If the coalition wants to reduce NEETs, it should bring back EMA

Since the Education Maintenance Allowance was abolished, full-time attendance for 16-18-year-olds has fallen by 3.8 per cent.

"It should not be forgotten", wrote William Hazlitt in his classic essay On the Ignorance of the Learned, "that the least respectable character among modern politicians was the cleverest boy at Eton." This will never seem truer than from the discussion over the government’s plans to take benefits away from young people, only a week after an old Etonian proclaimed permanent austerity, and days after another says the super rich are a "put-on minority".

It seems perverse that when the number of NEETs in our country is larger than a city the size of Birmingham, the way to solve this problem is to further undermine them, while at the same time further enriching those whp benefit most from government policy.

What this represents is another crude right-wing attack on social security, portraying benefits not as part of a safety net to protect people, regardless of age, from market forces beyond their control, but as social stigma, handed down from on high to those deemed victims of their own fecklessness.

This unbalance in priorities is building up future costs. According to the government, the estimated cost across the lifetime of each 16-18 year old NEET equates to a £56,000 loss to the taxpayer, and a further £104,000 loss to the economy; and when combined and added up, the aggregate cost of all those classed as NEET is over £100bn.

Instead of talking tough on young people, the damage being done to them should be reconsidered. Evidence is slowly rising that austerity policies, such as the abolition Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA), were a grave mistake by this government. From the Department for Education’s own data, for the second year since the EMA was abolished at the end of 2010, full-time attendance for 16-18-year-olds has fallen by 3.8 per cent. This equates to over 52,100 fewer students lost from the education system, with a potential cost of £8.3bn added to the taxpayer and the economy if they go on to be NEET.

This is the equivalent of filling the House of Commons Chamber more than 80 times over. It is bigger than the student body of both Oxford and Cambridge combined. And if it was assembled in one straight line, it would reach from Nick Clegg’s house in Putney to the door of No. 10 Downing Street, and almost back again.

Of course, it is too soon to prove with certainty that this is due to the scrapping of EMA alone. But it does suggest that the government has dangerously undermined an entire age group through policies such as this. And it provides fertile ground for the proposals by IPPR to fix "the broken school-to-work transition" with a 'youth allowance' and 'youth guarantee'.

But the way in which the reforms are presented risks chastising young people for problems they did not create and letting the super rich off the hook. For example, one chilling suggestion in the IPPR report is the withdrawal of Employment and Support Allowance from disabled young people, forcing them to take a near 40% cut in their incomes by instead claiming the 'youth allowance'. This is done chiefly to save money. It could prove penny wise, but pound foolish, if it makes recipients hostile to the scheme. 

As for Cameron and Osborne, in the week we found NEETs remain a city-sized problem, they must show young people in the Autumn Statement that they are respectable characters - and not just clever boys from Eton.

James Mills is a Labour researcher and led the Save EMA campaign

Protesting students carry a cardboard skip opposite Downing Street on March 16, 2011 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Britain has built a national myth on winning the Second World War, but it’s distorting our politics

The impending humiliation of Brexit is going to have a lot more in common with Suez.

The Crown, Peter Morgan’s epic drama covering the reign of Elizabeth II, ended its first series with a nemesis waiting just off-stage to shake up its court politics. In the final episode, Egyptian president Gamal Nasser gives a rip-roaringly anti-imperialist – and anti-British – speech. The scene is set for the Suez Crisis to be a big plot point in Season 2.

Suez has gone down in history as the great foreign policy debacle of postwar Britain. The 1956 crisis – which saw Israel, France and Britain jointly invade Egypt to take control of the Suez Canal, only to slink off again, nine days later, once it became clear the US wasn’t having any of it – is seen as the point at which it became clear that even the bigger states of Europe were no longer great powers in the world. “President Eisenhower’s humiliation of Britain,” Jack Straw wrote in his 2012 memoir, “had been total.”

