One of the recurring themes discussed on this blog by our illustrious readers (welcome one, welcome all, but don't be offended if stupid comments are taken to task!) is whether life in the UK has improved in recent decades or not. Anecdotal evidence suggests that most people would balk at the suggestion that life was better in the 1970s, and yet that is precisely what some people suggest. I want to explore that, and what better time to do that than on the day that it has been announced that net migration to the UK is at its highest ever level?
By complete coincidence, I have been reading Niall Ferguson's Always Right, which is a wonderfully unequivocally favourable account of Mrs T's time in office, analysed with the benefit of twenty plus years' hindsight. Ferguson even manages to get Saint Margaret off the hook for the Poll Tax and the ERM. Hmm. Mild tint of rose aside, Always Right contains some interesting stats to help us answer whether our great nation is better now than it was forty years ago.
In 1975, the inflation rate reached 27%. Today it is 1% on the old measure, and basically zero on the consumer prices index. We can argue about whether a particular index captures the actual cost of living for a real person or family, but there is no arguing that inflation has collapsed relative to its level in the 1970s; it hit eight point something as late as 1990. Returns on stocks and bonds were negative in the 1970s. The mines were costing £1bn a year in subsidy. No wonder people were leaving in droves for sunnier, less-traumatic climes.
Unemployment reached 4% when the Tories launched their famous election poster. It is hard to compare old stats with current stats because the way unemployment is measured has changed a lot in the intervening 40 years; unemployment is probably a little bit worse now than it was then, but not by much. Employment is at its highest ever, pretty much right now. Nobody would deny there were tough times in the 80s and 90s, but we really are enjoying a jobs boom here. Let's not talk even about the strikes.
A topic frequently returned-to at C@W is the price of housing. Nobody can deny that house prices have soared compared with income. There are many causes: rent de-control, tax reforms, the general build-up of capital in the economy; and yet owner-occupation was only 54% in 1981. Our heroic 1970s "average earner" was emphatically not racing up the property ladder. It has never been easy to buy a house, but outside the south-east doing so is now more affordable than it has been since John Major left office.
Foreign travel has blossomed - we spend four times as much abroad as we did in 1979, we have shiny gadgets coming out of our ears, a hugely wider choice of things to do in our spare time, and live generally much healthier lives. The UK's cultural industries are booming. Even the coffee is better.
State schools are some of the best in the country. We have the best demographics in Europe. We have Europe's economic and cultural capital.
Nobody talks about managed decline or the "brain drain" any more. So, hopefully you are now persuaded that we've never had it so good. No wonder so many people want to make this island their home, to make a go of it, to enjoy a life that would be impossible in many, many other parts of the world. Yes, we need more housing and infrastructure, of course. Nobody would argue that we don't have any problems. But give me 2015 over pretty much any earlier year.