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Respect our elders? No chance, writes Laurie Penny

The government's new youth strategy is nothing but spin.

The government's new youth strategy is nothing but spin.

It is some testament to the awfulness of Christmas telly this year that I took time out in between the Queen's message, the Archbishop's sermon and one of the most mawkishly pointless episodes of Doctor Who ever broadcast to read the blurb behind the government's new "Positive For Youth" strategy.

After twelve months of devastating cuts to schools, universities and youth services, a million unemployed 18-24 year olds and voiceless, frustrated young people burning and looting in the inner cities, it would be nice to think that someone has finally decided to start taking an interest in the generation currently on the cusp of adulthood.

Unfortunately, there's nothing new about this strategy but the spin. Precisely no additional funding is being allocated for youth services - the plan is just an involved way of making it look as though there is. Meanwhile, fresh research has revealed that schools across the country are being forced to cut frontline services, from extra-curricular activities to arts, music and careers services. Thousands of careers advisors have been laid off, and presumably some of them had not yet reached the stage of rocking, crying and inviting young jobseekers to pray with them over the latest unemployment forecasts. Local councils are also slashing their provisions for young people, from youth clubs to special needs grants.

At every level of government, youth services are the first to go when cuts are imposed, because they have few measurable outcomes - meaning that by the time the damage done can be properly tallied, the political careers of the current administration will be beyond scrutiny.

Instead, the "Positive for Youth" strategy echoes the Queen, the Archbishop and the rest of the Westminster machine in replacing actual ideas with lots of rhetorical flourishes about duty, family and responsibility. There is much talk of "listening to" young people - which is all to the good, as young people in Britain today have some fairly urgent about education and economic policy, some of which have been written on the Treasury wall in spraypaint for the attention of ministers - but no coherent plans to actually take any of their concerns into account. One young participant told me that teenagers who were consulted in drawing up the document had to fight to get phrases like "young people will learn to respect authority and their elders" removed, but the sentiment is still there in the meat of the text.

As we move into 2012, with all the old certainties disintegrating into the scurf of yesterday's consensus, the message to young people is simple: please, just don't kick off anymore. We may not have done anything to deserve your respect, but respect us anyway, or we'll send in the police. Sit down and shut up. Sois jeune et tais-toi.

There is no strategy here for the future, because there doesn't need to be. Nobody votes for the future anymore. For at least thirty years, politicians have played to a lexicon of temporary, individual self-interest and short-term profit. Even today, those who talk of decreasing the deficit through austerity measures have quietly ceased to speak the language of long-term growth. Nobody is investing in young people, in the environment, in infrastructure, in education, in any of the things that might make us - in an addictive little phrase I picked up at Occupy Wall Street - "good ancestors".

Instead, all the current crop of politicians seems to be able to do is beg and bully the young and disenfranchised into giving them respect. The riots were a gift, because they allowed the centre-right to frame social breakdown in terms of delinquency rather than despair. Nonetheless, I can think of few historical moments where respect for our elders has been less appropriate. From government cuts to the Eurozone crisis to the meltdown of the Durban climate talks, the political elite is fairly obviously making a total hash of almost everything they're in charge of.

Respecting them at this point would not only be unfitting - it would be downright foolish.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 02 January 2012 issue of the New Statesman, And you thought 2011 was bad ...

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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.