Rebuilding ‘Broken Britain’: A Question of Priorities

Posted on February 23, 2011

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Lord Tebbit

It seems only reasonable that, when there is no paid work to be had in one area, people should seek employment elsewhere. Recently, when asked whether the unemployed of Merthyr Tydfil should look elsewhere for work, Lord Tebbit (of ‘on yer bike’ fame) replied: ‘Yes, people do have to get up and go… People do it in Poland, people do it in Hungary, people do it in Lithuania. Why are they more willing to do it than we are?’.

Allowance is rarely made, however, for the role Government policy can play in creating unemployment. Two examples from Cornwall will serve to illustrate this. Traditionally, the economy revolved around agriculture, fishing, and tin mining. In their heyday, the Cornish mines employed 50,000 men and produced much of the world’s tin, but by the end of the nineteenth century fluctuating tin prices had sent mining into terminal decline and had driven many miners overseas. The last mine shut up only in 1998. Sad as the decline of a once-great industry may be, there is little Government could have done to prevent it in the long run. It is a classic example of market forces at work.

The attribution, however, of all the machinations of the national economy to such ‘market forces’ is unwarranted, as may be seen in the case of the now declining fishing industry. A decision to sign up to the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) sounded the death knell for fishing in Cornwall and throughout the UK. It has led to 60% of the UK’s whitefish fleet being scrapped despite the CFP’s stated aim of protecting fish stocks and helping the industry flourish. That they now have a legal right to fish in Cypriot waters is of precious little consolation to family-owners of trawlers in the UK who do not have the resources to work outside British waters. As a Vice-President of the ruling party in the European Parliament put it in 2008: ‘Fifty years of micro-management from the ivory towers of Brussels has led to shattered fish stocks and broken livelihoods’. Reports of fishermen having to dump 80% of their catch back into the sea because they have exceeded EU quotas are not unheard of.

Whilst the unemployed do need to make serious efforts to find work, a greater effort could also be made to examine the effects of political decisions on levels of employment. The common good is best served not when the country as a whole has a high GDP per capita generated by the admittedly hard work of a wafer-thin slice of the population which then reaps most of the benefits, but when each individual who can work has the opportunity to do so and to make a contribution to the community. The ‘common good’ and the ‘national interest’ are not the same thing. Much is made of a so-called ‘dependency culture’ said to be eviscerating the white working-class, but how much of this culture was created by governments that happily allowed the unemployed to languish on benefits as long as revenue from the burgeoning financial sector continued to cover the welfare bill?

Derelict mine workings in West Cornwall

Economic migration is nothing new. Upheaval associated with the sharp decline in profitability of tin mining in the nineteenth century led to mass dispersal as the Cornish took their mining expertise to California, Brazil, Mexico, South Africa, and most notably Australia which has since had two federal Prime Ministers and fourteen state Premiers of Cornish extraction. But to appreciate why they left their homeland to find work, and why, as Tebbit points out, many Polish and Lithuanians do the same today, we must appreciate that people work in the first place to provide a safe home, a decent education, and a secure future for their families. There is an overriding question of priorities here. When he first formed the current Government, the Prime Minister underlined that two ‘deep and pressing problems’ needed to be tackled, namely economic meltdown and family breakdown. The two are related, but which should we prioritise? Many think that our first responsibility is to ‘get our economy moving again’. Economists speak of offering ‘incentives’ to get people back to work, but the biggest incentive to go out and work is not the threat of having your benefits reduced, but the existence of a stable and loving family who look to you to provide for them. The Cornish who set out for foreign lands – most of them never to return – received the moral impetus to do so from their love of, and sense of duty towards, their families. Many Eastern Europeans who come to Britain to find work today do so in order to send money back to their families. In both cases, the industriousness and devotion to duty which then made the Cornish – and today makes the Polish – employable, was itself nurtured by stable family life. The occasion for practice of these virtues was itself the need to maintain the stability of the family. It is, therefore, logical that, in the process of fixing ‘broken Britain’, we should put families first, because they come first in the natural order. Until we address the chronic social problems – rooted in family breakdown – which give the UK some of the highest rates of teenage pregnancy, crime, mental illness, imprisonment, and divorce in Europe, we cannot look forward to a work force equipped with the skills and virtues needed to engage in meaningful work, or with the motivation to bother in the first place.

(Photo of Lord Tebbit: © James Robertson Photography; Photo of Crown’s Mine, Botallack: © Michael Parry. No endorsement implied.)

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