As Britain entered the 2020s, not even one-third of people in the northeast of England said they felt optimistic about their life prospects, compared to 78 per cent of Londoners and 74 per cent of people in the prosperous southeast.
None of this was unique to Britain. Across the West, economists have now produced a large pile of evidence which directly undermines the narrative promoted by Blair and the new elite – that hyper-globalisation would lift all boats.
This was simply wrong and ignored what was really happening in many working class communities. As detailed reviews by economists such as David Dorn, Peter Levell and David Autor have made clear, these choices had profoundly negative effects on labour markets, particularly in areas which relied on industries that compete with imports.
‘These studies show’, summarised one review, ‘that regions that were heavily affected by trade – and workers and industries most directly competing with China and Mexico – suffered significant and longterm income losses.’
While the new elite pulled ahead of everybody else, Britain’s workers and non-graduates were left to deal with what economists call ‘distributional’ or ‘adjustment’ costs – higher rates of joblessness, lower wages, a lower share of national income and a rising burden of unsecured debt.
Even under the centre-left administrations of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, areas in America which had been more exposed to hyper-globalisation suffered profoundly negative effects – a loss of manufacturing jobs, a decline in earnings, increased mortality, child poverty and, in later years, larger numbers of people defecting to Donald Trump, whose America First philosophy and rampant criticism of China, free trade and globalism struck a loud chord among disillusioned workers.
In Britain, to make matters worse, in the aftermath of the Global Financial Crash many of the same areas were then subjected to the most severe spending cuts in the country, presided over by a new generation of neoliberal conservatives, led by David Cameron and George Osborne.
Though some parts of London were hit hard by austerity, it was mainly in the north and the Midlands – in areas like Newcastle, Birmingham, Oldham, Middlesbrough, Nottingham, Doncaster and the Liverpool–Leeds corridor – where people who had already suffered the most negative effects of hyper globalisation were now left to deal with spending cuts to local budgets of more than 25 per cent.
These cuts, as research shows, were especially severe in the industrial towns while ‘a swathe of “middle England” in the south central part of the country experienced the smallest spending cuts’. Once again, the New Elite were the least affected by them.
Unsurprisingly, by the 2020s, many people felt utterly disillusioned with how Britain’s economy and the country had been transformed. Two-thirds felt the economy was now been rigged ‘to advantage the rich and the powerful’, while almost the same share said ‘Britain’s political and economic elites do not care about hardworking people’.
But it would be a mistake to think that the effects of hyper-globalisation were only economic in nature. Because they were not. They were as much to do with culture and wider society. One crucial point many conservatives downplay if not ignore is how this model not only hollowed out the economy but also weakened many of the cultural guardrails in society which had once brought a sense of stability and purpose to people’s lives – including strong families and strong local communities.
In recent years, the erosion of these guardrails has been reflected in higher rates of suicide, alcohol and drug addiction, family breakdown and depression, which have been the most troubling symptoms of the revolution. They have also been far more visible in areas of the country that were simply cast aside by the new elite.
Home to 16 million people, England’s industrial towns were left to deal with enormous numbers of people being pushed onto welfare, who now had little dignity, meaning or purpose in their lives. By the time of the Brexit referendum, thirty-eight of the fifty districts with the highest rates of unemployment were in England’s industrial heartlands, where almost 1 million people now relied on benefits.
Much the same took place in America, where working-class men, living in areas that were battered by hyper-globalisation, became the most likely to fall into idleness and joblessness and suffer from ‘deaths of despair’, or ‘slow motion suicides’, from drug and alcohol abuse, HIV/AIDS and increased homicides.
While these trends have been less pronounced in Britain, it’s no coincidence that people from the same blue-collar communities have consistently been far more likely than the new elite to spend more of their lives in poor health and to die sooner.
Over the last decade, men in the least deprived areas in England were living a decade longer (to 83.5 years) than men in the 10 per cent most deprived (to 74.1 years). Today, average life expectancy for men is eight years lower in areas such as Blackpool, Middlesbrough, Manchester and Liverpool than it is where the new elite live.
