Riots Redux? As British Economy Slips in Double-Dip Recession, Anniversary of Last Summer’s Unrest Looms

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Matt Dunham / AP

A man tries to shelter under a newspaper as he runs through a heavy rain shower outside the Bank of England in London, Wednesday, April 25, 2012.

For Britons, a sense of fair play rates up there with stoicism and reserve as a treasured national attribute. But particularly for Britain’s younger generation, there’s a sense the values of fairness are confined to the cricket pitch and particularly patriotic history books. It’s not merely that Britain’s top decile of earners now earns 12 times the bottom decile — up from a mere 8-to -1 ratio back in 1985. It’s that despite former prime minister Tony Blair’s famous declaration that “the class war is over,” social mobility in Britain is sluggish, and set to get more so. In 2010, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has found that children from poor families in Britain have a slimmer chance of overcoming their disadvantaged backgrounds than anywhere else in the developed world.

And now it appears that Britain’s economy — which earlier this week was found to have slipped into its first double-dip recession since the 1970s — combined with the government’s austerity budget, seem set to continue to keep them the poor in their place.

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During the Naughties, high public spending on public services was a key way of reducing the yawning gaps between Britain’s richest and poorest. A 2011 report from the OECD found that public services in Britain — spending on health, education, and other benefits — reduced inequalities more than nearly any other developed country, and that this equalizing had grown during the boom years leading up to the crash.

But Britain’s younger citizens won’t enjoy such a leveling influence this time around. Public education is set for the deepest cuts since the 1950s. Universities — free for the Facebook generation’s parents — are now set to charge fees of up to £9,000 annually. Earlier this month, the head of Britain’s Association of Teachers and Lecturers warned that class was a key factor in educational attainment: “We have schools for the elite, schools for the middle class, and schools for the working class,” the BBC quoted ATL head Mary Bousted as saying. “The effect of unbalanced school intake is toxic for the poorest and most dispossessed.”

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For Britain’s young, work is no longer a route up the social ladder either. The post-crash recession means that jobs are scarce, and new austerity measures mean that programs subsidizing work for thousands of young people have wound down. Youth unemployment rates now tops 20 percent—over double the national average. There are currently 1.3 million 18 to 24-year olds who are classified as NEETS—the bureaucratic acronym for “neither in education, employment, or training.” According to Jonathan Portes of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research, there’s been a nearly eight-fold increase since 2008 in the number of youth claiming unemployment benefits for over a year.

David Cameron’s government has declared youth unemployment one of Britain’s biggest challenges and last month funneled a billion pounds into a new Youth Contract, which subsidized businesses who took on under-25s.  With the spectre of last summer’s riots across British cities looming, giving youth opportunities and jobs isn’t just about fairness, but social order. “When people feel they have no reason to stay out of trouble the consequences can be devastating,” observed a report out last month from the independent commission on the causes of the riots. “We must give everyone a stake in society.”

Carla Power is a London-based writer. You can follow her work on www.carlapower.com

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