Broken Britain

I’ve written before about my perception that the UK took a drastic turn in the wrong direction during the 1970s, and that it has been deteriorating ever since. My perception is that the UK now has political and economic problems worse even than the USA. This is not a popular opinion, particularly among those who still live in the UK. Some accused me of callousness, but I have friends and family in the UK. I still return from time to time—most recently about a year ago—so I am far from uncaring about what happens to the nation.

Having explained that, I’d like to draw attention to an article titled “Broken Britain” which recently appeared in Harper’s Magazine. Written by Ed Vulliamy of The Guardian, it takes the UK riots of August 2011 as a starting point.

The riots were almost universally portrayed in the UK media as meaningless violence perpetrated by a bunch of criminals who wanted something for nothing. And yet, as Vulliamy points out, they were predicted:

The deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, however, had predicted the riots more than a year earlier. On April 11, 2010, he had appeared on Sky News to discuss the rioting then going on in Greece. He warned that if a Conservative government came to power in Britain and were to, as he put it, “slash and burn public services on a thin mandate,” “a lot of people [would] react badly to that.” Asked whether the anticipated reaction could include “rioting in the streets,” Clegg replied, “I think there is a very serious risk.”

Clegg’s Liberal Democrats went on to make broken promises a major issue in their election campaign. Clegg promised to oppose a rise in tuition fees for students, and asked people to vote Liberal Democrat to make Britain fair.

And then came the election in May 2010, and a hung Parliament. Nick Clegg led the Liberal Democrats to join up with the Conservatives, allowing the Tories to grab power with only 36% of the vote. He then broke his promise on tuition fees by backing Conservative plans which tripled them. He cut pensions, cut child tax credits, cut the NHS, and supported a budget which cut police and courts in a way that even the far-right Daily Mail described as ‘savage’.

Clegg was attacked with blue paint by disgusted former Liberal Democrats, and burnt in effigy by angry students. His party’s support dropped like a stone to its lowest level in 14 years. People were so angry that when there was a referendum on electoral reform in May 2011, former Labour cabinet minister Peter Hain begged voters to put aside their hatred of Nick Clegg and vote for reform anyway. Clegg himself also asked for people to look past their desire to poke him in the eye.

It didn’t work. The referendum failed, and with it went all hope of seeing the UK’s bent electoral system improved within my lifetime. The UK would remain with a voting system as hopelessly broken as the one that keeps the Democrats and Republicans in power in the US.

After I reached voting age, I voted Liberal Democrat in every UK election, until I left the country and ceased to be able to vote anywhere. To me, fixing the electoral system was the first priority, because nothing would ever change as long as two parties could collude to exclude any other options.

I believe Nick Clegg singlehandedly destroyed electoral reform in the UK, and destroyed the Liberal Democrats too. If I were still there, I’d have been burning the lying piece of shit in effigy myself for Bonfire Night. Even now, nearly 8000km away, I find myself taking breaks from writing about Nick Clegg in order to pace around and swear. But I digress…

In August 2011 came those riots Nick Clegg had warned about—brought on by his very own actions as coalition leader. Yet suddenly Clegg seemed to suffer some kind of amnesia. He blamed “smash and grab, get what you can” values, and insisted that in spite of rioting across the country, those savage cuts in police funding would still be going ahead. By the time the remaining Liberal Democrats held their party conference in September, newspapers were comparing Clegg to Tony Blair: a polished performer, but someone who had betrayed his supporters and now mostly brings to mind the word “liar”.

Yes, just as America has two corrupt major parties equally in the pay of the financial industries who destroyed the economy, so the UK is bipartisan when it comes to corruption. The expenses scandal which unravelled in September turned out to be an all-party affair. Labour MP Hazel Blears was revealed to have claimed expenses for three different homes, having sold two more and used a loophole to avoid paying tax on the profits. Conservative Douglas Hogg had the taxpayers pay for having his manor’s moat cleaned and his piano tuned. Labour’s Sir Gerald Kaufman billed the taxpayers £8,865 for a Bang & Olufsen LCD TV. Conservative Sir Peter Viggers had £40,000 in fraudulent expenses, including £1,645 for a floating ornamental duck house. Liberal Democrat David Laws broke a few by claiming £40,000 in rent and then paying it to his partner. (His excuse? He said he did it because he didn’t want people to realize he was gay. I wonder if he’s a Pet Shop Boys fan?)  And of course, nobody was surprised to find Nick Clegg’s name on the list; he had to pay back part of a £3,900 claim he submitted for having his gardening done.

As Vulliamy puts it:

The “moral collapse,” it seems, starts at the top. Yet no one wanted to connect the dots—to look at the miasma of treaties, social and political alliances, cycles of back-scratching and mutual convergences that define the British elite. Britain’s problems are singular: singularly serious, singularly fetid, and singularly vulgar. The country that packages itself as “Cool Britannia” has become greedy, obsessed with commercialism at the expense of any other value or norm, xenophobic, belligerent and hubristic.

I think he’s wrong about the xenophobia, but probably right about the hubris. As I used to say in the years before I left, the UK is complacent and lazy. People are content to let the status quo continue, to overlook corruption and dishonesty, to carry on doing things the same way simply because that’s the way they’ve always been done, and to put up with terrible service and then moan about it afterwards rather than actually taking their business elsewhere.

