I am wearing three jumpers today because we daren’t put our heating on. In other news, we and thousands of others in my region have had two and a half days without running water, because our water authority, despite their obscene profits, can’t repair the leak. Dirty plates and clothes pile high, like the neglect and broken lives strewn across Broken Britain.
The impact of austerity
Twelve years of austerity cuts have crippled much of the UK’s vital state infrastructure, from the NHS and social care to education and transport. Peer under any lid and you see decline and dysfunction. Standards of living and well-being, productivity and life expectancy have all fallen.
Household debt has increased with, on average, £15,385 owed, minus mortgages. Regional inequality has increased; the young are now poorer than their parents at a similar age and home ownership is predicted to reduce still further. The legal system is in disarray. The Food Standards Agency has cut staff numbers by 45%. High-street shops, pubs and other businesses are closing with profits down since 2010. Police forces regularly run out of officers for call outs. Day centres, museums, libraries and playing fields have been closed or sold off and child poverty has dramatically increased.
Austerity is set to continue. Brexit has reduced UK GDP by 4% and the fiscal irresponsibility of Kwasi Kwarteng’s mini-budget triggered a market meltdown that has rocketed mortgage rates for people already struggling to pay. According to the IFS, the treasury’s tax cuts mean that savings of £60bn will be needed up to 2026/7 and it’s difficult to see how medium term government debt can be controlled without spending on benefits and public services.
Increasing working age benefits in line with wages rather than inflation could claw back £13bn. So this is a likely target. Citi Bank predicts the economy will shrink in the next two years, with growth averaging around 0.8%.
Denial and boosterism
But the new Liz Truss party into which one nation conservatism has morphed, takes denial about Broken Britain, past, present and future, to new heights. Rather than accept their continuing role in the dysfunctional dystopia their party created, the Truss faction denies responsibility by deflecting blame onto any external cause they can find.
They maintain that Broken Britain is a result, not of their party’s belligerence, but of global upheavals like the Ukraine war, Labour policies from more than 12 years ago, immigration, or that ‘obstructive blob’, the civil service. At one low point Kwarteng blamed his catastrophic mini-budget on the Queen’s death. This is desperate stuff.
Denial also drives the new extreme boosterism. Obviously, no government wants to admit its failures. But Truss pushes, to an almost pathological degree, a ‘sunny upland’ economic fantasy that censures doubt as ‘declinist’ and brushes aside genuine acknowledgement of the crumbling mess she presides over.
Her conference speech was a chilling vision of future Britain as the land of pure, glistening business enterprise. In this vision, though we don’t all realise it yet, we are simply entrepreneurs, big and small, beavering away to produce ‘growth’. We inhabit towns and cities gloriously draped in the industrial cranes and emerging developments she glamorised in her speech.
People are relevant and valued in this brave new world only to the degree that they strive on its neo-liberal ladder. The “tsunami of hardship” (Sam Coates) underlying this ‘growth nirvana’ is whitewashed out of the picture. People without food, medical help or a roof over their head are about as relevant to Truss’s ‘growth’ vision as cake crumbs on an architect’s drawing.
The state of us
Media attention risks inadvertently compartmentalising Broken Britain by focusing like a roaming torch beam on specific scandals such as fatal ambulance waiting times, care homes closing, or someone trying to fix their own teeth. But actually, Britain’s brokenness is pretty comprehensive – very little is working properly because so many discrete issues are interconnected. Back in the heady days before 2010, when the UK enjoyed relative prosperity, this would be ‘scaremongering’. But not anymore.
We are, for example, currently gripped by a latticework of justified strikes triggered by the government’s failure to increase wages in line with inflation.
- Train and tube strikes are likely to continue through the winter.
- The Royal College of Nursing is balloting for strike action with many nurses leaving the profession.
- University teachers are also striking, as are postal workers.
- The ‘lawyers’ strike ended yesterday, but during its course it contributed to the huge ongoing court backlog.
Resistance to living wages
The knock-on effect of the government’s resistance to living wages across the public sector is to reduce productivity and training whilst spreading crime and health issues throughout society.
