Where did EastEnders go wrong?

Where are the Somalian faces and the realistic depictions of Multi-Cultural London English? What used to be a boundary-pushing British institution is rapidly becoming completely irrelevant.

EastEnders: it’s as recognisable a facet of our culture as awkward silences on the tube, the Royal family and fish’n’chips: the quintessentially Ing-Ger-Lish soap opera, where everybody lives in a cramped terraced house, refuses to pronounce their T’s and indulges liberally in H-dropping. EastEnders is the show by Londoners, for Londoners, a million miles away from such sanitised American counterparts as Dallas, with its lavish sets and fine furniture. One might even call it a true British institution.

In its original incarnation, EastEnders truly was the breath of fresh air that the British soap opera scene had been longing for. It had a niche; it plugged a genuine gap in the market. It was a Shakespearean drama married with a sense of gritty, cutting-edge, kitchen-sink social realism. This was the longed-for accurate representation of the inner-city working class – perhaos not quite to the level of ‘Shameless’, we might argue in 2013, with its kids riding in trolleys, bonfires in car-parks and discarded furniture, fridges and/or washing machines left to rot in the front garden - but still: alleyways had puddles of piss, litter was in the gutters, graffiti decorated the walls of dilapidated houses. To its eternal credit, the Beeb’s East London soap never shied away from exploring controversial contemporary issues:  through the years we’ve seen EastEnders deal with AIDS, teen pregnancy, racism, drug and alcohol addiction, mental illness, and homophobia, to name only a few.

But despite these achievements, there is also something that has gone strangely backward in Britain’s most beloved soap. In fact, having done research for this article by watching innumerable clips on Youtube and iPlayer, I can tell you that at its core, the modern-day version of EastEnders is horrifically boring and disappointingly watered down. Less than halfway through my marathon, I felt with absolute certainty that I’d rather watch gears grind. The plotlines failed to grip me; the characters displayed less charisma than I’ve seen before in pavement cracks. What exactly has changed?

Over time, we have seen EastEnders transform from a gritty and boundary-pushing production with a genuine feel to a middle class writers’ portrayal of working class life. Simply put, as EastEnders becomes a plot-driven drama, the realism suffers - and I’m not talking about the mandatory rape/death/fight/incest/UFO sighting that occurs with loveable predictability every Christmas Day.

As we know, EastEnders is set in the fictional East ‘Lahndan Tahn’ of Walford, postal district E20. The programme first came to the small screen as a representation of a dying, (predominantly) white working-class in inner-city London. According to Underground History, “the fictitious station is located on the District line. The map on the wall was printed with actual train times to and from Walford East – though closer inspection of the map showed that Walford East was located between Bow Road and West Ham (thus taking the place of Bromley-by-Bow).”

If accuracy is to be considered, then, EastEnders would represent inner-city, highly multi-ethnic slums such as Bow, Tower Hamlets, Hackney, Walthamstow and Mile End as opposed to highly industrialised and distinctively white working class East London suburban towns such as Barking and Dagenham. It’s surprising, then, that the racial diversity is so out of kilter. For instance, where is the Somali family who would have been so likely to move onto the EastEnders streets? Since 1993, the Somali community has continued to expand all around the UK from suburbs to inner-cities, even more so in London. The first round of Somalian immigrants were predominantly refugee and thusly placed in social housing on estates so familiar to the cast of EastEnders. Their absence in the soap is disappointing.

Such major discrepancies matter, especially when you consider the well-known words of EastEnders writer Julia Smith: "Above all, we wanted realism.” And while the writers’ commitment to such realism is echoed in their efforts to have characters continually discuss real life events such as Andy Murray’s Wimbledon victory and the royal baby, some portrayals are woefully out of touch: chirpy Cockney geezers on market stall screaming, “Three for a pahnd!” where the reality is much more “one pound fish”.

This isn’t the only example of out-of-touch dialect in the soap. While EE’s FatBoy incorporates certain facets of Multi-Cultural London English in his speech, a character like Liam is still going around saying, “That’s sick, blad” with a straight face. And for all the Bens, Abbies and Laurens, where are the kids in the youth hostels? The ones that didn’t grow up in a nuclear family? The ones that took to drug-dealing and crime not because they were peer pressured by yuppies with slit eyebrows doing their best Dizzee Rascal impression, but because they actually have to make a living or else starve?

