Tuesday, July 01, 2014

The English White Russians

One cultural difference I have been able to distill down between England and Scotland, if not also Norway and other left field successful democracies, is the White Russian effect.

"White Russian" was for me a geopolitical term  from  our dull history lessons on the 1917 revolution. The white russians sided with the Tsar, despite being poor peasants, because they aspired to the rewards they may have recieved by being loyal to the old empire. A friend of mine however, used the phrase 20 years ago upon return from a successful career but a broken marriage in Norwich of all places. His wife had fallen in with "white russians" apparently.

What he meant was the wannabees- the social and fiscal climbers. Hoi palloi who wanted to mix with the rich-set such that it may rub off on them and they may get to join-the-club. The worst type of snobs in reality, who turn their cheeks to their own humbler beginnings and white-wash their offspring through private schools.

These are the backbone of David Cameron's support: people who want to work hard and get on....by sucking up and stepping on other people. People who believe they work harder, smarter and more effectively than others and therefore deserve far more. It is a bit of a self fulfilling prophecy, true that has to be said that without ambition you go nowhere.  However, frankly the statistics of wages in the England dont add up: both for full time employees and small businesses the income is meagre compared to Germany, Scandinavia, Switzerland and so on, while other countries like Australia and Canada have better standards of living and personal health.

The average working household in the UK takes in a relatively small 40K per year where as the average house is more than six times that. Furthermore, the average working hours in the uk are the highest in europe with many employees on fixed annual pay with no overtime. Less time for family, fitness, healthy food and spending money in the economy. more time for stress and obesity, which will exacerbate the ageing demographic in the uk with a sicker profile from the generation in their thirties and forties now as they age over the next twenty years. The new flexible working law will take time to un do the culture of presenti-ism.

So being average is a great come down to the lower middle class, who have been surpassed in income by those in the higher skilled working classes and the semi skilled unionised sector: even a couple both working as train drivers earn 30% above average household income. Oh but unions are bad, and hard skills are old fashioned? I love the train driver parallel for fun, but  in fact average household incomes for families across the board, not just in full time work,  are less than a single train driver could expect to earn with a little overtime.

Mine is the first post war generation who will see a poorer standard of living, errosion of consumer spending power and less control over their careers. Why? Because we believed the mantas of going to university rather than apprenticeships, of following what we loved rather than what was a good little earner, and of believing unions were an allround bad thing. And because we became white russians.

Being a "white russian" is a pretence to one day being Mr
Above Average, while in reality the Tsars just get more power by you being on their side. In England in particular, they are this failing middle class of social climbers who are so prominent in the culture at work and in communities.  Scotland differs for now at least, in this "demographic" (to missuse that term, why not? Everybody else does) in that we remember our roots more and are more confident in them. Perhaps we Scots are less aspirational, you could say meaner but less greedy.

In fact I come from a very middle class area in Scotchlandshire, and one notable point on social mobility is the downwardness! Many a well to do's offspring, or simply the book-keeper's son, ended up as taxi drivers or swimming pool attendants, even labourers and rough necks. Even with a private education, the meritocracy caught up with them in the tough 1980s and 90s. The spoilt, the dyslexic, the manic ADHDers and the couldnt be bothereds.

Scotland has a share of white russians, but more notably  a well established upper middle class who are the paternal (ofen patronising) middle management king George envisaged in his vision of the "public" school system. They are remearkable in the way they keep to their own small circles, highly visible in Edin-bra' and Perth, but behind the scenes in most other Scottish cities. Lack of numbers and lack of aspiration to join their ranks has one major political result north of the border:  25 years in the wilderness for the Scottish conservative party, who are viewed as tweedy old snobs by many.

Is however, economic progression and the temple-of-growth not actually the net result of a larger aspirant capitalist middle class? Not at all really, it is the great lie of the American dream.  The USA is dependent on natural resources and then government spending on defence, private health insurance and subsidised corn where middle class tax dollars and mortgage payements, rise inevitably upwards.

