Oh, golly! Toys really are us

Yesterday, union leader Bill Morris accused New Labour of practising `the economics of Noddyland'. Intrigued by the expression, Diane Coyle has taken a close look at the socio-economics of Toyland
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Bill Morris, the leader of the Transport & General Workers' Union, has accused the Government of "the economics of Noddyland". His soundbite was crafted to belittle John Prescott over his decision to fight a case the Official Solicitor is bringing against his department. But these details are by the by. There is a deeper truth in Mr Morris's phrase: the economy and society of modern Britain do indeed bear a strong resemblance to Noddy's Toyland.

The lifestyle of Noddy, the children's character created by Enid Blyton in 1949, will be familiar to many Britons. The little man with the nodding head works, like three-quarters of us, in a service business. Even more symptomatically, he is self-employed. He works long and irregular hours driving a minicab - a distinctive yellow car that is always breaking down.

Other characters work in the market, a garage, on the trains, even in showbusiness (the circus). A high proportion are unemployed or stay at home as carers. Noddyland has no factories and only one farm.

The free-market economy has given him the opportunity to haul himself up by his own blue shoelaces. But Noddy's earnings from taxi-driving are low, at sixpence a trip, and he sometimes struggles to make ends meet. In fact, when he started out in the business his only source of nutrition was a pint of milk from Mr Milko, for which Noddy had to pay by letting the milkman tap his head each morning.

Passengers often walk away from the little yellow taxi without paying. They shout abuse at Noddy. The job carries no pension or holiday rights - not even sick pay. If Noddy has to stay off work, he makes no money. Likewise, he has no income when the car is off the road.

It is, perhaps, typical of people on low incomes that when they do have money they have a psychological need to spend it on having a good time. In a day when he unexpectedly makes an extra six sixpences, this is precisely Noddy's reaction. He throws a party. It is a need George Orwell noted in The Road to Wigan Pier when he criticised middle-class do-gooders for telling the poor to eat cheap, nutritious lentils. What poor and hard- working people actually want is a treat, Orwell noted, strong tea with sugar, and white bread and jam.

In today's economy this apparent but entirely understandable fecklessness is represented by the dole money spent on lottery tickets, or by splashing out a windfall from the Halifax on a new CD player instead of saving it.

The insecurity common to both the Toyland and British economies is demonstrated by the turf war when a bigger taxi driven by Mr Honk, from neighbouring Toy-Car Town, broke into Noddy's Toytown routes. By dint of dirty tricks, Mr Honk put Noddy's little car into the garage. Not only did Noddy have to find the cash for repairs and eke out a living with a donkey and cart in the meantime, he also lived in fear of losing his business permanently to his tough competitor.

Luckily, the quality of service Noddy had provided meant his customers ultimately stayed loyal. As Big Ears put it: "He [Mr Honk] drives much too fast and he won't always carry people's bags for them. And he isn't very polite."

But the episode illustrates the fragility of economic security for the self-employed and those working in the service sector. The pressures of working life are constant. Workers in these industries can find themselves having to put in long and irregular hours for tenuous rewards and the constant possibility of financial disaster.

Many of the toys are financially vulnerable. Not the middle classes, represented by Miss Pink Cat, with her unpopular airs and graces, and by the authority figure Mr Doctor Bear (who obviously got his title during John Major's premiership). But the others have few savings, and the little they have is often wiped out by a chance misfortune such as losing a bag or being robbed by the goblins.

On the other hand, there has to be a strong suspicion that, like many of the inhabitants of Toyland, Noddy has no contact with the tax authorities, and is never seen filling out his self-assessment form. When money changes hands, it is always cash. Many transactions actually involve barter - cakes for errands, for example.

The British economy is more like this than anybody would realise from reading the daily reports on official statistics. Recent estimates suggest that the "underground" economy in this country - car-boot sale capital of the world - makes up perhaps 10 per cent of GDP. Britain also has more local barter economies, known as Local Exchange Trading Schemes, than most other rich countries. Many Britons, like the toys, live on the fringe of the mainstream economy.

