Britain’s existential crisis is now looking very real
By TruePublica: Is Britain now in the grip of an out-of-control political, constitutional and economic tailspin – an existential crisis as many analysts and critics are now postulating? The list of news titles, economic reports and commentary that concludes Britain is facing nation-state failure is neverending and they almost all take the view that not dealing with the grievances that drove Brexit, that has led to a wave of anti-modern nationalism is at the heart of Britan’s experimental adventure into the unknown.
The Suez Crisis, another Conservative party blunder that cost this country dearly, one from which the UK never really recovered, is beginning to look like a picnic on a summers day compared to the rapidly changing situation Britain finds itself in now. What is going wrong?
The answer to that question is simple – everything! At no point (aside from World Wars) has Britain faced a crisis of the like that daily life presents to half of its citizens – alongside constitutional, political and looming economic difficulties and confrontation with international partners. We are all aware of the housing crisis, the NHS crisis, a crisis in policing, social care, education, household debt and so on. Nearly half of the households in Britain now depend on the state for some sort of handout to make ends meet. In fact, the financialisation of our entire economy now means that 38% of working-age households now take more from the state in benefits than they pay back in taxes and child poverty is expected to reach an eye-watering 37% in just four years time. However, the biggest problems facing the country are experimental, unknown and by all economic predictions, perilous. If tax revenues fall, this crisis of daily life for millions will only get worse. In the meantime, Boris Johnson’s government looks set to revolutionise the state. If that project fails so will the nation-state itself.
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All this mismanagement by politicians, especially in the last four decades, who have pushed corporatism too far are now leading the country into the wilderness. Things are getting desperate and it is surely striking that one in four Brits would respond positively to the suggestion of what effectively amounts to having a dictator in power. It appears that a growing numbers of citizens have had enough. Authoritarianism in all guises is not just a real prospect anymore, it sits in the Whitehouse and Downing Street – challenged only by the very institutions they seek to undermine for their revolution.
Legislative powers in the two chambers of the Parliament, the House of Commons and the House of Lords are being tested to breaking point. The former currently amounts to a government by deceit and coercion, the latter is now seen as little more than a cosy club for the privileged few. Campaigns are gaining ground to abolish the Lords and replace it with a modern elected chamber.
Trust in our democracy is little better than it is in Russia and our dysfunctional democracy is now officially ranked at 43rd from 65 worldwide
In global terms, dissatisfaction with democracy is at an all-time high and in Britain, the situation is now dire. Two recent reports from the Centre for the Future of Democracy and the Edleman Barometer state that Britain is in very serious political trouble. The first states that faith in democracy in Britain has collapsed, the second puts Britain’s democracy in the penultimate spot in their league table of trust, just one spot ahead of Russia. A third report published at the Electoral Reform Society now ranks Britain’s dysfunctional democracy at 43rd from 65 worldwide.
The Scottish Parliament is now pushing for independence and for the first time in nearly one hundred years, Sinn Fein (the former political wing of the IRA) leads the two governing parties in Ireland. Sinn Fein has fought a campaign around homelessness, soaring rents and welfare. The discussion about Irish reunification is now very real. Independence in Wales is even being raised.
The judiciary is supposed to be independent of the executive and the legislature. The highest court is the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom. It has just had its powers clipped by this government, not by democratic means – by executive overreach. The Appeal Court is also to be ‘reformed’ in an act designed to directly attack organisations attempting to keep the government in check.
The BBC, one of the greatest of British institutions is now being openly threatened by this government, even going as far as to say that the BBC could disappear completely like ‘Blockbuster’ videos did a few years ago. The BBC is already making major cutbacks in preparation for a government not prepared to be scrutinised by an organisation that was, at one time, universally trusted. Under these threats, the BBC has confirmed its newsroom alone will lose 450 jobs. In the meantime, the government has announced that Rupert Murdoch’s daughter Elizabeth and ex-News of the World editor Rebekah Brookes are in the running for next BBC Director-General.
The NHS is another institution under a serious threat of implosion. Thousands of doctors and nurses have left the most respected health service in the world after swathes of financial cuts. Imperial College reports that one-third of NHS doctors are now suffering from stress-related illnesses or burnout. The Royal College of Anaesthetists recently found that 64% of its trainees in that speciality below the level of consultant felt their job was now so stressful that it had affected their physical health and 61% their mental health. There are 4.5 million people on waiting lists, the worst on record and hospitals are now immersed in debt and busted budgets.
Promises by the government of new hospitals and staff have been met with a barrage of criticism from professional medical bodies who have accused them of doing little more than pushing popular political soundbites. The number of private hospitals has been rising steadily over the last decade to compensate – and they are full of ex NHS staff. Eighteen months ago a report by an American healthcare company stated that by 2023, the private healthcare market would be worth over £10billion a year. After the last 5 years of cuts, a surge has seen 12.5 per cent of the UK population paying for private healthcare insurance.
