BBC News Magazine

Page last updated at 13:27 GMT, Thursday, 3 December 2009

The biggest non-story of the year?

Assembly line worker

Michael Blastland
Different ways of seeing stats

There have been plenty of villains of this recession, but if there's a hero it is the humble hard-working man, or woman, in the street... in spite of all the forecasts, says Michael Blastland.

Remember 2009's summer of strike-bound discontent and workers revolt? Me neither. It didn't happen. It was going to happen, we were told, as the recession ripped through the nation's living standards.

The evidence of declining fortunes has been apparent in almost every piece of economic data. Do others feel that this has been answered with surprising calm? If so, perhaps that represents one of the biggest statistical stories of the year - and more than statistical - a story of what did not happen.

'Spending cuts 'could cause strikes on scale of 1970s''- Daily Telegraph, 1 August
'Help ordinary people or we face a summer of turmoil' - Sunday Express, 1 March

A professional statistical friend of mine says that looking at data is like a detective narrative, in which "we have to be just as aware of why we are or are not getting information".

Gregory (Scotland Yard detective): "Is there any other point to which you would wish to draw my attention?"

Holmes: "To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time."

Gregory: "The dog did nothing in the night-time."

Holmes: "That was the curious incident."

The curious incident of 2009 is the way the workers of all classes have taken it on the chin and done, well, nothing.

And not for lack of provocation, at least for some: shorter working hours, unpaid holidays - like those in the UK auto industry, when Mini, for example, told everyone to go home for a few weeks - pay cuts, like those at British Airways, and, in general lower pay rises.

Total weekly earnings growth

The graph above shows the dramatic effect on wages when Christmas bonuses all but disappeared last year.

There is a case that the heroes of the recession have been the working people, people who have done nothing rash, nor irrational, have not bet the ranch on derivatives, but have accepted the cost of a downturn and simply got on with it.

They have not, despite media encouragement, hidden in the basement to live on baked beans, but rather gone on spending in a reasonably sensible way (official retail sales figures have been nothing like the news coverage would lead us to believe). They have pulled in their horns a bit on the big-ticket items - quite sensibly - until they saw how things panned out.

Mr Moderation

A few had probably borrowed excessively, as a few always do, but there is good evidence that even this had moderated well before most commentators even spotted the potential for the economy to turn bad, as if people felt it coming. And they have not gone on strike to try to compensate for hard times with higher pay. How likely was all this a generation ago?

Assembly line worker
Keeping his head down - Mr Average has just got on with it

Does it suggest economic maturity, an acceptance that you can't beat a real fall in national income and that, if you try, you will bring inflation? Or does it show that the workers have lost their fighting spirit? Or simply that they still feel the injustice but are powerless to do anything about it? Or is it only a calm before the storm, when public rage will be terrible to behold?

When inflation was a worry early last year, this moderation was vital in persuading the Bank of England that interest rates could begin to be cut - too late, say some - but, without some faith that inflation was keeping out of wage claims, it could have been later still.

And now, flexibility about pay and conditions might mean that unemployment has stayed rather lower than might otherwise have been expected. Despite the impression from some commentary, it has not risen as fast or as far as widely predicted, compared with previous recessions.

A toast then - but not perhaps in champagne - to the workers, of all classes.

Below is a selection of your comments.

There is still discontent among the workers, but I think classing myself as a worker I was angrier at the banks and the city. I accept that recessions do happen, however it was the city that caused the severity of this recession with their recklessness. It was the city and the banks that were hit the hardest. If the recession came along but the banks were still making their billions and the city was, yet the rest of the county was suffering, then I think this would have caused discontent. What I would warn about is if the city and banks create this mess again, it could trigger something dangerous. I think the majority of British people are still socialists who accept capitalism but there could be a danger in the future if this happens again they might reject it in favour of socialism again.
Richard Smith, Nelson, Lancashire

Does this article reinforce recent arguments against the payment of huge bonuses to Bank Executives. If the ordinary working person from labourer to GP to small employer is capable of drawing in their horns then surely so should those at the top?

Profits should be reinvested in the economy in general not in the spending funds of the hapless few who took capitalism in this country to the brink of collapse.
Paul, Swansea

The "water cooler debate" for about a year before the crash was how the banking system was built on sand, and how there would be big trouble if people started defaulting on the ridiculous loans they had been given. We all saw it coming, we were all prepared. We have been there before and we knew what to expect. Funny how the bankers didn't see it...
Brian Grimshaw, Lancashire

I'm sure Michael is aware that the effects of recession, unemployment and debt take more than a few months to work through the economy, to the point where ' workers, of all classes ' are affected.

The tradition of workers fighting back against the lunacy of capitalism is alive today, but the illusion of passivity is just that, an illusion
NickW, Nottingham

The best article I have yet read on the recession! Yes, certain sectors have faced near collapse, but much of this "recession" has been media hype, probably, at least in Britain, motivated by a political agenda, and it seems that ordinary people have seen through this, not abandoned hope or panicked and just got on with it. It also proves what you read in the papers is not news anymore, just the publisher's propaganda - and you won't read anything that doesn't fit their agenda.
Steven Hogg, Northallerton, North Yorkshire

Maybe people have decided that a more effective protest is swapping their picket sign for a voting ballot.
Tom, Brighton, UK

It is sign, surely, that we in Britain are so downtrodden, so resigned to our utterly average existence and so comfortable with being continually ripped off by business and government that we can no longer even be bothered to feel anger.
Craig Eastman, Cheshire

My husband had been changing to a 4 day week when necessary due to a drop in orders at work. Yes at times it has been hard, but I'm thankful we have an income at all. A drop in income is a damn sight better than no income.
Sharon, Nailsea, UK

Can you forward this story onto the investment banks please?
Anrew, Sheffield

This article speaks volumes about the common sense and public sense of cohesion on getting through this and contrasts the extreme greed of the bankers insisting they return to their multi-million pound bonuses. It is no wonder that the majority of the public despise these arrogant idiots who were responsible for getting us into this mess in the first place.
Andrew Maclure, Chelmsford

I think the phrase 'keep calm and carry on' comes to mind when thinking about the last 12 months. Times have been harder, we have been buying less 'stuff'. I hope we learn from this and continue to be moderate in our spending in future, although I really rather doubt it.
Mark, Leeds, UK

Do you mean "it didn't happen in London or Glasgow, therefore it's not important that it happened", or did you, as appears to be the norm for BBC journalists of late, simply not bother to do any research before constructing this article? Are you so blissfully unaware of the summer of strikes, redundancies and massive worker anxiety across the country that you feel this is an acceptable way to open a piece? Had all this happened inside your little bubble, and the rest of the country prospered, your article would have been the polar opposite of the one above, and you'd be advising us ALL how we've had a year of greater despair than those suffered during world war 2!
Chob, Bradford

I wonder if the French would have been so meek had they been faced with similar circumstances. Not on your nelly. They would have ground the country to a standstill. Typical British rubbish. We all moan about it but never DO anything about it. The government knows this and probably laughs behind our backs knowing they can do what they want without ever being challenged by the spineless general populous. This country needs some sort of bloody revolt. Grab your pitchforks I tell yee.
Jon Mullis, Warwickshire

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