It is not that Toyland is cut off from the outside world, however. Indeed, with a Dutch artist, Beek, having brought the characters to life visually, it has a strong European flavour. There is even a single European currency, with travellers from elsewhere always able to pay in the same coins as the locals.

Nor is it an inner-city ghetto. Its quaint houses, little station, friendly marketplace and the farm on the edge of town mark it out as - like so much of England - quintessentially suburban. It has the small town civilities that we tend to overlook ourselves but are much appreciated by outsiders such as the American travel writer Bill Bryson.

Noddyland is also a socially tolerant place. Racial tensions have obviously diminished during recent years, with the gollywogs a bad memory and the black stallholder Dinah Doll a respected member of the community. Toyland even has a female judge.

There has, too, been much speculation over the years about the exact nature of the relationship between Noddy and his older "friend" Big Ears. Big Ears rescues Noddy when he finds him wandering around naked and homeless. He feeds and clothes him. The two hug each other a lot and Noddy sometimes stays over at Big Ears' place. In one story Big Ears cries out: "I can't do without you little Noddy! I can't! I can't!"

But whether the two are indeed homosexual or not, nobody in Toyland remarks on their closeness. There is no sign of prejudice. It's live and let live.

And any parent of school-age children will recognise the spirit of our politically correct, non-competitive primary schools when teacher Miss Prim awards him "a prize for being such a dear little fellow".

If only he had learnt to read and write, however, he might not be trapped in a dead-end job as a minicab driver. Here is one area where Tony Blair's government could clearly make a difference in Toyland. Few of the inhabitants seem to have received further education or on-the-job training.

Of course, suburbia is not free of social problems, and Toyland has a darker side. The Skittle children, with their liking for being knocked down, hint at a more widespread problem of child abuse than many would like to admit.

It also has an underclass. The goblins lead a life of petty robbery and violence, ostracised by the rest of the community. Many goblin families have had three generations of unemployed males. They are cut off from normal society. They even live rough, although it would be fanciful to see in their choosing to inhabit the hedgerows and caves an echo of today's New Age travellers.

Besides, modern Britain is slightly more tolerant than Toyland society of people on the margins. There is a strong whiff of the Michael Howard treatment in the goblins' punishment. This generally involves being shouted at, insulted, tied up in ropes and flung into prison, only to repeat their crimes when released. There are no social workers to worry about their recidivism, no welfare support net, no compassion. The result is a high rate of petty crime.

It would be unfair to blame this entirely on the goblins. Who can forget the ram-raid incident when the two bad bears stole Noddy's little yellow car and crashed it into a tree? Noddy had to borrow Mr Tubby's wheelbarrow for his work until the car was repaired.

Nevertheless, it is with people like the goblins that a welfare-to-work programme would have to make headway, in an attempt to chip away at entrenched poverty and unemployment. Translating Gordon Brown's proposals to the Toyland context suggest that there is something in the criticism that a sixpence-a-week subsidy to work in Mr Sparks's garage for six months is not going to be enough to break the cycle of deprivation. Would Mr Sparks trust Gobbo or Sly to work for him? Would they not just go back to their old patterns of trickery and thieving at the end of the six months, rather than applying for a real job at the station?

For all the underlying economic and social deprivation, inadequate policing has to bear part of the blame for Toyland's high crime rate - one of the highest in the world, leaving residents afraid to walk the streets after dark. Mr Plod is, to put it frankly, under-educated and badly trained. Although popular with most of the locals, he spends little time on the beat, preferring to drink tea and eat cake in his police station.

What's more, there is a whiff of police corruption. Although Mr Plod has never been disciplined, it is hard not to be suspicious about his failure to follow the correct procedures and his apparent tendency to drop or press charges more or less at whim. Most disputes are settled outside the courts according to Mr Plod's arbitrary judgement. It is pure luck that Toyland has seen no serious miscarriages of justice. If only things had turned out as well in Britain as in Toyland.