Brexit and COVID-19: How challenging times provide a chance to change Britain for the better

By MARCUS STEAD

Marcus Stead
Marcus Stead

DID THE good old days ever really exist? If we are honest with ourselves, every generation is a trade-off between a range of good things lost and good things gained.

I’m 36, and I’m guessing almost everyone who is roughly my age heard stories from their grandparents about how they grew up in an era where there was a much stronger community spirit and everyone left their front doors open.

There probably was a lot of truth in those stories. But they were told with rose-tinted spectacles on. These happy qualities were combined with World War II between 1939 and 1945, and rationing that went on for years after the war ended. Healthcare wasn’t anything like as well-developed as it is now, people worked long, grim hours in heavy industry, television was in its infancy, there was limited choice with radio programming, washing was done by hand, using soapy water and a mangle, the iron had to be warmed up on the fireplace, which in turn had to be lit manually and topped up with coal. A heavenly utopia this certainly was not.

I suspect I am in danger of falling into the same trap when I talk to today’s children and teenagers about the not-so-distant past. I started school in an era where BBC computers were the standard. Over time, we progressed to the RM Nimbus, the CD Rom, and then, a couple of years into secondary school, dial-up internet became commonplace. Most people didn’t have a mobile phone until the early 2000s, and even then, it was just for calls and texts, both of which were very expensive by modern standards.

Gimme 5
Gimme 5, with Jenny Powell, Nobby the Sheep and Lewis MacLeod

But what about the rose-tinted bits? As a product of my generation, what did I experience that today’s youngsters will never get to know? I’m thinking of the ‘proper’ Saturday morning children’s telly that existed until around the mid-1990s (Going Live, Ghost Train, Motormouth, Live & Kicking, Gimme 5 etc), the likelihood of having a gloriously musty community cinema within walking distance of your house, snooker clubs, now largely closed, Sunday League cricket on BBC Two, free-to-air top flight football live on ITV every week, ‘proper’ independent local radio stations that felt like part of the community, local high streets that had family-run butchers and bakers.

I turned 18 in 2001, and entered an adult world of pubs where a pint cost less than £2, and of night clubs that were far bigger in size and greater in number than those that still exist today – there was somewhere to cater for all tastes, and you could dance the night away with a drink in one hand and a cigarette in the other.

The world that my grandparents’ generation looked back upon nostalgically – the sense of community, families that were undoubtedly closer, was lost, but what was gained were huge improvements in medicine, diet, technology, personal choice, and a loosening of sexual morals which redefined over time what most members of society regarded as acceptable. Did we have to ‘lose the good to gain the good’? Probably not. But it demonstrates that all generations are a trade-off between good things lost and good things gained.

Mark Drakeford Woke
Wales’s First Minister Mark Drakeford displays his ‘woke’ credentials at the Pride Cymru march in August 2019

Would I swap my experiences for those of today’s teenagers? No. I don’t really wish I was a teenager in today’s era. I find the music mostly dull and uninspiring (a lot of younger people seem to agree with me). Today’s pop music doesn’t seem all that ‘popular’ on the whole. I wouldn’t swap my experiences for ones where I’m constantly staring into my phone or getting permanently offended and outraged by non-‘woke’ opinions, the main hobby of so many of today’s university students. Social life for young people strikes me as quite boring on the whole, and somewhat sterile compared to what my generation had on offer. But they may well see things differently.

That said, there are some undeniable truths about how things were better once-upon-a-time. Maybe, just maybe, my parents’ generation, the ‘baby boomers’, had the best of all worlds. They grew up at a time when rationing was coming to an end, enjoyed the music and liberation of the 1960s, and there was a sort of unwritten social contract in place that was assumed to still exist even when I was growing up 30 years later, but that in reality broke down long ago. Let me explain:

There has long been a general undercurrent to schooling that if you work hard, pass your exams, and go on to university, you would get your rewards with a much higher standard of living as an adult than those who made very little effort and left school with no skills.

George Cole
George Cole starred in a series of memorable Leeds Building Society adverts, where interest rates were in double figures

Those that did well at school from my parents’ generation and went to university during, say, the late 1960s or early 70s, could quite reasonably expect certain things in return: To receive a grant for going to university; to get a stable, well-paid job upon graduation, which included a company pension; to be able to save money in a building society account which paid a steady rate of interest; to be able to buy a nice house in one of the better districts of the town or city, on a mortgage worth two-and-a-half times their salary; to be able to afford to keep one parent (usually the mother) at home during the children’s pre-school years; and to be able to retire in their late 50s and early 60s.