Countries like Canada, Australia and Norway (all way above the Uk and USA for average well being and living standards) are dependent on natural resources, but have a smaller population to reep the benefits. However here is the lesson: Angola has richer oil and mineral reserves than Norway ,yet is of course a land stricken by poverty.  The top of the pops countries above all have two things in common: large corporates and patient government investment with a liberal degree of resource planning, and unionised workforces. They are in a nutshell, better at reeping and retaining wealth for more of their populations.

None of the top countries in the world to live in as a worker, are without problems, the major one being the remarable ageing population putting pressure for more immigration, a route which often leads to erroded standards of living as management deunionise and reduce pay for the new 'naive' work force. Their forms for conservative governments have by in large tickled with the status quo such that companies still invest while workers still get high pay, while the right wing have often been the ones to finally address the pensions gap, except in Norway where the last labour coalition government took the first fairly crucial reforms.

White Russians are causing havoc in England. It is their political agenda which is being played to by successive governments since Thatcher's first parliament. Their values of small 'we know best' are being extended to education and health, where quite frankly it looks like being a mess. These are the last two areas government can privatise to effect some form of percieved positive social engineering. Everything else is sold or has failed in privatisation, best not talk about rail track, nor the inflationary power industry.

It is a great white (russian) hope that they can run their schools better, that they can reduce the cost of the NHS while pmaking health care effective with their small business know how. They used to be called busy-bodies. The types who sat on the PTA,or the charitable board for the local hospital. Now they know more about teaching a curricula and heart disease management than those poor idiotic experts with their many fruitless years from university and training.

The white russians are mobilising across europe, by their very nature they are more likely to be involved in politics and implementing policy. In Sweden the country has seen a change over from the idealistic and boringly successful socialist towards an aspirational middle class society. The great irony is that this was partly driven by racism, with the welfare state percieved as supporting lay about refugees.

The same immigrant base in Sweden and say the UK and Norway, are also a source for new support to the right wing, as they dont appreciate the franchise of a high tax paying welfare state, and see themselves as rising above the refugee dependency status which is diluting the worth of the social systems across europe. This presents a double-think for the right wing across europe, whose traditional base has been conservative anti immigration. Whereas on the one side these new aspirant immigrants are swing voters for them, and their capitalist pay masters want to avoid rising power of the labour market by having more competition for jobs, on the other side non-western immigration is deeply unpopular with their core voters as was seen in the recent protest votes in the EU elections in France and the UK.

The welfare state often falls into the ideoligical abyss when it comes to two things: affordability (balancing the books now and in future) and the 'dependency' culture. Norway and Canada have been clever in linking benefits to work: if you do not work up credits then you are likely to be on a very subsistance wage relative to the cost of living, and better off in any form of job. The UK, France and Sweden have not been so astute and in particular not with immigrants. Both France and Sweden have third generation dependcy / economically margjinal families by the box load in their formerly socialist workers housing estates, long since abandoned by white workers with their rising pay and mobility. The UK has issues with afro-caribbean crime ghettos, and extreme islamic recruitment in poor asian areas, but more so with northern council estates with a white majority and high unemployment, high long term sick, high teenage single mums....the usual ills socialism gets the blame for and which seem to rob more tax money from those white russian pockets than a failed energy market, a white elephant nuclear submarine based deterrant and flexible labour market which the state picks up the tab for in terms of poor contracts with short notice.

All this is fuel for the white russian band wagon, as a growing section of the  middle class  sees the welfare state as being a tax burden not a safety net or value for money franchise. we have to contend with work a holic managers and owner directors at work who are in their legions, and push for longer hours and more for less.

The antidote ? Well as I say a dose of reality: if you are not in one of the proffessions, or a highly skilled technician/site engineer, then it is very unlikely that your white-russian attitudes will actually get you further up the ladder of material wealth. Far better to be remebered as a good, fair boss. Better to orientate self employment around your personal needs and family than ever higher financial goals. Indeed as a non white russian, our two best defences are attack: going self employed and negotiating better terms than we would have as employees once a white-russian is dependent on your labour, releasing then the added value you have as a supplier if you like, or seeking out new skills  and becoming unionised again to extract better working conditions.

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