I’m willing to put aside the 2004 slang. What I can’t put aside is that this the general representation of Multi-Cultural London English in EastEnders. Those who speak it in the soap are invariably a crude personification of those imaginary characters the red-top rags label the ‘feral youth’, ‘chavs’, ‘ASBOs’. This simply reinforces the belief that MCLE is a language of the streets, a language of the uneducated, uncouth and unashamedly ignorant and unsympathetic, one to be dropped as soon as civilisation occurs. As a result of education and other modes of social mobility, people born in relative socio-economic deprivation have been able to propel themselves toward a higher level of cultural capital and up the social ladder, all the while retaining the mode of speech that they always used. But these people don’t exist on Albert Square. The people speaking MCLE on EastEnders are those feral black boys leading the poor white boy astray. It brings to mind David Starkey’s infamous insinuation that “white boys...turning black” is a major reason for social decay.

With a sensitive overhaul of its language and its racial diversity – preferably an overhaul directed by people from the communities they write about - EastEnders would have a fighting chance of returning to its former glory. But, sadly, from where I’m standing, it looks like the soap that was once a British institution is now in danger of becoming completely irrelevant.

Yacine Assoudani is a writer of Afro-Arabian descent, born and raised in Hayes, West London. Tweet him @YassinMY

EastEnders: out of touch? Image: Getty.
Yacine Assoudani is a journalist from West London. More of his work can be found at www.mediadiversity.uk. You can tweet him @YassinMY
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We're racing towards another private debt crisis - so why did no one see it coming?

The Office for Budget Responsibility failed to foresee the rise in household debt. 

This is a call for a public inquiry on the current situation regarding private debt.

For almost a decade now, since 2007, we have been living a lie. And that lie is preparing to wreak havoc on our economy. If we do not create some kind of impartial forum to discuss what is actually happening, the results might well prove disastrous. 

The lie I am referring to is the idea that the financial crisis of 2008, and subsequent “Great Recession,” were caused by profligate government spending and subsequent public debt. The exact opposite is in fact the case. The crash happened because of dangerously high levels of private debt (a mortgage crisis specifically). And - this is the part we are not supposed to talk about—there is an inverse relation between public and private debt levels.

If the public sector reduces its debt, overall private sector debt goes up. That's what happened in the years leading up to 2008. Now austerity is making it happening again. And if we don't do something about it, the results will, inevitably, be another catastrophe.

The winners and losers of debt

These graphs show the relationship between public and private debt. They are both forecasts from the Office for Budget Responsibility, produced in 2015 and 2017. 

This is what the OBR was projecting what would happen around now back in 2015:

This year the OBR completely changed its forecast. This is how it now projects things are likely to turn out:

First, notice how both diagrams are symmetrical. What happens on top (that part of the economy that is in surplus) precisely mirrors what happens in the bottom (that part of the economy that is in deficit). This is called an “accounting identity.”

As in any ledger sheet, credits and debits have to match. The easiest way to understand this is to imagine there are just two actors, government, and the private sector. If the government borrows £100, and spends it, then the government has a debt of £100. But by spending, it has injected £100 more pounds into the private economy. In other words, -£100 for the government, +£100 for everyone else in the diagram. 

Similarly, if the government taxes someone for £100 , then the government is £100 richer but there’s £100 subtracted from the private economy (+£100 for government, -£100 for everybody else on the diagram).

So what implications does this kind of bookkeeping have for the overall economy? It means that if the government goes into surplus, then everyone else has to go into debt.

We tend to think of money as if it is a bunch of poker chips already lying around, but that’s not how it really works. Money has to be created. And money is created when banks make loans. Either the government borrows money and injects it into the economy, or private citizens borrow money from banks. Those banks don’t take the money from people’s savings or anywhere else, they just make it up. Anyone can write an IOU. But only banks are allowed to issue IOUs that the government will accept in payment for taxes. (In other words, there actually is a magic money tree. But only banks are allowed to use it.)

There are other factors. The UK has a huge trade deficit (blue), and that means the government (yellow) also has to run a deficit (print money, or more accurately, get banks to do it) to inject into the economy to pay for all those Chinese trainers, American iPads, and German cars. The total amount of money can also fluctuate. But the real point here is, the less the government is in debt, the more everyone else must be. Austerity measures will necessarily lead to rising levels of private debt. And this is exactly what has happened.

