Sunak’s Hunger Games

Britain’s descent into dystopian democracy

The government is desperate. Its latest attack on refugees is the pursuit of small minds not ‘small boats’. Division, distraction and prejudice are the only electoral cards the Tories have left to play. It doesn’t matter if their plans are incoherent and unworkable. The ploy is just an appeal to the insecure and embittered.

Britain has no ‘return agreements’ with other countries. Out of almost 50,000 asylum requests last year only 21 people were sent elsewhere. Britain tears up international law, severs its membership of the EU, breaks the protocols it negotiated and signed, then whinges that no one will work with us. Stand outside our self-obsessions for one moment and Britain looks increasingly like a nation of complete plonkers.

For Sunak, this doesn’t matter. It is the plonkers vote that he’s after. The government’s disastrous record on the NHS, education, research, clean transport, innovation, energy saving, ending carbon dependency or delivering food security, are all shoved to the sidelines in the quest for someone else to blame. But if we want serious answers to serious issues, the debate must focus elsewhere. Let’s begin with food.

It would be so easy to blame everything on the stupidity of Brexit. Britain’s supermarkets had empty food aisles. Some rationed fruit and veg purchases. And all the while Europe’s supermarkets and grocery shops were full to overflowing. Only those crazy Brits would have been daft enough to dig themselves such a hole and then jump into it. But a partial truth doesn’t become a complete one just by repeating it.

If European food suppliers can get better prices (with zero bureaucracy) within the Single Market, rather than luxuriating in cross-channel traffic queues, who can blame them for doing so? That’s what the Single Market is about. Britain’s empty shelves represent the sovereignty of our own stupidities.

Suddenly, the country is confronted with the political reality of everything we no longer have. The UK has no domestic food-security strategy and no international safety net to fall into. There is no plan for a different food economics that can live within rapidly reducing carbon budgets. And Britain has no idea of how to restore its soil fertility and create a natural environment able to survive the era of wild weather we are locked into.

Most political parties only grasp a sliver of this challenge. The government grasps none. It would be bad enough if this was down to stupidity and incompetence. My worry is that it represents something much more sinister; that disintegration, division and dystopia have become the government’s last-ditch survival strategies.

Food poverty doesn’t bother the government. They have MPs who are happy to tell the poor they can get by on 30p meals, happy to say that food banks are not needed, and happy to blame the weather for food shortages. Instead we have Ministers blaming refugees for everything and a resurgent Far-Right turning poverty into protest into riot.

These are Britain’s Hunger Games.

The ugly side of everything

A festering of Conservative MPs – including Suella Braverman, Jacob Rees-Mogg, Lee Anderson and Jonathan Gullis – compete for the Donald Sutherland role of President Snow in the Hunger Games film. Lacking Sutherland’s presence, they still spread cynicism, division and disinformation amongst the Districts of our own Panem.

Britain’s Hunger Games don’t summon 2 combatants from each District. Instead, entire communities are invited to fight amongst themselves. A refugee centre in Liverpool will do for starters. Then another in Rotherham, Skegness, Leeds or Nottingham.

To date, some 230 refugee hostels around the country have been targeted for protests. None have been accidental. All chase the mythology that it is the destitute who are to blame for everyone else’s poverty. No one mentions that the bulk of Britain’s asylum support spending goes directly into the pockets of rentier landlords not the refugees. Even the crisis feeds capitalism first.

The ‘modus operandi’ of Far Right activists sticks to a simple formula. Turn up at a refugee hostel. Take photos and share them derisively on social media. Do some footwork and leafleting in the local area. Stir up hostilities using fabricated misinformation. Create local flashpoints. Then rely on Right Wing MPs to redefine your incitement activities as ‘the defence of British values’.

Britain is flirting with fascism. Those who would defend the planet from the destructive greed of oil and gas conglomerates are criminalised and denied the right to even explain their stand in court. Those echoing the flotilla of falsehoods coming from Ministers become the stormtroopers for a government with no other cards to play.

Hitler did much the same with the Brownshirts. Trump does it for insurrectionists. But the problem doesn’t stem just from individual leaders. It comes from our steady drift into corporate feudalism.

Today’s chasm dividing the ultra rich and the everyday poor is only sustained by disinformation and

division. Big money lies behind the breakdown

of society. It lobbies furiously (and fatuously) for

libertarian deregulation.

