In 1978 the novelist Anthony Burgess wrote the now largely forgotten 1985. An extremely right wing, borderline racist work, it is set in Tucland, his imagining of the world seven years later.
Kingsley Amis liked it, as well he might. The Daily Telegraph thought it was “a book as important as it is frightening”.
In Tucland, the unions are in complete control. The central character’s wife burns to death in a fire because the fire unions are on strike, so no-one is allowed to rescue her as this would involve crossing a picket line.
You can see why it is now largely forgotten. That fantasy dystopia, inspired by the militant trade union activity in the 1970s and Burgess’s own political views, never came about, nor was it ever likely to. Margaret Thatcher took control a year later and the rest, as they say, is history.
But I have been wondering what the equivalent dystopia, set seven years hence in 2030 and extrapolated from current trends, might look like. This would probably be a year after the next but one election, and on the assumption, now admittedly looking unlikely, that the Conservatives win the next one, the country would by then look rather different.
The first funeral is for political protest. The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act places restrictions on the right to protest. We have yet to see how it will be implemented.
The second is for the right to strike. This, as you can see is under threat. Employers providing some essential services will be able to sue unions and sack workers if certain minimum levels are not met.
The third funeral is of various employment rights, such as paid holidays and maternity pay, to be scrapped as part of a “bonfire of EU regulations, along with some legislation protecting the environment.
The fourth is free access to healthcare. As I suggested here the other day, I do not think the NHS can be privatised within the current electoral cycle. Five years beyond the next election, if the Conservatives remain in power, who knows?
There are plenty within the party who would love to see free NHS services replaced by some sort of insurance system. We know, as I pointed out then, there have been contacts between senior Government officials and US healthcare providers.
If the NHS continues to fail to provide basic services, through no fault of those working within it, people who can afford to will increasingly go private. All this chips away at the concept of healthcare free at the point of delivery.
Are pensions at risk?
The fifth funeral is further down the line. The various right-wing think-tanks do not like the state pension. It is seen as a hand-out, and people should not be reliant on state handouts, they say. One of them, the Adam Smith Institute, has said relatively wealthy pensioners should not get it.
The idea of means testing the state pension has been around for a while. It looks superficially attractive. Why should those who are relatively wealthy be paid a sum of money they may not necessarily need by the state?
Except that it sets up what economists call a “perverse incentive”, aka the “Cobra effect”. Why should anyone pay into a pension fund if the more they get out in due course, the less they get paid by the state? This is particularly true of the self-employed, who currently have to shop for their own pensions in the marketplace rather than have an employer make contributions. This can be horribly expensive.
It is equally true for those who have an occupational pension. They might typically have to forgo 3% of their earnings, to be paid into a pension plan, topped up with another 5% by the employer. This is their money – they pay tax on that 3%, while the employers’ contribution is also part of their employment package. Again, why bother if you lose your state pension as a result?
The Adam Smith paper said anyone with assets worth more than £1 million should be denied a state pension. This falls apart as soon as you look at it too closely. It would make poorer, by the Institute’s own estimate, one in four pensioners. It is electoral suicide. It also means a poor widow in a house worth £1 million would get no pension at all, while two people living in a house worth £1.95 million, and by any definition richer, would get two.
And what of the married couple in that £1 million house? When one dies, the other loses their pension. As I said, electoral suicide. But expect the idea of means-testing for state pensions to gain traction.
Think tanks drive tomorrow’s policies
And what those extreme right wing, free market think-tanks suggest today has a nasty habit of becoming Government policy the day after tomorrow. Think of the Truss-Kwarteng mini-budget, entirely inspired by their ideas.
So, this is our dystopia, extrapolated out to the year 2030. No right to protest, no right to strike, no employment protection, no free healthcare, and no state pension. You work until you drop, or until you become economically inactive, through old age or ill health, in which case you drop anyway.
It is an engaging fantasy. I wonder what we should call it? Not Tucland. Toryland?
More from Martin Waller
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