Matt Ridley Slays the Doomsayers


Published on: Monday, 05 June, 2017
Since 1987, Britain has been transformed for the better

My Times column on Britain’s general election and the missing optimism about innovation:

Against the background of a terrorist campaign, a Tory government under a determined woman was cruising towards an easy victory against a socialist Labour party in a June election, but stumbling badly in the campaign. It was a dangerous world, with an impulsive American president and an undemocratic Russia and China. There was a funding crisis in the NHS and dire warnings of global environmental disaster: yes, this was 1987, the year of Margaret Thatcher’s third election victory — and of the Enniskillen bombing, shortly after, which killed 12 and injured 63.

Neil Kinnock’s Labour manifesto of 1987 reads very like Jeremy Corbyn’s: in favour of nationalised utilities and more money for the NHS, against nuclear missiles. The two manifestos said “this general election on June 11 faces the British people with choices more sharp than at any time in the past 50 years” (1987), and “what makes this election different is that the choice is starker than ever before” (2017).

In the case of 1987 we know what happened next. The British people were embarking on a period of prosperity unprecedented in their history, belying the competing pessimisms of the parties’ campaigns. Over the past three decades, per capita GDP is more than one-and-a-half times as large in real terms from £18,033 to £28,488 (in 2016). In 1987 Britain’s GDP per capita was lower than that of both Italy and France. Today it is higher than both.

Despite an increase in population, an increase in women working and the loss of old-style jobs to automation, the employment rate in Britain is higher today, at 75 per cent, than it was then, at 69 per cent. Then, 1987 was considered a boom time but unemployment was 10.6 per cent, compared with 4.6 per cent today.

Compared with three decades ago, hourly wages are up, manufacturing production up, working hours down, food and clothing prices down. The tax threshold is much higher, the top tax rate lower and more of the country’s tax is paid by the richest few per cent. Income inequality is about the same. London has gone from sleepy commercial backwater to the world’s financial centre. Its cuisine is unrecognisably transformed.

These are extraordinary changes for the better. There is more. There are twice as many university places today. In those three decades, Britain’s carbon dioxide emissions have declined from ten to seven tonnes per capita. Although there are nearly twice as many cars on the road, more than twice as many rail passengers and more than three times as many air passengers, the air is much cleaner today.

NHS expenditure has more than trebled since 1987 in real terms. Life expectancy has increased from 75 to 82 years. Age-adjusted cardiovascular death rates among women have halved, as has age-adjusted lung cancer mortality among men. The number of crimes in the Crime Survey for England and Wales (excluding fraud) has halved.

And I have not started on the improvements in technology. A mobile telephone in 1987 weighed 1.5 kilograms, cost £2,000 (£5,000 in today’s money) and had half an hour of battery life after ten hours of charging. There was no internet outside a few institutions; the search engine had not been invented, let alone email or social media. Air travel cost more than double what it does today, telephone calls even more than that.

My point is that none of this promising possibility merited a mention in the manifestos of the day. There were no competing visions of making Britain great, to borrow a phrase. Instead, the discourse then as now was dominated by doom and gloom about the future.


One thought on “Matt Ridley Slays the Doomsayers

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s