It is spring, 2018. The British economy has been growing steadily for seven years, heralding a period of rising living standards to rival that of the 1980s. Unemployment is sharply down, wages are up, child poverty is at a record low, as are teenage pregnancies. The second-term Coalition Government has just announced the completion of its welfare reforms a few months ahead of schedule, and Lord Duncan Smith of Woodford Green, long a guru for other countries looking to reform inefficient welfare systems, is all over the airwaves.
In his lugubrious, born-again way, he explains how a combination of sound homework, shrewd judgement, firm political will and an element of risk-taking has ended welfare as we knew it. That evening, Channel 4 broadcasts an anniversary episode of Shameless; it clashes with an omnibus edition of Little Britain on the BBC. There are more tears than laughter at the way we used to live. The young star of the discussion programmes that follow boasts of being the first in three generations of her family to have a job.
Or try this. We are still in 2018, but a world away. Britain has spent the best part of eight years just stuttering out of recession; living standards have barely improved in a decade. The disparity between rich and poor that was accentuated in the 1990s is now even more entrenched. Some parts of London resemble desolate tracts of American inner cities. The urban gentrification of half a century has receded. Crime is sharply up; private security patrols have multiplied. Use of public transport has fallen, as the haves have retreated to their cars and the workless have-nots have nowhere to go. More than ever before, you are your postcode.
University admissions have been down every year since higher fees were introduced in 2012; higher education establishments are closing by the day, hard on the heels of the sixth-forms at state comprehensives. The pay on offer for graduates does not justify the investment. You do not need a degree if the choice is between working at the local supermarket for the minimum wage and losing your remaining benefits. Britain's brightest and best are increasingly seduced by scholarships at America's Ivy League – and there is little sign of them coming back. In London, the stands where Boris bikes once stood are vandalised and bare, skeletal monuments to better times.
The talking-point of the moment – and the cause of outcry in the popular press – is a spate of crimes loosely covered by the newly coined term "grannicide". With the elderly forced to eke out their inadequate pensions by mortgaging their homes (the promised stock market upturn never happened), and then made to sell them to pay for what is absurdly called social care, the middle-aged feel tricked out of their inheritance, and their children see ahead only a lifetime of debt and dependence. No wonder some grannies are meeting untimely ends.
There you have it. This week Britain has been confronted with two starkly different glimpses of the country's future. On Wednesday, what had been billed a peaceful protest against the likely three-fold rise in university tuition fees drew more than twice the predicted support and turned unexpectedly violent. To be sure, the policing was grossly inadequate – a reaction, perhaps, to the heavy-handed tactics deployed at last year's G20 protest. And there may well have been an element of imitation: learning from Europe does not have to stop at schools or social models; video-clips of other people's protests can also be instructive.
But it was not hard to divine real, uncompromising fury among those filmed storming Conservative Party headquarters, whether they were fully paid-up students or freelance agents provocateurs. So long as many European universities' fees remain negligible or non-existent and US institutions can afford to offer "needs-blind" tuition, the next generation of British students has grounds for regarding itself as the victim of particular injustice.
Thanks largely to our uniquely stratified school system, social mobility here already lags behind that in most other developed countries. For all the safeguards supposedly put in place to ensure broad access to higher education, there is no guarantee that much higher fees will produce the flourishing university sector Lord Browne and his government supporters insist it will.
Britons have never been as quick as the French, for instance, to resort to street protest as an extra-constitutional blocking mechanism. But maybe that is about to change. Maybe we are in for a rather un-British period of social unrest, in which young and old, educated and uneducated, rich and poor, those with jobs and those without, are pitted against each other in conflicts played out against backdrops much wilder than the House of Commons.
Such a discordant prospect, however, was not unchallenged. Yesterday in North London, and then in Parliament, the Work and Pensions Secretary, Mr Iain Duncan Smith, set out his vision for a society organised on the principles of Coalition fairness and a welfare system designed to help everyone to win. I believe that he and his fellow ministers have a chance – if they stick to their guns, refuse to be swayed by sectional lobbies, expose unjustified sob-stories, and ensure that people who are genuinely unable to work are treated decently. Gut instinct, and opinion polls, suggest that the British public is on their side.
Mr Duncan Smith knows, and the Government appears to accept, that welfare reform worth the name will cost more, at least upfront, than it will save. That is a start. They recognise, too, that it is mostly not vanity or laziness that keeps people from work, it is an informed calculation of their interests. But until work is made to pay, not just more than benefits, but sufficient for a family to live on, that calculation will not significantly change. In Britain, low pay is as much a scourge as over-generous benefits. Unless this is understood, the virtuous circle Mr Duncan Smith banks on could all too quickly turn vicious.
Britain is at a crossroads, and this week has, perhaps by chance, shown us two quite different futures. At least we now have a better idea of what the Government is aiming for – and what the country needs at all costs to avoid.Reuse content