Britain is Now a(n) (Under)Developing Country

Aditya Chakrabortty writes in the Guardian that Britain is now a developing country.

He says some Brits may have iPads and broadband – but there are also oversubscribed foodbanks in Britain. He says Britain’s economy is no longer zooming along unchallenged in the fast lane, but is a clapped-out motor.

Chakrabortty writes that “elite economic debate” (or what passes for it in Britain) boils down to this: a man in a tie stands at a dispatch box and reads out some numbers for the years ahead, along with a few micro-measures he’ll take to improve those projections. His opposite number scoffs at the forecasts and promises his tweaks would be far superior. For a few hours, perhaps even a couple of days, afterwards, commentators discuss What It All Means. He says that last Thursday’s autumn statement from George Osborne was merely the latest enactment of this twice-yearly ritual, which most have already forgotten.

Mr. Chakrabortth calls on readers to compare Osborne’s dumb forecasts and fossicking with Britain’s fundamental problems, which are not going away any time soon, whatever the bogus “growth” numbers. You should start with last week’s Pisa educational yardsticks, which show British teenagers trailing their Vietnamese counterparts at science, and behind the Macanese at maths. Or you should look at this year’s World Economic Forum (WEF) competitiveness survey of 148 countries, which ranks British pot-holed roads below Chile’s, and Britain’s ground-transport system as being worse than that of Barbados.

He goes on as follows:

Whether Blair or Brown or Cameron, successive prime ministers and their chancellors pretend that progress is largely a matter of trims and tweaks – of capping business rates and funding the A14 to Felixstowe. Yet those Treasury supplementary tables and fan charts are no match for the mass of inconvenient facts provided by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the WEF or simply by going for a wander. Sift through the evidence and a different picture emerges: Britain’s economy is no longer zooming along unchallenged in the fast lane, but an increasingly clapped-out motor regularly overtaken by Asian Tigers such as South Korea and Taiwan.

Gender equality? The WEF ranks us behind Nicaragua and Lesotho. Investment by business? The Economist thinks we are struggling to keep up with Mali.

Let me put it more broadly, Britain is a rich country accruing many of the stereotypical bad habits of a developing country.

I began thinking about this last week, while reporting on graphene, the wonder material discovered by Manchester scientists and held up by cabinet ministers as part of our new high-tech future. Graphene is also the point at which Treasury dreaminess is harshly interrupted by the reality of our national de-development.

 Briefly, the story goes like this: Osborne funnelled a few tens of millions into research on the substance. It’s the kind of public-sector kickstart that might work in a manufacturing economy such as Germany – but which in Britain, with its hollowed-out industry and busted supply chains, has proved the equivalent of pouring money down a hole. One university physicist described how this was part of a familiar pattern of generating innovations for the rest of the world to capitalise on, then sighed: “One day, we’ll stop thinking of ourselves as a major economic power, and realise we’re more like South Korea in the early 60s.” South Korea, by way of comparison, has already put in over 20 times as many graphene patents as the country that discovered it.

How can any nation that came up with the BBC and the NHS be considered in the same breath as India or China? Let me refer you to one of the first lines of The Great Indian Novel by Shashi Tharoor, in which a wise old man warns International Monetary Fund officials and foreign dignatories: “India is not, as people keep calling it, an underdeveloped country, but rather, in the context of its history and cultural heritage, a highly developed one in an advanced state of decay.”

He goes on to say that we should stop thinking of development as a process that only goes in one direction, or which affects a nation’s people equally, and it becomes much easier to see how Britain is going backwards.

He also says there is a comparison to be made between banana republics and the nothing monarchy of Britain. Banana republics at least have bananas and their future is therefore assured, quite unlike the nothing monarchy of Britain which has nothing because it is good at nothing in particular and has no bananas, i.e. resources (apart from pigs’ sperm — more about it later in the article, or maybe breeding record numbers of pedophiles or the world’s most prolific serial murderers; but the latter two can hardly be leveraged to give Britain an economic advantage even in the this day and age of freedumb and democrazy). Banana republics have cash too: it just ends up in the hands of a very few people – ask the bank managers of Switzerland or the hotel concierges of Paris. And in this one aspect they are very similar — in Britain, the craven and subdued general populace have also become used to having their depleting resources skimmed off by a small cadre of the international elite, who often don’t feel obliged to leave much behind for British tax officials. An Africa specialist could look at the City and recognize in it a 21st-century version of a resource curse: something generating oodles of money for a tiny group of people, often foreign, yet whose demands distort the rest of the economy. Sure, Britain has iPads and broadband – but it also has oversubscribed foodbanks. And the concept of the working poor that has dominated political debate since the crash is also something straight out of development textbooks.

And he concludes:

Nobel laureate Amartya Sen defined development as “the removal of various types of unfreedoms that leave people with little choice and little opportunity of exercising their reasoned agency”. Yet when it comes to social mobility, Britain now has the worst record of all advanced countries – and will soon be overtaken by the newly rich countries of east Asia.

 And it’s when wealth is concentrated in too few hands that the forces of law and order get used as a militia for the elite – and peaceful dissent gets stamped upon. That’s why police are now a presence on our business-friendly university campuses; it also explains why Theresa May had the front to try to deport Trenton Oldfield for disrupting a student rowing competition (sorry, the Boat Race).

This isn’t a sub-Rhodesian moan about Britain going to the dogs. But as my colleague Larry Elliott said in his most recent book, Going South, the sooner we puncture our own complacency at having created a rich economy for the few, and think of ourselves as in dire need of a proper economic development plan, the better.

 Otherwise, we’re well set to corner the world market in pig semen. The United Kingdom of spoink.

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