Britain: A Compendium of Failure
We are in deep crisis. I don’t think we quite realise it yet, but we are. And I’m not just talking about gas prices, climate change or Putin. The problems extend much further: the threat to the nation is much more sinister and deep-rooted. We are facing a slow ratcheting up of the tension in the strings that hold our body politic together. As each string springs out of place, as the twine snaps and the fabric unravels, the picture is slowly becoming clearer. We, the British, may well be screwed. And the worst thing – I don’t think there’s much we can do about it.
Take British democracy on its own terms and you’ll see that it’s failed. The key metric of success for modern politicians is economic, yet,even in this regard, Britain is obviously underperforming. Britain’s growth has barely recovered since the 2008 financial crisis, unaided by Covid and a wave of poor economic policies. A closer look presents an even bleaker picture. Real wages have stagnated. Why’s this important? Real wages are a good approximation of how a worker feels about their life. Lower real wages mean a lower quality of life. So it’s no surprise that we, like many other countries in the so-called ‘West’, have seen the growth of political movements which are angry. But this anger isn’t necessarily directed towards the economic policy that has enabled this sorry state of affairs. No, this anger can be about almost anything – just look at Farage ranting on about the metric system or economically beneficial migrants. In this day and age, what you say doesn’t matter, just as long as you’re shouting louder than everyone else.
The reason for all this: our economic strategy has been aimless for a long time. The core motor of growth is, and always has been, successful industries. The core motor of real wage increases is industries that have an incentive to share their wages with their workers. Our strategies to promote both have been caught up in weird dogmatic truisms. ‘Free trade creates growth’, says Liz Truss. And it might do, but only when it’s targeted well and the impacts are thought through. The same reliance on similar dogmatic truism goes for every Prime Minister since Thatcher, bar maybe Gordon Brown. Instead of focusing on how to create growth, Prime Ministers are far keener about staking ideological ground, telling us how growth is created in the abstract, and why it belongs to their place on a left-right spectrum. It shouldn’t be a politician’s job to have these arguments. I don’t care and neither does anyone else (unless you’re a real political geek). Get us better jobs or get out.
Added to this is that great shadow, the behemoth that consumes all political energy, money and attention. The national religion – “our” NHS. Or more specifically, the increasing pressure on both the NHS and the welfare state in the context of an ageing population. This can be observed when anyone anywhere attempts to use the NHS or the welfare state; waiting times and denied service are already a common frustration. Of course, we could blame 12 years of Conservative Government, but I think that’s a little disingenuous. Taxation is the highest it’s ever been, yet we can’t seem to operate the basics well. The iron jaws of fiscal rectitude are closing in - and the time for platitudes is over. It’s worrying that there is a complete lack of strategy and, even more so, that no one seems to view strategy as a necessary or desirable element of political discourse. How can we fund our welfare state? How is it possible to be as generous as we are, yet increase growth? The answer is that no-one knows. Something has got to give. This something might end up being random but it will probably be the consequence of several traumatic national crises.
Worse still is our crumbling national fabric. Some sense of history is required here. British history has always been a dynamic struggle and compromise between its constituent elements. But things are becoming harder to hold together. Since the 1970s, there has been an inexorable trend towards disunity. Conservative governments tend to prevent any real threat to unionism but never have a total monopoly on power. As the current government semi-inevitably falls out of favour, the probable outcome of the next election will be an anti-Tory coalition. This government might facilitate the sort of change that finally breaks the union’s back – a final step that could well lead to either an independent Scotland or a united Ireland. If either occurs, it will fundamentally change the political furniture, it will shatter our sense of identity, and will make all of us – Scots, Welsh, Northern Irish and English – more small-minded and particularistic. This will be a bad thing because the struggle to work out what a nation means is one of the hardest things a state ever has to deal with. It will also be painful, economically and culturally, creating, like Brexit, long-lasting political divisions and tensions that remain unresolved for a good number of years. Whether this happens soon or later is impossible to predict. But with the nationalist vote share rising in Northern Ireland, and a Scottish Labour Party unable to wrest the mantle of the Scottish left off the SNP, the problem is unlikely to go away. If and when the collapse happens, it will be a signal to even the most disconnected and disinterested international observer of what us Britons increasingly know as fact – that on this little island, things aren’t going so well.
The common thread through all this change is the ineptitude of our political class. We have a system that puts all the wrong people in all the wrong places. We have small-minded small-c-conservatives in charge of all parties, who are far too wary and politically savvy to think outside any sort of box. The reductio ad absurdum of modern British politics, Paisley’s own Liz Truss, is testament to the short-sightedness and uninspiring nature of these modern politicians. I don’t care that I don’t agree with Liz Truss. I really don’t. But in a healthy political system, you have to have the sense that, presumably, some people somewhere really believe whatever rubbish is being spouted by the Prime Minister. But even Liz Truss doesn’t believe in Liz Truss’ policy. The transparentness of her pandering to the Conservative grassroots, and the continuing ambiguity of any genuine policy proposal or attempt at reform, is not only worrying, but also a sign of the long, winding and painful road to national obscurity. The British political system, a one-time source of global emulation and pan-national praise, spits out answers that are not just wrong or debatable, but fundamentally weird or ambiguous. No one offers true but tough answers to our problems, because no one believes that their careers are worth less than the long-term durability of Britain as a successful political, cultural and economic unit. We are in dire straits, my friends.
Some terminal collapse of a sense of duty and community is visibly evident in modern Britain. It results perhaps from the collapse of local community or religion, or maybe it’s got something to do with the nature of modern capitalism. I don’t know, I’m not an expert. Its causes might be debatable; but its presence is not. There is a sense that if Britain fails, so what? How would that affect me? That there might be freestanding things that have self-evident, collective worth, things like the success of our national unit, is a dying idea. And yes, this is the fault of politicians, but it’s not the politicians alone. Parties used to go deep into the locale – gaining some relatively genuine connection with ordinary people. But nowadays, the idea of joining a party, or standing as a councillor, or standing for Student Union President is seen as weird. The vast majority of people just don’t care. They want to get on with their jobs, their little world, their slice of the cake. They hope the system will continue as it has, because the system is perceived as something that simply is, rather than something that can be enhanced with half an hour of engagement. And just like that, Britain has become the Aston Villa of the global circuit – a has-been institution seeped in a slow yet rising tide of mediocrity.
Britain is failing. It's not because of a particular political decision, but rather because, although people might ‘care’, they don’t care enough. Our once vibrant democracy is going out with a whimper.