Though he has spent much of the past four decades being greeted by a cheery cry of “onyerbike” wherever he goes, Norman Tebbit technically never told the unemployed to get on their bike and look for work. He merely responded to the suggestion – from the then Young Conservative National chairman, Iain Picton! – that rioting was a perfectly understandable response to an economy in which three million people were out of work with an anecdote about the Great Depression.
“I grew up in the ‘30s with an unemployed father,” he told the party’s conference in autumn 1981. “He didn’t riot. He got on his bike and looked for work, and he kept looking till he found it.” This was in its way a clever line, transforming a matter of structural forces (for which the government was in part responsible) into one of individual work ethic (in which the unemployed have no one to blame but themselves, the lazy bastards; whether several million people simultaneously pedalling about the country looking for work would have generated jobs for anyone but bicycle repair shops is a question that remained disappointingly unanswered).
And so, since there is nothing new under the sun, the government is trying it again. But Tory memories of the glorious Thatcherite past as ever bear little relation to the actually existing Thatcherite reality. So this time, a minister really is telling people to get on their bikes to look for work.
Work and Pensions Secretary Mel Stride’s ongoing campaign to deal with inflation-inducing labour shortages this week brought him to the headquarters of the food delivery giant Deliveroo, which, he opined to the Times, offers “loads of great opportunities” that economically under-active older workers “might not have otherwise thought of”.
The response from the press was predictable, arriving quicker and hotter than a takeaway vindaloo. “Get on your [Deliveroo] bike if you need to work,” the paper splashed on its scoop. “Get on your bike and deliver takeaways to earn extra cash, minister tells over 50s”, screamed the Independent. The Guardian, meanwhile, went with “Over-50s could deliver takeaways, says work and pensions secretary”, followed, I imagine, by a stern talking to for the subs.
In fairness Stride – I don’t like doing this, but I do like the lovely comfy moral high ground on which it places me – his argument wasn’t quite as simple as, “Quit whining and bring me my lunch, you peasants”. In the aftermath of Brexit and Covid-19, the UK is struggling with labour shortages, which are contributing to the high rates of inflation. There has also been a sharp rise in the number of “economically inactive” adults, who are neither working nor seeking to. The idea that this might have something to do with their health doesn’t seem to have occurred to anyone in government.
At the same time, the cost-of-living crisis means that a lot of people are seeking ways to top up their income: you hardly need to be Adam Smith to wonder if these two problems might share a solution.
And to be fair to the universe, and the capricious gods who run it: all this is extremely funny. One of the reasons Britain has so visibly declined these last few years is because it has been increasingly governed in the interests of old people who want an easy life, rather than young ones who still have a stake in the future. That the over-50s are now being told to get on their bikes could be read as a sign that “young” is now a group that includes everyone not actually retired (great news for those millions who now stand to remain young until the day we die of old age). But it could also mean that the economy is bad enough, or those managing it incompetent enough, that my long-standing dream of retired Brexiteers doing national service picking fruit is at last to come to pass. You broke it, you bought it, boomers.
On the other, less schadenfreude-stained hand, though: this is all objectively terrible. It’s all very well being smug, which is why I just spent an entire paragraph doing it; but there are good reasons why we don’t expect older people to do risky or physically demanding jobs, and why we created things such as “pensions” so they wouldn’t have to do them. If things really are so bad now that ministers are encouraging them to do such things – making trips to the headquarters of specific corporations, which have less-than-brilliant records on staff welfare, to do it – then it’s just another sign of quite how badly this government has failed its country.
The last Tory government survived another 16 years after Tebbit’s bike comments: the economy improved, and he was in any case only berating people who probably would never have voted for his party anyway. Now, though, there seems little hope of a turnaround in economic fortunes, and government ministers are attacking their own potential supporters. The one upside to be found here is it seems extremely unlikely we’ll need to put up with another 16 years of this nonsense.
[See also: Will Rishi Sunak sack Jeremy Hunt?]