This was, though, a fairly limited sort of humiliation. Britain was not invaded or occupied; there was no sudden collapse in living standards, let alone a significant body count. Our greatest national debacle is nothing more than the realisation that Britain could no longer do whatever it wanted without fear of reprisal. As humiliations go, this one’s up there with the loss of status men have faced from the rise of feminism: suddenly, Britain could do what it wanted a mere 80 per cent of the time.

The Crown begins in 1947, when Prince Philip gives up his Greek and Danish royal titles and becomes a British subject, so that he can marry Princess Elizabeth. That year saw another British foreign policy debacle, one on which the show remains oddly silent. In the partition which followed India’s independence from the British Empire, 70 years ago this week, upwards of a million people died; in the decades since, the borders drawn up at that time have been the site of numerous wars, and Kashmir remains a flashpoint.

All this, one might think, might count as a far bigger regret than Suez – yet it doesn’t feature in the national narrative in the same way. Perhaps because partition was about the withdrawal of British forces, rather than their deployment; perhaps it’s simply that it all happened a very long way away. Or perhaps we just care less about a body count than we do about looking bad in front of the Americans.

I think, though, there’s another reason we don’t talk about this stuff: the end of empire is hidden behind a much bigger part of our national myth. In the Second World War, Britain is undeniably one of the good guys; for 12 months, indeed, Britain was the only good guy. Never mind that it still had the largest empire the world had ever seen to fall back on: Britain stood alone.

The centrality of the Second World War to the national myth warps our view of history and our place in the world in all sorts of ways. For starters, it means we’ve never had to take an honest account of the consequences of empire. In a tale about British heroes defeating Nazi villains, British mistakes or British atrocities just don’t fit. (Winston Churchill’s role in the 1943 Bengal famine – death toll: three million – by ordering the export of Indian grain to Britain rarely comes up in biopics.) In this dominant version of the national story, the end of empire is just the price we pay to defeat fascism.

More than that, our obsession with the Second World War creates the bizarre impression that failure is not just heroic, but a necessary precursor to success. Two of the most discussed elements of Britain’s war – the evacuation of Dunkirk, and the Blitz – are not about victory at all, but about survival against the odds. The lesson we take is that, with a touch of British grit and an ability to improvise, we can accomplish anything. It’s hard not to see this reflected in Brexit secretary David Davis’s lack of notes, but it’s nonsense: had the Russians and Americans not arrived to bail us out, Britain would have been stuffed.

Most obviously, being one of the winners of the Second World War infects our attitude to Europe. It’s probably not a coincidence that Britain has always been both one of the most eurosceptic EU countries, and one of the tiny number not to have been trampled by a foreign army at some point in recent history: we don’t instinctively grasp why European unity matters.

Once again, Suez is instructive. The lesson postwar France took from the discovery that the imperial age was over was that it should lead a strong and unified Europe. The lesson Britain took was that, so long as we cosied up to the US – Athens to their Rome, to quote Harold Macmillan – we could still bask in reflected superpower.

Until recently, Britain’s Second World War obsession and national ignorance about empire didn’t really seem to affect contemporary politics. They were embarrassing; but they were also irrelevant, so we could cope. Brexit, though, means that hubris is about to run headlong into nemesis, and the widespread assumption that Britain is a rich, powerful and much-loved country is unlikely to survive contact with reality. India will not offer a trade deal for sentimental reasons; Ireland is not a junior partner that will meekly follow us out of the door or police its borders on our behalf. The discovery that Britain is now a mid-ranking power that – excepting the over-heated south-east of England – isn’t even that rich is likely to mean a loss of status to rival Suez.

Morgan says he has planned six seasons of The Crown. (This looks entertainingly like a bet the Queen will be dead by 2021; if not, like Game of Thrones before it, he might well run out of text to adapt.) It’ll be interesting to see how the show handles Brexit. It began with the royal family facing up to a vertiginous decline in British power. As things stand, it may have to end the same way. 

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear