Ruth Davidson, the leader of the reviving Scottish Conservatives, is a Tory of a different hue from the stereotype. The Unherd website she has written for has attracted the attention of the mainstream media. You don’t have to be a conservative to feel the hint of a breath of fresh air blowing through our troubled politics and to hope against hope for a read across the North Channel. This is how to think about politics.
The consensus surrounding free markets and liberal democracy has never seemed so fragile. Systems of government, systems of finance, systems of trade are all under attack. If there was ever such a thing as a global world order, it is being shaken by a million raised voices.
The centre cannot hold. Or can it?
For me, one man has done more to revolutionise trade, raise global wealth, reduce costs, bring goods to new geographic markets – and to the affordability of average households – than any other. His name is Malcolm McLean and he’s a ‘father’ too. He’s the father of the shipping container.
The container revolution means exporters can send a jumper the 3,000 sea miles from Scotland to Russia at a cost of just 2.5 American cents. When calculating international trade, economists will often assume the shipping costs to be zero. The biggest beneficiaries of this revolution have been the developing nations – their farmers, entrepreneurs and industries.
At the same time as containerisation, the world has grown far richer. Post war rebuilding, advances in health, greater literacy and, yes – cheaper and freer trade – has lifted millions out of extreme poverty. According to the World Bank, in 1981 some 42% of the world’s population were extremely poor (the definition of such being measured at a person consuming less than $1.90 a day at 2011 purchasing power parity). By 2013 – the most recent year for which reliable data is available – that figure had dropped to 10.7%. A billion people across the globe, lifted out of extreme poverty in less than a generation.
It is a huge achievement, and three-quarters of it is down to China. It is no coincidence that in recent decades China has become the largest exporter of containerised goods, shipping nearly three times more than its nearest rival, the US.
Mobile technology is transforming the industry further, with weather forecasting, apps to chart the gestation cycle of individual cows as well as the provision of micro-insurance on a pay-as-you-plant basis. To date, there are more than 650 million mobile phone subscriptions in Sub-Saharan Africa.
So if capitalism has achieved demonstrable success, and continues to help many poorer nations grow faster than richer ones, why are people losing faith in the ability of capitalism to make their lives better?
In the UK, just 19% of people agree that “the next generation will probably be richer, safer and healthier than the last”. That figure falls to 15% of Germans and 14% of Americans. Markets might work but they aren’t seen to be working for everyone.
From pit villages to textile towns, whole communities profited in worth and self-worth from their industrial identities.
As the dominant occupations of the UK have migrated, such certainties have been lost. Towns have been gutted. Youngsters leaving school at 16 can no longer conceive that by the time their classmates finish sixth form and then a university degree, they’ll already be ahead of them with money in the bank and the first step on the housing ladder.
How does a teenager living in a pit town with no pit, a steel town with no steel or a factory town where the factory closed its doors a decade ago or more, see capitalism working for them? Is the route for social advancement a degree, student debt, moving to London to spend more than half their take home pay on a room in a shared flat in Zone 6 and half of what’s left commuting to their stagnant-wage job every day; knowing there is precisely zero chance of saving enough to ever own their own front door?
Or is it staying put in a community that feels like it’s being hollowed out from the inside; schoolfriends moving away for work, library and post office closures and a high street marked by the repetitive studding of charity shop, pub, bookies and empty lot – all the while watching the Rich Kids of Instagram on Channel 4 and footballers being bought and sold for more than the entire economy of a third world nation on Sky Sports News?
If the trend continues across the western world, home ownership will become ever more unaffordable. Measurement by the gini-coefficient might tell us that inequality in the UK has fallen to its lowest level since 1986, but Britain doesn’t feel unequal when a generation’s only hope of home-ownership rests on the lottery of home-owning parents dying suddenly – and without massive care home fees.
In short, the multiple instabilities of insecure employment, opaque career progression, wage stagnation, high rental and commuting costs and growing financial barriers to home ownership clearly explain why Britain’s young adults don’t feel they have a personal stake in a system that doesn’t work for them.
The challenges policy makers face as we stand on the cusp of the next industrial revolution include how to equip our workers with the skills for the future, the road map for individual advancement and social mobility, the framework for fair marketplaces, the investment in productive economic activities, empowerment of consumers relative to producers as modelled by Margrethe Vestager within the EU, and a housebuilding programme which democratises home ownership once more.
It is not enough for government to facilitate a discussion about where next for Britain, it has to actually lead. The short-term, election cycle nimbyism of prohibitive planning laws needs to cease and there is no room for one-of-the-in-crowd Davos sycophancy either. At home and abroad we need to press the case for fairer markets.
Capitalism has lifted billions out of poverty and made the world a better, safer, healthier, more comfortable place. It’s not working for everyone, however, and some people are enriching themselves through the kind of restrictive practices that Adam Smith warned us about two centuries ago. Nationally and internationally, capitalism needs a reboot.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London