The Diamond Jubilee; time for economic reflection
This country knows how to throw a party. It's such a great shame that the weather over the weekend didn't always match the mood!
The fact that Queen Elizabeth has reigned for sixty years is quite some achievement. Indeed, she only three years and seven months to equal Victoria's reign during which this country witnessed tremendous economic and social change.
Any anniversary gives cause for celebration and reflection. The diamond jubilee is no different and some economic commentators have compared the state of economic affairs to those that existed when Victoria celebrated her sixty years on the throne in 1897.
Such comparison is always going to be problematic. The world has changed so much; a point that Hamish McRae, The Independent's economic editor made in his column on Sunday.
In 1897 Britain had an empire and Victoria ruled over a quarter of the globe. Britain was a country that had dominance in manufacturing which made it the envy of other nations.
However, whilst Britain in the last nineteenth century was a wealthy country, it was not an equal one. The industrial revolution had created rapid growth in cities like Birmingham.
During Victoria's reign there was a notable shift of people away from rural occupations, such as farming and 'cottage industries', and into the jobs created in multitude of factories making the goods that were sold at home and exported across the world.
Anyone who has studied Britain in the early part of the twentieth century will know that it wasn't a great place to be among the uneducated workers and poor who lived in and around their places of work. Hours were long, sanitation was poor and life expectancy was low.
In the period between Victoria's diamond jubilee in 1897 and Elizabeth II becoming queen in 1952 much had changed in Britain. Employment rights had evolved and education was phenomenally better than it had been under Victoria.
The municipal schemes commenced by the likes of Joseph Chamberlain, when he was Mayor of Birmingham in the 1870s, provided the basis of the modern cities that were being developed in the aftermath of the second world war (though the town planners have much to answer for in their destruction of so many of our historic buildings; particularly in Birmingham).
When Queen Elizabeth became queen in 1952 Britain was a major economy; the third largest in the world after the United States and the USSR.
So what has happened in the last sixty years?
The Guardian's economic editor, Larry Elliott, argues in his article 'Diamond jubilee marks 60 years of British economic potential squandered' (Monday 4th June), it has been something of an economic 'rollercoaster '
We certainly know that we no longer enjoy the dominant position or influence we once did.
In 1952 the rest of Europe was still recovering from the ravages of war and we had a manufacturing base that employed 8.7 million workers out of a total workforce estimated to be approximately 22 million.
Now we employ 2.5 million workers in manufacturing out of a total workforce of 29 million. This represents a massive reduction from over a third to only 8%.
According to Elliott, the first fifteen years of the Queen were 'as good as it got'. This was a period when the austerity years if the war were over and, employing a variety of methods, growth was the norm:
With the last vestiges of rationing on their way out, the early and mid-1950s saw the transition from socialist planning to Keynesian demand management. The governments of Churchill, Eden and Macmillan bought into the idea of a mixed economy and full employment. Strong growth, low inflation and a buoyant jobs market marked the start of the new Elizabethan age.
In the search for an answer to international competitiveness we (the government) implemented a number of plans to ensure that our economy could become more efficient.
The NEDC (National Economic Development Council), established in 1962 followed by the creation by Harold Wilson in October 1964 of a specific ministry for economic planning, the Department of Economic Affairs, were notable.
Elliott suggests that the reign of Queen Elizabeth may be seen as consisting of two halves. The first 28 years until 1980 was one when we became, broadly, more equal.
After that we have become less so. In particular he cites the move away from traditional manufacturing to a greater reliance on financial services.
Moreover, he neatly sums up the last sixty years as consisting of 'two long periods of growth' followed by 'deep and painful recessions'. As he suggests, every government, both right and left have grappled with the challenge of ensuring that we have a more efficient (and balanced economy).
But as he accepts, they have found that success to be an elusive 'mistress'.
We are richer than we were in 1952. Our living standards have vastly improved. We live longer than we used to. But we are less secure now than ever.
Even if unemployment is not going up as dramatically as other European nations, newly created jobs are likely to be less skilled and probably not as well remunerated.
Even worse, youth unemployment is increasing.
A report, 'Britain in the Reign of Queen Elizabeth II' (February 2012), and which was authored by John Philpott, Chief Economic Advisor of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development provides some salutary statistics of what the changes have been.
Currently we have some 77% of people of working age in the workforce (in 1952 it was 60%). But it is in the involvement of women that we see the most pronounced change.
Whereas the activity rate for men has fallen from 88% to 83%, the corresponding rate for women has risen from 35% in 1952 to its current rate of 71%.
The availability of washing machines, fridges and dishwashers that are now standard (but would have been regarded as luxury items affordable only by the very rich in 1952), have assisted this shift.
Philpott observes that as well as the gender shift, because of immigration in the 1950s and 60s we have become a more racially diverse nation. Moreover, there has been a significant change in the age profile of the workforce.
Whilst we are told that more people in 'old age' are working, it is in the under 25s that there has been the greatest shift; one in three in 1952 to one in seven now. This is partly explained by the expansion in higher education we have seen in the last two decades.
Interestingly, it is when Philpott looks at the volume of work being undertaken that we gain some fascinating insights. The 920 million hours worked each week is pretty much the number worked in 1952. The thing is, the economy is four times greater.
As he states, we are working much 'smarter and less hard'. This is what allows us to, collectively at least, enjoy a higher standard of living.
It is when we compare the output per hour in this country to other nations that we see a downside.
We are lower than France (16%) a country that is believed to be less willing to change than the UK, 18% lower than Germany and, very surprisingly, some 23% lower than the USA.
Philpott's report provides a wealth of detail that, unsurprisingly, show how we have shifted away from traditional industries to an economy that is far more service sector orientated.
Crucially, we have altered from a society in which work was largely full time to one in which part-time and flexible working has become the norm.
Like all other commentators, Philpott acknowledges that whilst we are more prosperous, we have become more 'unequal'.
High earners and middle earner now earn far more in relation to the lower paid than they did when the current Queen came to the throne.
He notes that as recently as 1975 the differences were almost identical to those that prevailed under Queen Victoria almost 100 years previously (1886 to be exact).
Additionally, whilst we are likely to earn more in real terms than our 1952 counterparts, we are no more likely to be happy. Indeed, like McRae notes in his article, the impact of information technology has radically altered work processes.
Even though we were told that IT would give us greater autonomy over our work, stress levels have increased because of increased pressure to cope with 'information overload' and being constantly available due to the ubiquity of what we call the 'smartphone'.
The current economic climate, coupled with suggestions in reduction of employment rights, the potential demise of the euro and general fears about competitiveness have all added to a general sense of insecurity.
Very notably, Philpott notes that the unemployment figure we hear so regularly is probably not the true measure of joblessness.
He reckons the real figure is probably 4 million. Worse still he identifies that there has been a significant increase in 'workless households' in which there are no wage earners; 18.8% today.
The structural problems in the economy mean that these very worrying statistics are not likely to reduce soon.
Indeed, there is little hope of significant improvement for the next few years; certainly not this side of the next general election.
We are becoming an increasingly unequal society and, worryingly, the so called 'North-South divide' is becoming even more pronounced.
The last five years of Queen Elizabeth's reign have been the worst economically. We are experiencing little or no economic growth. Because costs are rising, and wages are not, general living standards are falling.
As Larry Elliott contends, like the Queen famously did concerning the global financial crisis, we should be asking some very awkward questions about the state of our economy and where real (and sustained) improvement is going to come from?
Even though we know that we are in tough times, economically speaking, surely we do not want the next sixty years under the next monarch(s) to be a period in which inequality in this country becomes even greater.
That would mean that the sort of conditions last seen when Victoria was still on the throne would be likely to be experienced by those who have least ability to better themselves.
This will undermine the union that the current queen has been such a great defender of.
Surely future generations deserve better?