The Economist on “Broken Britain”

I’m always tempted to roll my eyes and respond cynically when confronted with unqualified, fear-building statements like the “Britain is broken” refrain currently popular with the Tories. It’s too easy a statement, illustrated with anecdotal evidence, and implying that since you’re the ones claiming there’s a problem, people need you to fix it.

Of course, someone living as comfortably as me needs to be reminded that rolling our eyes and bringing out a cynical line is not really enough of a response. It’s increasingly seeming like even careful analysis, counter-examples and discussion aren’t enough either, but those of us who value those things should probably keep trying. And we need to do what we can to ensure that we’re not simply blinded by our comfort.

I was glad to see The Economist’s Through a glass darkly: Britain’s Broken Society attempting to bring some sober analysis to the table. (I don’t agree with them on the tories having the best education plans, but still…)

They rightly pick up on the issue that there is a real problem not only in the fact that societal fear is out of step with the relevant statistics, but also pick up on the ongoing issue that statistics (official or otherwise) are so rarely trusted. That’s an issue that urgently needs a solution if we’re to have a hope of meaningful discourse in the run-up to the election. Statistics can always be spun, but we need to be ready to ask the right questions rather than simply dismiss them.

why is it that the idea of “broken Britain” rings true with so many, when it seems far from reality? Partly, it is because people’s ideas about the state of society are simply inaccurate: the average voter reckons that four out of ten teenagers have children, for instance, whereas in fact perhaps three in a hundred do. Official statistics to the contrary are viewed with suspicion after successive governments have relentlessly massaged them.

There’s also something very striking in an anecdote about newspapers:

Newspapers were no less lurid a century ago. But there is one big change: a shift in readership from local papers to national ones.

They talk about London knife crime fears that were blown up nationwide and rarely tempered with the local knowledge and broader information that were only reported within the city. Even though everyone theoretically has access to that local information through the wonders of the internets, we retain an inability to really contextualise the stories that are so rapidly flashed in front of our eyes.

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