While the causes are complex, including harsh winters and flu outbreaks, one major review by Public Health England draws a straight line from these bleak outcomes, including a surge of drug overdoses from heroin and cocaine, to Britain’s much stronger economic and geographical inequalities, which flowed from the revolution.
Britain’s deaths of despair mainly affect middle-aged men who are living alone in working-class communities. In 2021, drug-related deaths across England and Wales reached their highest level since records began. Men accounted for more than two-thirds of these deaths, with the highest rates being recorded among 40 to 49 year-olds.
Nor is it any coincidence that as the revolution unfolded the country became home to some of the highest rates of family breakdown in the West. Here too, economists have shown how hyper-globalisation not only cost people jobs and wages but also, to quote one study, increased ‘the fraction of mothers who are unwed, the fraction of children in single-headed households, and the fraction of children living in poverty’.
In Britain, the marriage rate among opposite sex couples recently plummeted to the lowest level since records began – in 1862. The number of children born to couples who are not married – and who in turn are more likely to suffer disproportionately from worse mental health outcomes, depression, alcoholism and drug abuse – has rocketed from just 8 per cent in 1971 to almost 50 per cent in 2019.
So too has the number of single-parent families in Britain —by 2019 it had grown to more than 3 million. By the end of the current decade, the 2020s, Britain is forecast to have one of the largest numbers of single-parent families in the advanced world.
Once again, some groups have been hit much harder than others. Consistently, the new elite who preach luxury beliefs – who argue the loudest for looser cultural norms, sexual freedom, individual choice, permissive lifestyles and alternative family structures – are the most likely to get married, stay married and have children while they are married. They are the least likely to practise what they preach. While they routinely tell others to challenge or disregard family they are the most loyal to it.
While the rate of divorce increased sharply over the last fifty years, it levelled off and then reversed among the elite graduate class but continued to rise among non-graduates. Highly educated, degree-holding women in the new elite are the most likely of all to have a child while they are married and the least likely to give birth while they are not living with a partner or cohabiting with one.
While nearly 70 per cent of births to highly educated women happen within a marriage, only 17 per cent of births to the least well-educated women do. The latter are far more likely to give birth while not even living with a partner at all.
Children of the new elite, in other words, have profoundly different experiences of family life than children in the non-graduate majority —their upbringing is far more secure, stable and conducive to doing better later in life. While 72 per cent of children whose mothers are in the graduate class live with both their parents, only 43 per cent of children whose mother has less than a GCSE-level education can say the same.
Once again, the largest number of single-parent families are found in the industrial regions which were hit hard by the revolution and pushed aside by the new elite. ‘Being born to married parents’, concludes one of the most detailed reports, ‘is more prominent in the South East and London, regions that have benefitted most from the recent decades of economic growth and the fallout of globalisation.’
Against this backdrop, it’s unsurprising that the political revolts of the last decade found their very strongest support in Britain’s small, medium, industrial and coastal towns which, consistently, were left on the wrong side of the revolution.
Support for Brexit, which many voters saw as an opportunity to push back against this revolution, was significantly higher in communities which had been more fully exposed than others to intense import competition from China and eastern Europe.
Calls to ‘Take Back Control’ resonated especially strongly in these communities which, over the last twenty years, had been left to grapple with long-term economic and social decline – deteriorating housing markets, higher unemployment, higher rates of family breakdown, inward migration and demographic churn as local economies were reshaped around an influx of cheap migrant labour while those who questioned the direction of travel were derided as ‘bigots’.
Ordinarily, all this might have been expected to attract the attention of the ruling class. But, as economist Paul Collier points out, the effects of the revolution coincided with the rise of a new elite who simply appeared less interested in upholding the strong sense of obligation to others, national belonging and ethical purpose which had characterised some of Britain’s leaders in years gone by.
Whether on the left or right, Britain’s rulers were now completely focused on pushing through a revolution which reflected their values, interests and priorities but showed little interest in everybody else. And, soon, much of this would have profound effects on politics, clearing the way for an almighty backlash against the new elite.
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