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REVIEWS

BRITAIN'S FUTURE, ISSUES and CHOICES

by Jim Northcott

ISBN 0853747555

This book examines seven key national and international developments which will affect Britain in the next century: an ageing population; social division; unemployment; the global economy; the environment; world development and defence.

Britain’s Future asks if we will be able to afford a free health service and adequate pensions. The author points out that :

Over the period from 1991 to 2041, the proportion of young people (below 20 years of age) is expected to fall from 26.6 per cent of the population total to 23.4 per cent; the proportion of people aged 65 and over is expected to rise from 15.8 per cent to 24.5 per cent; and the proportion of very old people aged 80 and over is expected to rise from 3.8 to 7.8 per cent. (p.7)

Despite these bleak figures the author is optimistic that we will be able to afford the health service. He points out that the increase in budget necessary will be spread over a forty year period but makes the important proviso that his optimism is based on regular economic growth and no spectacular rises in health care costs. Jim Northcott considers pension provision to be a bigger problem.

In 1980 provision for the basic National Insurance pension to go up automatically each year in step with national earnings was ended. Since then the basic pension has been raised only in line with inflation. The result of this is that the basic NI pension has fallen to below 15% of average male earnings.

SERPS encouraged people to pay additional contributions out of higher earnings to get, after 20 years, a second pension equivalent to 25 per cent of their previous earnings. In 1986 the government arbitrarily halved the benefits to be paid out under the scheme and, in 1995 halved them again.

The author points out that there are considerable drawbacks also to both occupational and personal pensions :

Occupational schemes exclude half the working population, impede job mobility and do not always provide adequate benefits. (p.34)
and : Personal pension schemes have been the biggest rip-off for decades. It will probably be a long while before people again trust the commercial companies that have given them such a poor deal. (p.34)

The author points out something which I highlighted also in my most recent pamphlet — that New Labour policy requires us to pay twice for a pension. Northcott explains it like this :

Under pay-as-you go, the present generation at work is paying contributions to pay for the pensions already being enjoyed by the generation ahead, and expects its own pensions to be paid for by contributions of the generation behind. If we changed over to a funded system, the present generation at work would be expected to pay contributions into a fund to pay for its own pensions and at the same time to carry on paying for the pensions of the generation ahead who are already retired. The present generation would thus have to pay twice over. (p.31)

The cynicism of NuLab on this issue was nowhere better evidenced that in an article by John Plender of Prospect magazine in his article A New Third Way in which he wrote :

The snag is that the act of switching requires some workers to pay twice for their pensions, although the complexity of pensions means that the losers from the switch are unlikely to be aware of the additional costs incurred. This is inequitable but the wider benefits outweigh the costs.

To his credit Northcott offers an alternative to this chicanery. He advocates a higher than previous normal age of retirement. This is something which is being actively debated with some saying the age should be set at 70. This raises all kinds of issues. I personally could only consider supporting such a move if there was a complete change in our culture of work. We would have to reduce hours (elsewhere the author points out that our hours are amongst the highest in Europe), introduce more job-sharing and flexi-working, encourage tele-working and pay more for part-time work. We would also have to tackle the whole question of ageism. This culture change is unfortunately not considered in his book.

Jim Northcott also suggests a new state pension scheme. He acknowledges that such a scheme would be expensive but argues that it is better than current alternatives. He is probably right.

Britain’s Future looks in some depth at the trend toward increasing poverty and inequality in our society. The author is very good at digging out statistics to illustrate his arguments, and here he points out that :

average incomes increased by 42 per cent, incomes of the richest tenth increased by 68 per cent, but incomes of the poorest tenth actually fell by 8 per cent.

His proposals are refreshingly radical. These include a maximum as well as a minimum wage; specified benefits for specified situations (not means tested) and the removal of the upper limit on National Insurance contributions amongst others. The redistributive philosophy which underlies these policy proposals is one which I would hope all third way advocates would support.

The author is also refreshingly open-minded in recognising the drawbacks of globalisation although he rejects protectionism as a solution. He advocates some State intervention and co-operation with other governments to regulate aspects of the market. He points out that we have leverage on the multi-nationals and advocates EU-wide policies. One area he doesn’t consider is the growing consumer pressure on multi-nationals over their manipulation of labour conditions in poorer countries. The possibility of using Union and consumer pressure to curb the ability of multinationals to move to exploit cheap labour is interesting.

I do not intend to discuss in this review the author’s chapters on the environment and world population.

The chapter on Security is perhaps the only one with which I would take issue. It is based on the assumption that Britain should take part in UN “peace-keeping exercises” or adventures abroad to “contain conflicts”. Blair has argued that “we” (whoever “we” might be in this context) “cannot turn our backs on conflicts and the violation of human rights within other countries if we want still to be secure” and that “The spread of our values makes us safer”. This is something I utterly reject. It is a form of neo-colonialism which assumes that our values should be imposed on others rather than allowed to develop organically or not at all. It is also assuming (rather naively) that we all share the values he wishes to impose. Further, it relies on us being successful and our interventions not causing the opposite of the intended reaction (very optimistic!). It would be better to oppose any involvement with US or UN attempts to intervene militarily in the affairs of other nations.

This apart, however, I wholeheartedly recommend Britain’s Future. It is carefully researched and argued. More than this, its presentation makes it accessible. It rejects the idea that the market provides all solutions and advocates a more pro-active role for government. In a period when establishment politicians are keen to stress the limitations of the role of government it makes refreshing reading.

3W View: Mere Hamsters on a Pension Treadmill?

The duplicity of this and previous governments forces us to take a more cynical perspective. We have heard proposals for reform, allegedly for the common good, time and time again, but found the subsequent reality to be something quite different to the honeyed image that was initially sold to the public. Now, for example, the government’s pet gurus, who for some reason bring to mind the expression ‘feather-bedded fatcats’, do indeed offer alternatives to the above-mentioned pensions chicanery.

A higher than previous ‘normal’ age of retirement is being seriously considered, with some suggesting an age of 70, and others that in effect most people should have to work till they die. These charming notions are being touted in a number of countries at the same time, which strongly hints at background involvement and prompting by the IMF, WTO or similar globalist, crony-serving agencies.

As detailed in the OWC’s Seattle “open letter” articles on this website, these bodies are working with the transnational corporates and government politicians to reduce or eliminate employee rights and protections, and at the same time are trying to neutralise the Unions via their leaders. The Blairite regime in Britain is notably keen to promote the WTO’s globalisation agenda.

So what, from the general population’s point of view, was the point of all these decades of technological advance, of automation and then computerisation, which could to a significant extent have freed mankind from drudgery and afforded not only higher living standards but also the leisure, security and unstressed environment to enjoy such standards?

It would seem that those who profiteer the most from a now horribly obsolete economic system see the prime purpose of human existence as service to, and perpetuation of, that same almighty system….

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