Jubilee is rightly a celebration of the Queen, but it should also be a celebration of how far nation has come during her reign, says HAMISH MCRAE
It’s back to work tomorrow, but before then, let’s just pause a moment and think about the past 70 years – and what might be in store in the next 70.
The Jubilee is rightly a celebration of the Queen, but it should also be a celebration of how far the nation has come during her reign. Some people hark back to the 1950s as a golden age. The photos of the glamorous young Royal Family, the cars and the clothes burnish that image. But anyone who remembers that period will recall a very different reality.
There was rationing of basics including meat, sugar and eggs. That only ended in 1954 and in 1952 it was one egg per person per week. We were living in Ireland and I remember bringing food over in our suitcases when we went to see the grandparents in London. It was shabby and grimy, pockmarked with bomb sites. Most cars were pre-war because the country was desperately exporting as many as possible to pay the debts built up during the war.
Rose-tinted: Some people hark back to the 1950s, when the Queen began her reign, as a golden age
We worry rightly about the National Debt being close to 100 per cent of GDP now, but in 1952 it was 166 per cent of GDP. We worry about inflation, but the retail price index in April 1952 was up 11.8 per cent on the year, compared with 11.1 per cent last April.
Pay in real terms was less than a third of today, with the average full-time male income £450 a year, equivalent to £9,696 now. It’s £31,772 today. True, homes were much cheaper, even relative to earnings, but only a third were owner-occupied, compared with two-thirds now. Higher education was free, but in 1950 only 3.2 per cent of school-leavers went to university. And then there was the smog, which enveloped London late in 1952 and killed thousands.
So it was pretty glum: all right for people with money and connections, but miserable for everyone else. Things did begin to improve through the 1950s, when middle-class families got their first cars and Harold Macmillan, the Prime Minister, was able in 1957 to declare: ‘Most of our people have never had it so good.’ That advance in living standards, life expectancy and social freedoms has progressed unevenly but relentlessly since then. There have been reverses – I would put the rise in crime at the top of the list – but we should not allow them to blind us to the progress.
So what about the next 70 years, when perhaps it will be another George on the Throne? I am aware that economists are good at getting things spectacularly wrong. I accept too that there are profound concerns about global political stability and our heavy footprint on the planet’s resources. But it seems reasonable to expect another period of gradual, if bumpy, progress.
A lot of work has been done on long-range economic forecasting, including Goldman Sachs’ BRICs report, which projected how the four largest emerging economics – Brazil, Russia, India and China – would leapfrog many of the developed world countries in economic size by 2050. That was back in 2003, so we can see how those projections have stood up.
The answer is not badly at all. True, Brazil and Russia have done worse than expected, Russia much worse. But China and India have if anything done better than expected. China is well on the way to passing the US in economic size by around 2030, and has lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty. India is now growing faster than China and looks like becoming the third-biggest economy around 2040.
But this is less than 30 years ahead. What about 70 years? The most thorough study I have seen was published in The Lancet in 2020. It envisaged a world in 2100 where the population had started to fall, and where longevity and living standards had continued to rise, albeit slowly. The US would have regained the top position, passing China, while India would be number three. Within Europe, Germany would still be the largest economy, with France and the UK roughly the same size as each other. All would be richer in terms of real income per head.
The big message is that the world will be healthier and wealthier in 70 years’ time, with the UK benefiting along with the rest. That seems credible. Technology will go on advancing, as will healthcare and education. We cannot see the detail of the UK in 2092, any more than people in 1952 could envisage the UK now. But we can see an encouraging outline. Living standards may not rise threefold, as over the past 70 years, but they could easily double.
Does being healthier and wealthier also mean wiser? Well, that’s for our children and grandchildren to fix.