Now, if this seems to have very little to do with the way politicians talk about such matters, there's a simple reason: most politicians don’t actually know any of this. A recent survey showed 90 per cent of MPs don't even understand where money comes from (they think it's issued by the Royal Mint). In reality, debt is money. If no one owed anyone anything at all there would be no money and the economy would grind to a halt.

But of course debt has to be owed to someone. These charts show who owes what to whom.

The crisis in private debt

Bearing all this in mind, let's look at those diagrams again - keeping our eye particularly on the dark blue that represents household debt. In the first, 2015 version, the OBR duly noted that there was a substantial build-up of household debt in the years leading up to the crash of 2008. This is significant because it was the first time in British history that total household debts were higher than total household savings, and therefore the household sector itself was in deficit territory. (Corporations, at the same time, were raking in enormous profits.) But it also predicted this wouldn't happen again.

True, the OBR observed, austerity and the reduction of government deficits meant private debt levels would have to go up. However, the OBR economists insisted this wouldn't be a problem because the burden would fall not on households but on corporations. Business-friendly Tory policies would, they insisted, inspire a boom in corporate expansion, which would mean frenzied corporate borrowing (that huge red bulge below the line in the first diagram, which was supposed to eventually replace government deficits entirely). Ordinary households would have little or nothing to worry about.

This was total fantasy. No such frenzied boom took place.

In the second diagram, two years later, the OBR is forced to acknowledge this. Corporations are just raking in the profits and sitting on them. The household sector, on the other hand, is a rolling catastrophe. Austerity has meant falling wages, less government spending on social services (or anything else), and higher de facto taxes. This puts the squeeze on household budgets and people are forced to borrow. As a result, not only are households in overall deficit for the second time in British history, the situation is actually worse than it was in the years leading up to 2008.

And remember: it was a mortgage crisis that set off the 2008 crash, which almost destroyed the world economy and plunged millions into penury. Not a crisis in public debt. A crisis in private debt.

An inquiry

In 2015, around the time the original OBR predictions came out, I wrote an essay in the Guardian predicting that austerity and budget-balancing would create a disastrous crisis in private debt. Now it's so clearly, unmistakably, happening that even the OBR cannot deny it.

I believe the time has come for there be a public investigation - a formal public inquiry, in fact - into how this could be allowed to happen. After the 2008 crash, at least the economists in Treasury and the Bank of England could plausibly claim they hadn't completely understood the relation between private debt and financial instability. Now they simply have no excuse.

What on earth is an institution called the “Office for Budget Responsibility” credulously imagining corporate borrowing binges in order to suggest the government will balance the budget to no ill effects? How responsible is that? Even the second chart is extremely odd. Up to 2017, the top and bottom of the diagram are exact mirrors of one another, as they ought to be. However, in the projected future after 2017, the section below the line is much smaller than the section above, apparently seriously understating the amount both of future government, and future private, debt. In other words, the numbers don't add up.

The OBR told the New Statesman ​that it was not aware of any errors in its 2015 forecast for corporate sector net lending, and that the forecast was based on the available data. It said the forecast for business investment has been revised down because of the uncertainty created by Brexit. 

Still, if the “Office of Budget Responsibility” was true to its name, it should be sounding off the alarm bells right about now. So far all we've got is one mention of private debt and a mild warning about the rise of personal debt from the Bank of England, which did not however connect the problem to austerity, and one fairly strong statement from a maverick columnist in the Daily Mail. Otherwise, silence. 

The only plausible explanation is that institutions like the Treasury, OBR, and to a degree as well the Bank of England can't, by definition, warn against the dangers of austerity, however alarming the situation, because they have been set up the way they have in order to justify austerity. It's important to emphasise that most professional economists have never supported Conservative policies in this regard. The policy was adopted because it was convenient to politicians; institutions were set up in order to support it; economists were hired in order to come up with arguments for austerity, rather than to judge whether it would be a good idea. At present, this situation has led us to the brink of disaster.

The last time there was a financial crash, the Queen famously asked: why was no one able to foresee this? We now have the tools. Perhaps the most important task for a public inquiry will be to finally ask: what is the real purpose of the institutions that are supposed to foresee such matters, to what degree have they been politicised, and what would it take to turn them back into institutions that can at least inform us if we're staring into the lights of an oncoming train?