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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.


It was in 1987 that Gro Harlem Brundtland, the former Norwegian prime minister, released her eponymous report to the United Nations on environment and development. She warned: “This ‘greenhouse effect’ may by early next century have increased average global temperatures enough to shift agricultural production areas, raise sea levels to flood coastal cities, and disrupt national economies.” She warned that the deserts were advancing, forests were disappearing, acid rain was devastating ecosystems and the ozone layer was in trouble “to such an extent that the number of human and animal cancers would rise sharply and the oceans’ food chain would be disrupted”.

None of which happened, partly because action was taken but mostly because the scares were wildly overblown. Deserts have been retreating for years now, partly thanks to global greening caused by higher levels of carbon dioxide. The net rate of forest loss has fallen to approximately zero according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation. Sea-level rise has been modest. The number of people living in extreme poverty more than halved. Famine largely disappeared. Population growth rates have fallen steeply.

So imagine now looking back from 30 years hence, in 2047. We may all have been incinerated by asteroids or war. If Jeremy Corbyn’s socialism comes to power this week, we may have become the world’s basket case, like today’s Venezuela or Cuba. (“Chávez showed us that there is a different and a better way of doing things,” Mr Corbyn said when Hugo Chávez died; he called Fidel Castro a “champion of social justice” when that homophobic brute died.)

But the overwhelming probability is that by 2047 there will have been a vast improvement in living standards, opportunities and knowledge, and that Britain will have enjoyed more than its fair share of this thanks to its language, its law, its science, its open economy and its decision to leave a protectionist and dirigiste Brussels regime to become a global champion of free trade. With the likely exception of our ballooning £2 trillion national debt, many of the problems that preoccupy us today will have been solved or ameliorated. If we are steadfast and sensible, the Islamist terrorists will eventually fail just as the Irish nationalists did.

And this will have come about, not because of what politicians promise to do to the country, but because of what a law-abiding and free people can achieve and do for each other through enterprise, innovation and exchange. The reason that Theresa May has stumbled so badly in this campaign is because she has failed to set out an optimistic vision of mutual prosperity creation in a liberal society, and has instead allowed herself to be drawn into a mean-spirited, zero-sum bidding war funded by taxation.


On desertification: – “Despite an increasingly sophisticated understanding of dryland environments and societies, the uses now being made of the desertification concept in parts of Asia exhibit many of the shortcomings of earlier work done in Africa. It took scientists more than three decades to transform a perceived desertification crisis in the Sahel into a non-event. This book is an effort to critically examine that experience and accelerate the learning process in other parts of the world.”

On forests: “Meanwhile, the net annual rate of forest loss has slowed from 0.18 percent in the early 1990s to 0.08 percent during the period 2010-2015.”

On global greening: “Results showed that carbon dioxide fertilization explains 70 percent of the greening effect, said co-author Ranga Myneni, a professor in the Department of Earth and Environment at Boston University. ‘The second most important driver is nitrogen, at 9 percent. So we see what an outsized role CO2 plays in this process.’ ”



By Matt Ridley | Tagged:  rational-optimist  the-times