This is hardly a new phenomenon, of course. “Fawlty Towers” and Monty Python made the same points repeatedly back in the 1970s; all that has changed now is that everything has been given a sprinkling of vacuous slogans and corporate marketingspeak:

Britain itself is a corporate mediocrity, a place where the customer is almost always wrong and people always seem to be working but not much gets done very well.

Or as one book I saw put it, rather more bluntly: Is it just me, or is everything shit?

But let’s go back to ask how we got to this point, as I did in my earlier article. Vulliamy again:

Exactly how and why Britain has decomposed into a more rotten country than it was two or three decades ago is hard to gauge, but some answers can, I think, be found in the destruction of an industrial society and the loss of the cohesion and community afforded by the manufacturing base. The devastation of manufacturing and its social fabric occurred, during the 1980s and ’90s, in parallel with an extreme form of privatization of infrastructure, utilities, and services that were (and in continental Western Europe largely still are) seen as public and civic functions, not merely opportunities to make money. Traditional industries were replaced by retail and “service” industries, and one in particular—financial services—so that the economy came to rest on the whims and needs of supranational banking.

But while infrastructure privatization was a mixed bag, the shifting of the UK economy to financial and service industries was the more disastrous change in the long term. It was probably a good thing that Margaret Thatcher broke up the cosy old boys club that used to control the London Stock Exchange with her 1986 “Big Bang”. Unfortunately, her policies made the country’s economic health far too dependent on the City. The USA may have an unhealthy relationship with the financial services sector, but at least the USA still has a manufacturing industry to speak of, unlike the UK.

With the City of London deregulated, the Tories set about “selling off the family silver”, as Labour politicians of the time put it:

[…] the National Coal Board, British Rail, the Gas Board, the Water Board. They were the names of publicly run and owned industries and services. They were often inefficient, but they were run by people who knew what they were doing and provided what they promised—water, heating, lighting, railways—not just shareholder dividends.

Even America often recognizes the need for utilities to remain in public ownership. Here in Austin, Texas, the city owns and operates the electrical and water utilities, on a not-for-profit basis. Many other US towns and cities do the same, particularly in rural areas.

But when the Conservatives finally got kicked out of power after 18 miserable years, it was into the warm embrace of Tony Blair’s “New Labour”.

Labour continued a psychotic privatization not even the Conservatives would have dreamed of: selling off different lines of the capital city’s subway system to different consortia, in what was called a Public-Private Partnership.

(Vulliamy points out that the Jubilee line seems to be the most troubled, even though it’s so new that I remember it opening in 1979; whereas the Bakerloo line continues to work quite well, even though it opened in 1906. Again, it seems that modern Britain does a lot of stuff, but none of it is done very well.)

So why did the selloffs continue? The simple answer is that it was the only way the governments of the 90s and 2000s—whether Conservative or Labour—could get the books to balance. Between 1999 and 2002, Labour got so desperate that it sold half of Britain’s gold reserves in an attempt to avoid having to implement cuts. Like Saudi Arabia’s government propping itself up with oil profits, successive UK governments propped themselves up with fire sales of infrastructure and state-owned resources.

Now that there’s nothing left to sell, the obvious question is how much long term benefit came from those sales. Obviously selling off the gold reserves looks like a pretty bad move at this point, but given that the proceeds wouldn’t even cover a tenth of the cost of the bank bailouts it’s all a bit academic. More worrying is the state of UK society:

The state of modern Britain was molded in large part by the Blair years. In 2007, a decade into the New Labour enterprise, a UNICEF report placed Britain last among twenty-one developed countries for the well-being of children. […]

By May 2009, after ten years of Blair’s Labour government (and two years of Gordon Brown’s), the gap between the rich and the poor in Britain was larger than at any time since record-keeping began in the early 1960s. […] The government had not managed to reduce the number of impoverished children and pensioners, despite increases in both categories in 2008.

In other words, if you look at graphs of trends in social inequality and social mobility, you find that the gap between rich and poor is wider than ever before. Worse, if you’re born into poverty, the chances of improving your situation are lower than ever before. The UK even gives the USA a run for its money in inequality, which is a staggering accomplishment.

As I mentioned earlier, the Cameron/Clegg government is now performing the kind of ruthless slashing of expenditure that US Republicans favor. This suggests that things will get worse; in the US, research shows that states which slashed expenditure in response to recession did worse than the ones that didn’t. Conventional economic wisdom is that you get out of recession by spending money to create jobs. To be fair, the Tories are also trying to do some of that, bizarrely even while claiming that government can’t create jobs.

So, two corrupt major parties. Both authoritarian, both selling off anything they can grab in a desperate attempt to prop up a collapsing economy, both paying billions in bailouts to their friends in the big banks, both facing social unrest, both cutting taxes and spending in the middle of a recession.

Neither Tony Blair’s authoritarianism nor David Cameron’s promise to unravel it represents transformation of any kind, because any professed differences between politicians and parties in Britain are spurious political pantomime.

In that respect, the UK and USA are perhaps closer now than they have ever been before.