A nation of shopkeepers, tattooists and counsellors

The British economic miracle should be lauded, so let’s hear it for the brave hair designers and manicurists that have made it possible

They scoffed, they sneered, and they were wrong; and I’m big enough to admit I was one of them. They said you couldn’t build a vigorous modern economy by taking in each other’s washing. But look at us now!

We are the fourth most prosperous nation in the world; we are far outstripping our European competitors (or should I say partners); we have low inflation; we have full employment; our houses continue to soar in value even as we sleep in their well-furnished surroundings; we spend like crazy; and we borrow zillions with all the confident swagger of a seasoned sponger.

There was the German economic miracle, there was the Japanese economic miracle, but this British economic miracle is most wondrous of all, for it has achieved the ultimate goal of modern man, it richly rewards self-indulgence.

The poet Pope said that the proper study of mankind is man, but today we have come to believe that the proper study of man is the self, which is not quite the same thing. We have, however, built a booming industry out of self-absorption. Gone are the old-economy jobs – the potters, weavers, coopers, draymen, welders, carters and so on. The backbone of today’s economy are hair designers, pedicurists, tattooists, weathergirls and counsellors. Nor is all this activity confined to a new kind of artisan class; those whose accomplishments are by brain rather than hand are also flourishing.

Take the body language expert, the acme of contemporary professional callings. One of these, David Cohen, sprang into action last week, like a World War Two Spitfire ace hearing the scramble signal, to comment on the televised appearance of Rebecca Loos. Cohen applied his skills and pronounced her performance thoroughly convincing. From this we could be certain that she had indeed bedded Becks in the manner described, and another of our myriad of demands was satisfied.

Meanwhile, at Southampton University Dr Aiden Gregg, a research fellow in self and identity, announced that he had discovered a new way of spotting a liar: apparently, it takes longer to tell a lie a than it does to tell the truth. One more contribution to our burgeoning GDP.

Another example: an advertisement for IBM features a picture of David Snowden, who is described as the company’s cross-industry human behaviourist. It is not clear what he does, but sitting back in his armchair he looks pretty pleased with himself. And why not? Earlier generations of Snowdens may have worked on the land, sweated down pit shafts or laboured in factories. Some may have been teachers, doctors, lawyers or nurses, but none, it is safe to say, was a cross-industry human behaviourist; it takes a post-industrial miracle to achieve that, just as it does to give rise to a fellowship in self and identity.

Reactionaries who may lament the demise of our smoke-stack industries and yearn dreamily for the days when Britain was the workshop of the world should take comfort from the fact that we have shed that grime and hard labour, that trudging up cobbled streets in clogs, that clocking on and clocking off, and have instead become the beauty parlour of the world, the chromium-plated, glass-fronted envy of all nations.

Not for us the demeaning task of digging potatoes or laying bricks, we are made for finer things. If needs must, we will dress up in fancy costumes and show each other, and the citizens of less fortunate nations, around the stately homes of England, but we understandably shirk the kind of work that gets dirt under the fingernails. Not us, we who boast the world’s leading manicurists.

Of course, we should not forget our industrial past, nor the lessons it taught us. It is, for example, regrettable that the apprentice system has fallen into disuse. But it is not too late to repair that omission. There must be plenty of eager young men willing to be breast implanters’ labourers, if only the vacancies were to be created. Similarly, young women whom nature may not have crafted in the shape required to make weathergirls might, with sufficient diligence, hard work and egotism, make the grade as It-girls or interior designers.

Truly, we have made for ourselves the best of all possible worlds. Thanks to good fortune, a desire to put ourselves and our needs first, we have achieved the trickle-down effect that conservative economists always said was possible. Starting at the top, there are the lifestyle gurus, below them is an ant-like industry of beauticians, New Age therapists, body-piercers, face-lifters, and, most essential to our spiritual wellbeing in that they fill a void in our lives which would otherwise remain empty, are the celebrities.

But let us not be Little Englanders basking in our earthly paradise. We must acknowledge the debt we owe to other nations. It is thanks to the Chinese hordes fleeing the paddy fields for the sweatshops of Shanghai and Beijing, and to the hungry Eastern Europeans labouring on our building sites that we can lie back in it the beautician’s chair, sip a latte, languorously turn the pages of Hello! magazine and contemplate our next dream holiday in some sun-kissed faraway place less blessed than our own.


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