From far away tax havens, the super-rich champion the freedom to congest our streets, pollute our rivers, poison our air and avoid paying taxes. They loot the economy through privatisation and lower standards, then blame its victims for the mess that follows.

Nowhere is this more obvious (and absurd) than in the controversies whipped up around the ‘the 15 minute City’. A fabulous idea is being turned into a fantasists playground.

The 15-minute fantasists

At one level, ‘the 15 minute city’ simply restores to towns and cities much that was enjoyed by our parents and grandparents. Then, neighbourhoods and districts were full of local shops and amenities. Repair facilities – for bikes, furniture, electrical goods and lots more – were plentiful. This wasn’t a prison camp or

lock-down economics. Families weren’t confined to one neighbourhood. Plentiful bus and tram services connected us to relatives, workplaces, schools and town centres. Trains and coaches provided the links further afield.

All of this was before communities and districts were pillaged of shops and services. Urban deserts were redefined as commuter estates. Repair services disappeared. Traffic congestion became a symbol of progress rather than stupidity. And no one even mentioned climate collapse.

Today, the restoration of living neighbourhoods should make absolute sense. Instead, the protests against Oxford’s proposals for a Low Traffic Neighbourhood (LTN) offer a perfect example of how insanity can take over.

By focussing insecurities (and anger) on refugees, public attention can be redirected from bigger issues. Ministers duck debates about their failure to build more hospitals, pay NHS staff enough to recruit and retain the workforce we need, provide a national framework of rail services the public can rely on (and afford), or have integrated public transport networks that offer ‘clean’ solutions to urban transport needs.

Anti-vaxxers joined congestion addicts insisting that this is an assault on personal liberties. None of the anti-vaxxers called out for us to pay NHS workers a decent wage. The commuter cowboys alongside them didn’t insist that exhaust systems be pumped inside their own vehicles, giving drivers the right to breathe their own emissions. This was all about me, me, me.

Politically, the ‘me’ has taken over from a ‘we’ that momentarily resurfaced during the pandemic. And be under no illusions, this is exactly what the government wants.

Some 200 years ago towns and cities across Britain started to run their own municipal gas, water and electricity companies. Today,

localities are told that to do so would cause the lights to go out. No one mentions that, elsewhere, this is how tomorrows energy security is being constructed. Smart-grids, using renewable energy, are springing up elsewhere around the planet… but not in Britain.

Britain is being distracted from big picture politics because it would threaten the uninterrupted profiteering that corporate donors and oil lobbyists depend upon. For them, social division rather than social transformation is the political order of the day. For the rest of us, it is what stands in the way of a sustainable future.

Bigger picture thinking

My own city of Nottingham has a wonderful tram service, but limited to a couple of lines. It’s twin city, in Germany (Karlsruhe) has a whole city network. You can’t do so in Britain because localities are limited to a ‘one line at a time’ planning system. In parts of Germany, new developments must include access to tram networks. In Britain you’d be lucky to get away with requiring new developments to be off the gas grid let alone linked into a public transit network.

Even the best of Britain’s current political debates fall short of huge crisis we are in. Gordon Brown’s Commission rightly called for a re-founding of meaningful democracy . For the Tories, Chris Skidmore MP

called for raising Britain’s level of climate ambition. Neither connected with the other. For a silver lining of joined-up inspiration you have to look elsewhere.

The parliamentary ‘Green New Deal’ group (co-chaired by Caroline Lucas MP and Clive Lewis MP) has done just that. Recognising that 2030 is the key delivery date for transformative policies, they set out to explore how this might still be done. Their Local Edge* Inquiry report outlines some of the ways Britain can meet its legal obligation to cut CO2 emissions by 68% (on 1990 levels).

It explores changes that might yet allow us to live this side of climate breakdown. The Local Edge list of ideas is extensive but not exhaustive. There is, though, a common theme. Radical leadership from the centre must go hand in hand with radical decentralisation of delivery powers and duties. This isn’t an either/ or. The painful truth is that, currently, we have neither.

Britain needs an armada of big ideas to counter distorted and divisive claims about an invasion of small boats. If national leaders cannot launch this armada then the rest of us must. The parliamentary Local Edge report isn’t a bad place to start.

Alan Simpson

March 2023


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