The social care system, for example, is already flatlining and cannot cope with further staff losses. Yet vacancies rose by 52% during the last year because of increased demand plus recruiting and staff retention issues. A care worker with five years’ experience gets just 7p per hour more than a new recruit and workers in charge of administering medication to dozens of patients overnight receive the minimum wage.
The ramifications of a system that can’t help children, young people, the elderly and others with mental and physical health needs are huge. Health problems have spread from vulnerable people to the vast armies of unsupported partners, parents and children caring for them. Unemployment is at its lowest for 50 years partly because record numbers of people have long-term illnesses that prevents them looking for work. Inactivity through long term illness has hit a record high of nearly 2.5 million.
Our pared-down care system is also facing a tidal wave of health issues generated by the cost-of-living crisis and by benefits and mortgage insecurity. (Also see Barbara Morrison’s excellent West England Bylines article on the cost-of-living crisis in the Cotswolds.)
The house that Jack bodged
For most of us, this complex web of decline is experienced in smaller and bigger ways every day. Try ringing universal credit, HMRC, the police, your GP practice, local supermarket, internet provider, local council, bank, washing machine repairer, and you’ll increasingly find they can’t help because post-Brexit immigration rules or funding cuts means they are ‘short staffed’ and/or ‘swimming in a backlog’. There’s a creeping sense of ‘things falling apart’, of solutions and expertise being replaced with the panic-inducing experience of suspension, endlessly, fruitlessly waiting in an anonymous world of automated phone holds.
We are in a parlous ‘house that Jack built’ nightmare of interlinked disintegration. John needs an X-ray for the injury he received when he tripped on a jutting pavement stone. The jut was caused by lack of council funding for road repairs. John waits but the radiologist is still queuing at the foodbank and so isn’t available. The foodbank queue is lengthier now because people have fewer funds to keep them stocked. John can’t wait any longer because he must check his post for his no-fault eviction notice. These are sent by UK landlords every seven minutes and John doesn’t know whether Truss’s U-turn will apply to current evictions like his.
Catalogue of government failures
Other government failures (on transport, the environment and the NHS) constantly coalesce around ordinary life. Mary struggles to get her urgently needed hospital appointment for the chronic E. coli infection she acquired during her unsuspecting wild swim in one of the UK’s infamous sewage-filled rivers. If she’s lucky enough to get an appointment, a question mark still hangs over whether her bus will arrive. Really, she needs an ambulance but she’s equally worried about their waiting times, and anyway she’d feel guilty about depriving others of such a chronically over-burdened service.
Health issues generated by failures in the legal system put impossible further pressure on care services. Sam missed a universal credit meeting to look after his mum and so was sanctioned, without appeal. Being skint, he then fell into selling drugs to get the cash he urgently needed. He’s now a ‘young offender’ but his hearing has been deferred for two years because of the case backlog. He also knows his conviction may prevent him getting future employment because funding for offenders’ re-employment programmes was cut.
All this pushes Sam’s already fragile mental health over the edge. He uses his scrimped pennyworth of remaining credit to ring the overstretched care services but he’s ‘put on hold’. And so, he slides inexorably down the slippery hill to take his place on the street in his sleeping bag along with all the others. More will slip down to join him if the mortgage hike caused by the budget isn’t resolved or if Truss decides not to link benefits with inflation.
There are millions of Johns, Sams and Marys in the UK.
Building from the base up
Except when we are personally impacted, we tend to get by on a wing and a prayer. We don’t confront the UK’s complex web of dystopian dysfunction much because, frankly, it’s too frightening. We all want to believe that our protective infrastructure (the NHS, police, fire brigade, courts) will (somehow) still be there for us (personally) when the chips are (really) down. But this is not the reality now for many.
How any leader can stand in the midst of this carnage and have the audacity to claim the country is well positioned for ‘growth’ is extraordinary. It is like shouting at a quadriplegic to ‘get up and walk’. But the government’s fantasy vision and failure to take responsibility is not set to change. Since they refuse to acknowledge their role in Broken Britain then we must replace them with a functioning government.
There is no trickle-down fairy dust coming from above. To begin the recovery of ‘Broken Britain’ we must generate change from below, through wage security and support for the vulnerable, and by strengthening those public services on which our lives depend.
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