domestic demand through housing bubbles is not going to get back off the ground. With North sea oil gone and the manufacturing base hollowed out, what is Britain going to do? The only answer I can think of is to privatize its crown jewels, and start paying the bottom 20% a living wage. After that … where to for Britain?

fn1: which is itself so tacky that visitors to London sometimes mistake it for a fake tower. Once a friend came to meet me at Blackfriars and, lost in the rain, called me to get help. I asked her where she was and she replied, “I’m standing on a hillside, looking down at this awesomely tacky castle that has to be a rip-off of something famous.”

fn2: Incidentally, I don’t believe the linked article’s statistics about inequality. This is because the article focuses on the distribution of income only, which is irrelevant. The important issues in assessing inequality are its functional effects – in health, education and life satisfaction – and I find it really hard to believe that inequality in these aspects is greater now than 60 years ago.