Christina Patterson: Never mind wealth, think index-linked pensions

That world of mediocrity and inefficiency is suddenly attractive

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I was technically an adult when I discovered that my background was embarrassing. "Gin and Jag belt!" the more sophisticated of my fellow freshers sniffed when I told them that I was from Guildford. Gin? Well, no, but perhaps, for guests, an occasional bottle of Blue Nun. Jag? Er, no, a Morris Marina. "Stockbroker belt," they elaborated when they saw my baffled face. I didn't have a clue what a stockbroker was. I'm not sure I do now.

My father was a civil servant. My mother was a teacher. So were nearly all my uncles and aunts. It never occurred to any of them that money was a factor when it came to a job. It never (unfortunately) occurred to me. They believed in something called "public service" – and it served them pretty well. We all grew up in modern boxes on housing estates, with primary schools within walking distance and streetfuls of friends. There was money – just – for a cheap annual holiday and, later, the odd trip abroad.

When he thought I was in danger of becoming an eternal student, my father wrote me a letter, reminding me of my responsibility to "render unto Caesar the things that are due unto Caesar". The point, in other words, of life was not to sit around reading Middlemarch, but to knuckle down, get a job and pay your taxes. If you wanted to pursue your own artistic passions – if you wanted, in other words, to write Middlemarch – then you could do it in your spare time. The important thing was to contribute a hefty chunk of your time and talent to the public good, and a hefty chunk of your salary to the Inland Revenue.

Perhaps it's not surprising that the greed-is-good Thatcher era came as something of a shock. Pictures of City workers, and their taffetaed girlfriends knocking back champagne as if it were, well, raspberry Nesquik or R White's lemonade, reminded me of family trips to Windsor Safari Park: those dancing dolphins, those funny baboons, those bright red bottoms. But gradually, this strange species became assimilated, became so normal, in fact, that concepts like "selling yourself" became part of the national lexicon. My father's days, of being dragged up a hierarchy in spite of yourself, were over. It was all a market now, and if you weren't up, you were down.

And, as we all know, the assimilation was not just about tolerance (that bugbear of racial integration, for who wants just to be tolerated?) but of respect (that ubiquitous demand of the barely tolerated) and not just political tolerance but political respect. So the Labour government which finally broke the 18-year Tory stranglehold on this country didn't just tolerate what the new Business Secretary calls "the filthy rich", didn't just humour them. It kowtowed to them, courted them, worshipped them. And, when it could, joined them. The words "private sector", uttered in tones the average man might reserve for the words "Angelina" and "Jolie", became like a mantra or prayer. Bring in the private sector, and it will all be fine.

Well, it wasn't, as we all know from trains that cost a fortune but sometimes don't even have a functioning kettle, and from an NHS that swallowed the GDP of a small country, but still couldn't get a computer to book you an appointment. And it wasn't, as we all know, from a world economy that imploded. It wasn't because men with private jets bundled up little packages of debt, or air, or sunbeams, and sold them, and politicians around the world just nodded and smiled.

And now, guess what? Those linchpins of the private sector are running to – yes, the public sector. Not just for money, but jobs. Applications for high-flying civil service jobs are, apparently, up a third on last year. Inquiries about teaching are up 40 per cent. That world of mediocrity, inefficiency, jobsworth laziness and eternal sick leave is suddenly strangely attractive. Think job security. Think index-linked pensions.

Well, perhaps when we've stopped laughing at life's grim ironies, swings of the pendulum, etc, we might muster a weak smile and the hope that something positive might come out of this crazy game of snakes and ladders that was elevated to a blueprint for an energetic society but which turned out to be a satnav to a dead end. Perhaps the private sector might learn a little about accountability and hubris and something called good judgement and perhaps the public sector might learn a little more about motivation and commitment.

And perhaps we might all be reminded that there is such a thing as society, that is, real people whose jobs and houses and future depend on how other real people behave, and that the pleasures of being a part of it – a functioning part of it that makes it function better – extend way beyond a private jet, way beyond, even, a gin and Jag.

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