I graduated in 2005, and the reality for my generation, and those that has followed, is proving entirely different. There are no grants for going to university, instead, you will be saddled with debt, in the forms of both tuition fees and living costs. It is entirely possible that if one recent graduate marries another, they will have a combined student debt of more than £60,000 before they even begin their life’s journey together; A well-paid job upon graduation? Forget it. This is a world of short-term contracts, low job security and stagnant wages; Company pensions? Forget it. You’re now on your own when it comes to private pensions, and you’re going to have to be prepared to take a significant amount of risk with any money you save; Likewise, building society interest rates on savings have more-or-less disappeared – now you’ll have to sign up to risky portfolios linked to the stock market; You want to buy a nice house in one of the nicer areas of town? You might be able to get a box-like house on a soulless new estate at a push, but large sections of the city will be out of reach for you, and even that will be on a mortgage of five or six times your salary. You want to keep one parent at home while the children are young? You can forget that as well – there are no incentives for that, so a lot of it will be left to grandparents and taxpayer-subsidised ‘childcare’, where you had your very young children over to paid strangers. And as for retirement? That won’t come until your late 60s at the very earliest.

The ‘winners’ in modern society aren’t the graduates, the teachers, the doctors, the nurses, or in many cases even the lawyers (most of whom don’t make anything like the amount of money the cliché implies). Those making the serious money are the Premier League footballers and airhead reality TV ‘stars’.

The ‘unwritten contract’ that if you work hard at school and get a degree, you’ll be able to enjoy a good standard of living, is largely false in modern Britain.

Right now, I do feel nostalgic for a past, but a very recent past, a past we can all remember. I’m referring to the past of a few months ago, where the main topics of debate were nearly always Brexit and VAR. Ah, those really were ‘the good old days’, weren’t they?

Ah, Brexit. Whatever happened to that? Well, it’s still enshrined in both UK and EU law that the transition period ends on 31 December this year, and there have been signs this week that despite the COVID-19 pandemic, attempts to resume discussions are underway. Whether that proves realistic is another matter. It now seems likely talks will take place by videoconference in the weeks beginning 20 April, 11 May and 01 June.

People from across the social spectrum voted for Brexit for a variety of reasons – concerns over loss of sovereignty, concerns over the social impact of uncontrolled mass immigration, the suppression of wages caused by high levels of immigration, the lack of accountability at the EU, the impact of EU regulation on small and medium-sized businesses, and many more reasons besides. But at the root cause of it was a feeling that life in modern Britain just isn’t very good, and the deal today’s young and early middle-aged people are getting, as outlined above, graduates and non-graduates, is a good demonstration as to why.

The pandemic isn’t going to go away any time soon, and when we re-emerge, there will be a great deal of rebuilding and reconstructing to be done in various forms. Every penny the Government has borrowed to subsidise those unable to work at the moment will have to be paid back in tax rises and cuts to other areas of public expenditure. It will take a long time to recover from the economic impact of the pandemic.

We are facing stark reminders of those who are doing the really important work in society: Doctors, nurses, cleaners, supermarket shelf-stackers, lorry drivers, postmen and women, the armed forces, the emergency services and care workers.

Yes, it’s quite right that those who have spent years studying and passing exams earn a higher wage than those who have not, but all of those listed above are doing vital work, and deserve a dignified standard of living.

I don’t begrudge Premier League footballers a good wage – they are entertainers with a short career that could be cut short through injury at any time, but when the top Premier League stars earn in a week what it would take a nurse 15 years to earn, something has gone very wrong with the way in which our society is structured. And I say this as a ‘responsible capitalist’.

As for reality TV stars who are famous for nothing more than having sex on television, what do they really offer to society that’s of any worth? Why do so many young people, especially teenage and twentysomething women, so often look up to and idolise them? They can earn millions of pounds in what are short, shallow careers, with no discernible talent whatsoever.

Brexit provides a chance to reshape British society. The coronavirus pandemic is reminding us of who and what is actually important. Let us not squander the opportunities that will follow to transform society for the better.