Broken Britain

What happens when everything falls apart?

The roof is falling in on the British economy. For over 150 schools in England this is a literal as well as a figurative truth.

On the eve of the autumn term, schools were notified they couldn’t re-open because defective concrete in their roofs put them at risk of imminent collapse. They were thrown into a frantic re-planning of where and how teaching might take place. Parents hadn’t a clue what this might mean.

Party politics isn’t responsible for structural decay. But announcing school closures at the very last minute has made Ministers look incompetent or negligent or both.

Notifying schools earlier would have allowed for decent contingency planning and parental involvement. But the public have long ceased to matter to Sunak’s government.

A catalogue of collapse

Education isn’t alone. Around the country, GP practices open their phone lines and within moments queues of 40-50 people are hanging on for an appointment. Hospital waiting lists grow because the government has failed to offer nurses and doctors decent pay, sufficient to retain and recruit. Rail services are disrupted for the same reason. And all the while, Water Companies go un-fined for the untreated sewage they pour into our rivers and beaches.

In response, the government claims “We will do whatever it takes to solve the problem”. All this means is that Ministers will offload the duties of problem solving onto others … but not with the cash to do so. By the day, Britain looks more like a tragic game of ‘pass the parcel’.

Labour has rightly piled in to this charade, pointing out that government has known about the degrading concrete structures for a decade and done nothing about it. Even civil servants openly say that at least 200 school replacements a year were needed but that funding pleas were ignored and the government programme was restricted to 50 schools per year.

At the time, Sunak was Chancellor and tried to claim there would be 500 school upgrades over 10 years. He presumed the public was too stupid to divide 500 by 10 and see it as the same 50: another expression of cynical emptiness. Even so, in the 2 years that followed Sunak’s policy delivered just 4 school replacements.

Sadly, Labour risks getting trapped down a similar rabbit hole. Asked how he would fix the country without spending extra money, Keir Starmer responded with “We’ve got to grow our economy. It doesn’t mean we can’t do anything, because there’s a huge amount of reform that needs to happen.”

Laughing at the Luftwaffe?

The superficiality of this response sent surreal thoughts spinning around my head. Images of the WW2 bombings sprang to mind. I could picture proud Londoners filling the streets, defying the encircling Luftwaffe and shouting “Just you wait ‘til we grow the economy. Then we’ll show you!”

This, of course, is nonsense thinking. But so too is the idea of rescuing the economy without redistributive taxation and spending. And the public know it.

Starmer may be right to say that radical reform can be part of the answer too, but at the moment Labour isn’t into radical anything. Take some easy examples.

Inverting obligations

As things stand, those who protest about illegal sewage discharges run the risk of arrest and imprisonment. But what if we reversed the process? One simple reform could make Boards of Water companies individually and collectively liable for illegal discharges. One day’s illegal discharge could trigger one day’s automatic imprisonment.

To be fair, you might want to give management a year’s notice of the regulatory change, but the message would be clear. And you can bet water companies would act on it.

In Energy, the UK pricing mechanism could be switched from marginal cost to average cost. The effect would be to end today’s tyranny in which high marginal gas prices trigger spiralling household bills. Renewable energy is driving costs down. It would drive bills down too if this became the benchmark. Add to this a statutory obligation that energy suppliers must cut their carbon footprint by 10% per year and Britain would see a race into energy saving and renewable generation.

Instead of chasing stupid, planet destroying, international trade deals, regulations could be changed to favour more localised (and accountable) food systems. Examples of these can already be found within the European Slow Food movement.

Business and industrial tax allowances could be skewed in favour of co-operatives and common ownership enterprises. Like others on state benefits (and those in full-time public employment) MPs could be required to have only the one job.

Train operators could be limited to paying dividends and bonuses only if the trains run on time. And Post Office executives could face personal penalties (rather than bonuses) if the service fails to meet statutory delivery targets.

The power of the corporate pound

Everything in today’s Broken Britain works the other way round. Nowhere is this better exemplified than in the struggle to save humanity from self-propelled destruction. Climate physicists weep that their evidence-based warnings are disregarded. So too does the General Secretary of the United Nations. Truth comes a poor second to corporate lobbying.

There may be an embargo on trade with Russia, but this doesn’t stop Gazprom from running a €100m/year lobbying budget. And every other part of the ‘oil-igarchy’ is doing the same.

As the prospect of a Tory landslide collapse looms ever larger a swarm off corporate lobbyists already offer Labour free advice on how to hold this broken game together. All live in (well financed) denial of the existential implosion they are creating.

This is the world that the self-rewarding rich would have us accept. What they fear is any notion of radical change in the way that politics, government and economics works. But this is our only lifeline.

Radicalism will become the order of the day. Even former Conservative Leader William Hague recognised this in his Times column, saying

“Within the next decade… climate will be the dominant issue in politics…. Political parties will

fracture and governments fall.”

I would hate the next Labour government to fracture and fall. But it will do so if the Party straps itself to orthodox notions of growth and its current obsession with the centre ground.

Look around the planet. The centre ground is imploding. And wherever the Left has become marginalised or criminalised the political space is being filled, not by the centre but by the Far Right.

Fracturing realities

It isn’t only in the USA where the uber-rich get the abandoned poor to campaign for dystopia. Look at the Presidential elections in Argentina. Currently sailing between the discredited camps of the centre Left and centre Right is a lunatic; one who would dismantle government, end public healthcare and education, invite the poor to sell their organs if they want a chance in life, and who would have the Pope bumped off as “a f***in communist’.

Across Asia, Africa and Europe too, it is the extreme Right that prosper from propping up corporate feudalism. Politics offers no answers in pandering to a centre ground already past its sell-by date. The challenge is to reach our and embrace a visionary alternative to it.

The task is not that difficult. The likes of David Attenborough and a generation of climate thinkers have already made common cause with the generation of kids coming through. These all know that what Hague said is true.

Beyond orthodoxy

On reflection, it was orthodoxy about debt reparations that led us into the Second World War. Orthodoxy, reasonableness and ‘a very nice captain’ didn’t save the Titanic either. What both needed was a radical change of course and thinking. And so do we.

Someone must call time on pandering to the corporately rich. Give the space to a ‘people and planet’ economics and a new politics will sort itself out. This is a time to reach out to those who would see and do things differently.

I only hope someone in Labour grasps this.

Alan Simpson

September 2023


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