Why do people believe everything is wrong, when it isn't? Why do people believe the past was better, when it really wasn't? Otto English on the consolations of truth.

When I suggested to fellow Remoaners in a pub last year that instead of going around handing out uninspiring pamphlets about mobile phone tariffs in the EU we should simply give out pie charts showing how little membership cost, more than one of them said to me words to the effect of:

“People don’t like graphs. It reminds them of school. Don’t hand out graphs for God’s sake – you f**cking idiot.”

I might have added the last bit for dramatic effect...

So, anyway a warning. This blog contains statistics, a couple of graphs and some wild unsubstantiated speculation.

Let’s begin with the wild unsubstantiated speculation. If you were to go out onto the street now and ask 20 random people whether our roads were getting safer – how do you think they might respond? My guess is that a good number would say that they were getting worse or even a lot worse. Half? I reckon half. Possibly more.

The facts – which we have thanks to meticulous records kept since the 1920s – tell an entirely different story.

I hate to break it to you, but our roads are getting safer. A great deal safer.

The highest rate in any year for UK traffic deaths was 1941 when a staggering 9,169 people died on UK highways and byways. Given petrol rationing and the considerably lower rate of car ownership in the 1940s, this presumably had much to do with the blackout and a spike in military vehicles being driven by inexperienced drivers, but it’s a surprising number. Indeed, I’d be astonished if anyone who wasn’t an expert in the matter could get within a decade of it if asked to speculate.

Killed on GB roads 1926-2016. (Source Wikipedia)

Scroll forward 25 years, and in 1966, we get the highest peacetime figure, when nearly 8,000 people perished in fatal collisions. Again – this seems surprising. Surely you would imagine that with faster cars and busier roads the figure would generally be up year on year – but no. Despite car ownership nearly doubling since the 1960s, by 2016 the number of fatalities had plummeted to 1,792 – almost a third of the total deaths for 1926, when records began.

The reasons for this are very simple. Cars are safer, drink driving laws are stricter, the roads are better, people are more aware of the dangers, drivers are tested more thoroughly and we all – by law – have to wear seat-belts in the front and back of our cars. That massive reduction in the mortality rate is a direct and visible consequence of “ ’elf and safety gone mad.”

There – that wasn’t so bad, was it? Now, let’s look at terrorism.

The airwaves are full of it. The internet buzzes with it. It is understandable. I live in London and have done so for more than 20 years, and big, eye-catching murderous rampages naturally scare the shit out of me; that’s why terrorists do it – it’s effective scaremongering. In the UK, however, the likelihood of your being actually killed by a terrorist is generally lower than at almost any time since 1970.

Context to the killing. (Source: Global Terrorism Database)

Indeed, statistics show that the chance of being killed by a terrorist in the UK is 1 in 964,531. You are far more likely to drown in your bath (1 in 685,000) or be killed at work (1 in 43,500) and many times more likely to be murdered by a loved one than to die at the hands of a crazed terrorist. Oh, and you, of course, still stand a far higher risk of death in a traffic collision (1 in 43,500) than you do from a fanatic, despite all that health and safety.

These statistics are so at odds with the wailing fear-mongering in the media that you would rightly be forgiven for going “yes, but that doesn’t make me feel any better” – though frankly – it should.

The sad truth is that while things in general improve, people imagine that it is all getting worse.

In spite of all the travails of our current political turmoil, this little corner of Europe is generally safer, better provided for and wealthier than at any time in British history.

If you are lucky enough to have a baby, that baby will almost certainly survive its childhood and will, with all likelihood, live a further seven or eight decades. In the 1890s your child’s chances of dying between birth and their fifth birthday was around 20 percent – today, that figure is 0.37 percent. This is not simply a change over a century and a bit, but since 1984 child mortality rates have dropped by some 64 percent.

You think you work hard? Well, I’m afraid that is nothing compared to the hours your grandparents and great-grandparents put in. In 1870, the average British production worker turned in a 56.9 hour a week. In the 21st century, that figure is around 40. If you had been a domestic servant in Victorian times, you would probably have worked a 16-hour a day on a six and half day a week – only getting Sunday morning off – so that you might go to Church.

In 1870, you got just four days of statutory holiday a year, which mostly went unpaid. Today, if you are working in full-time employment you are entitled to 5.6 weeks paid holiday a year – plus maternity leave, sick leave, paternity leave, unemployment benefit and your solidly protected employment rights under UK and EU law. Yes, those benefits are now under attack, and yes they must be protected – and yes, real wage growth has slowed in the past decade, but the picture overall is very progressive in a very short space of time.

Happier? Of course, you are not. You are worried about that Crimewatch related YouGov survey, aren’t you? Yes. The one that asked whether “you” thought Britain was safer now than it was 33 years ago. Some 47 percent of respondents thought that the UK was less safe than it was in 1984, and predictably Westmonster and the rest of the stupidest media leapt on this with glee. It isn’t true. In fact, the rates are roughly similar, but over a longer period of time, they have fallen significantly.

You think the UK is getting more murderous with every passing decade? Well, great – feel free to believe that – but you are wrong.

Murder rates in Europe over time. (Source: Our World in Data, Max Roser & Manuel Eisner)

But what of mass uncontrolled immigration that will sink our island nation once and for all? Well, for a start, population growth is a good thing in an ageing nation – and secondly, the population is only growing by 0.8 percent year on year. That figure is high in comparison to say France (0.4 percent), but eminently sustainable as long as we keep building houses.

Bad news sells. It sings to the basest human instincts that created apocalyptic religions around the Bronze Age campfire – it may even be hard-wired into our evolutionary capacities – the fear of the predator. Humans have been awaiting the end of days ever since we crawled into caves. That’s why you never see 1980s Sci-Fi movies set 20 years hence, in which everyone is walking about with smart-phones in their pockets and eating nice food in gastro-pubs.

There is also very little political capital to be gained from telling folks that “everything isn’t actually that bad if you bother to look it up.” Our entire political system is rigged towards both sides propagating the idea that everything is either shit or will be shit if the other lot gets in, and only they can fix it and get it back to how it was when it was all better.

That said, in the UK at least, we are currently facing a situation where everything does genuinely risk getting a whole lot worse for the very reason that the country has decided to buy the bullshit and turn its back on 40 years of progress. A big part of the negativist Leave campaign was a playing upon primitive fears of immigration and terrorism and the mistaken belief that everything was better in the past.

I hate to wreck a lovely narrative, but the past was not better. I personally quite like living in a country where polio has been consigned to the history books, where I haven’t had to fight in a bloody world war, where paedophiles are arrested rather than given prime time TV shows and where everyone doesn’t die in stupid accidents. 21st century Britain, despite all our travails, is better than it has perhaps ever been. Let’s keep progressing.

Mind you – I do quite miss Morecambe and Wise.🔷

[This piece was first published in ThePinPrick]

(Cover: Morecambe and Wise / ITV)