No, it’s not how Engelbert HumperdinckÂ prevented theÂ greatest single ever released (Penny Lane/Strawberry Fields) from reaching No. 1.Â It’s not how Swansea CityÂ managed to spendÂ a few heady days one October at the top of the old First Division.Â (They were relegated at the end of the season, and relegated down to the fourth division over the three following seasons.) It’s not even why tie-dyeing.
The really great mystery of the 1960s is much more complicated – and indeed much more mystifying – than any of these (and also, I must admit, more than a little off-piste even for a fairly loosely-defined blog like this).Â Here it comes.Â
BackÂ in the sixties, in real terms people earned something like a third of what we do now, and total tax rates – income tax, NI, local taxes, VAT (which didn’t exist then) and all the others – were less than half what they are now.
Against that, the population was smaller, but not that much smaller – say somethingÂ a little under 50 million,Â compared toÂ today’s 60 million.
So governments, national and local,Â had a fraction of the money that they have today – maybe something around a quarter as much in real terms.Â And since people were a lot poorer, arguably they needed a lot more help.
And yet – here’s theÂ mystery – in the 60s pretty much everything worked.Â Hospitals worked, schools worked, trains worked, roads worked, libraries worked, public parks worked, refuse collection worked, buses worked, GPs worked, NHS dentistry worked, extremely large armed forces worked, the mental health system worked, post offices worked, even unemployment benefit worked to the extent that well into the 70s layabout students like meÂ could spend months if not years drawing the dole without any serious pressure to get a job.
To put the same paragraph theÂ other way round, these days, with something like four times the money,Â patients in hospital spend the night on trollies in corridors and are chucked out within hours of operations, whereas after I had some routine dental work under general anaesthetic in 1967 I was kept in for three days just to keep an eye on me;Â just under half of eleven-year-olds leave primary school effectively unable to read, write or do simple arithmetic;Â trains are shatteringly much more expensive and unreliable, and their scheduled journey times generally longer, than they were 40 years ago;Â it’s more or less impossible to make a journey on major roads without maddening delays and difficulties arising from road works; public libraries have been closed left right and centre, and the few than remain are mostly Resource Centres offering CDs and videos but precious few books;Â public parks areÂ wastelands of needle-strewn and dogshit-fouled grass…well, I could go on, but the grumpy old man thing is only amusing up to a certain point.
Over the same time, for all our waste and foolishness, it’s clear that our private lives have become incredibly much more affluent.Â The cost of all goods has plummeted in real terms:Â we’re up to our necks in fridges, DVDs, computers, cars, microwaves, digital cameras, cinema sound systems, plasma TVs, alarm clock radios, expresso makers, ride-on mowers and all the rest of it to an extent which would have astonished our 1967 counterparts.Â We eat and drink better (and probably more), we travel much, much more, we buy far more out-of-home entertainment, we own more clothes, we spend more on everything from birthday presents to duvet covers.
But while the increase in affluence is plain to see in our private lives, it seems utterly, completely, mystifyingly absent in our public lives.Â The Chancellor dips ever-more-desperately into our pockets with more and more stealth taxes.Â Speed camera fines generate another few hundred million.Â Not indexing inheritance tax: a billion or two.Â A transparently bogus “environmental tax” on flying:Â a few hundred million more.Â None of it makes any difference.Â Nothing works.Â The Army don’t have the right equipment, thousands of Post Offices will be closed in the next year or two, the lastÂ fragments of NHS dentistry are falling apart like rotten fillings before our eyes.
Where is the money going?Â I understand some of it.Â High tech medicine:Â in 1967 we needed scalpels and bandages, in 2007 we need MRI scanners and retrovirals.Â Motorway maintenance:Â our poorÂ overused motorways need resurfacing more often in a decade than the old A1 did in a century.Â Â Â Catching up with decades of underinvestment:Â there probably isn’t enough money in the world to replace all of our overground and undergroundÂ Victorian infrastructure.
But the thing is, all the factors like this that I can think of don’t begin to solve the mystery (especially when you take into accountÂ that ifÂ the price of goods in public life has fallen just as much as the price of goods in private life, the NHS can probably buy an MRI scanner today for aboutÂ the same price as a box of a dozen scalpels forty years ago anyway).
I know, also, that some of those services which I say “worked” in the 1960s left a good deal to be desired.Â I know about what was going on in mental hospitals – hey, I’ve both seen and read “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.”Â But at least there were mental hospitals.Â Now, it’s Care In The Community, one of those phrases which means the exact opposite of what it says.Â Rather like the offices of some friends of mine located out near Hammersmith at a place called Kensington Village, for the obvious reason that it isn’t in Kensington and it isn’t a village.
But anyway.Â Even when I’ve made every allowance I can imagine, I can’t begin to explain the mystery.Â How could everything pretty much work with no money then, whereas almost everything doesn’t work with lots and lots and lots of money now?Â The mystery really bothers me.Â If you can cast any new light on it – not just telling me about the MRI scanners again – I’d be really grateful.