The expected full-frontal assault of Britain’s civil service is expected quite soon, with the result that one of the worlds most respected institutions will end up veiled in state secrecy.
Undermining social mobility
Wealth in Britain is now so concentrated in the hands of so few that the head of the Institute for Fiscal Studies believes “inheritance is probably the most crucial factor in determining a person’s overall wealth – since the Victorian times”. This confirms that policies supporting social mobility has completely cratered.
Even those that aspire to move up are straddled with decades-long debt. Currently, more than £17 billion is loaned to around 1.3 million university students in England alone each year. The value of outstanding loans at the end of March 2019 reached £121 billion. The Government forecasts the value of outstanding loans to be around £450 billion (2018‑19 prices) by the middle of this century. This, says the Bank of England is unsustainable. In the meantime, those now paying the (average) £50,000 cost of attempting to move up the social ladder face not being able to afford to buy a property because of it.
On top of this – unsecured debt had surpassed levels seen in the run-up to the financial crisis. One year ago it was standing at over £15,000 per household, with total unsecured debt in the UK standing at £428bn. The BoE does not include student loans in its calculations of unsecured debt – so that only increases the burden significantly for those less able to afford it. Even the Social Mobility Commission has warned that inequality will remain entrenched “from birth to work” unless the government takes urgent action, which it isn’t.
Opportunists and failure
Roberto Unger one of the world’s most distinguished and preeminent political philosophers is no fanboy of the European Union. But he asserts that the current batch of populists, people like Boris Johnson and Donald Trump are just riding on the back of the very same economic system that is failing in Britain and America. “They are simply opportunists with no real plan”. If anything, their plan is to lie and then lie some more.
Those who voted for Brexit are driven by an awakened and unenlightened, defiant form of anti-modern nationalism. That is to say – they don’t really like the world as it is today
Brexit is the perfect Petri dish from which to grow this existential crisis and morph it into a national catastrophe, quite possibly inadvertently. The majority of people who voted for it are in the midst of, coming to the end of, or have ended their working lives. They are driven by an awakened and unenlightened, defiant form of anti-modern nationalism. That is to say – they don’t really like the world as it is today. They understood life thirty or forty years ago – before the internet, online banking, mobile phones and artificial intelligence. They lived close to a GP they could see that same day and had a police station with a local bobby and knew their bank manager in person. Thirty years ago an average working man could afford a home for him and his family and live reasonably well within their means. Grammar schools meant upward mobility gave the attentive a really good shot at life and some even went to university – and the state picked up the tab. In those days, dad had a job for life and his children would do better. Social movements such as feminism, equality, gay rights and environmentalism were overshadowed by one common enemy – the Cold War and this was something they understood.
At the turn on the new millennium, the traditional ways of life in Britain that people understood had mostly disintegrated. The very DNA of Britain had withered away along with its empire. Globalised corporatism and the internet age changed all that. Was Brexit really about an older generation who wanted nothing more than to protect their families and way of life from these new evils but didn’t know how to explain it or express it – then were exploited by people making promises to fix it all?
Revolution and failure
But really it was another Tory revolution that also failed most people that brings us to this point. Thatcher’s neoliberal model of capitalism would have worked if it had been properly moderated. Some things do work better under privatisation and free-markets, others do not. The privatisation of the national rail system and utilities has been an unmitigated financial disaster leaving everyone worse off other than its investors – most of whom are foreign states. Unrestrained – everything was financialised and had a price and a supplier. But the system was rigged and in 2008, it all came crashing down. It failed because crooks were put at the wheel. They won’t admit it but the banks in Britain facilitated by politicians fleeced the taxpayer for a trillion pounds and not one was even questioned let alone sent down for the crime of crushing a country.
However misguided, what these people really voted for, including the traditional working-class areas that ‘lent their vote’ was to bring back something they understood and to change the political and economic policies that swindled them out of everything, including the future prospects of their children.
The populists seized upon this once in a lifetime chance and are promising to fix it all. They won’t because they don’t have a real tangible plan. Their ideology is unknown. With Labour, you get socialism, with traditional Conservativism you get Thatcher’s neoliberal free-markets but the Conservative party has gone. In its place is a right-wing faction placing bets on outcomes to get elected. It’s the only thing they have proven they can do. The one big bet they have not yet announced is their intent to move Britain further away from manufacturing and agriculture and pivot towards services in technology, marketing, research and development. The manufacturing industries in Britain are to be sacrificed just as the coal and steel industries were in the 1980s to pivot towards services. And just look around you to see what that experiment cost us in the end!
The existential crisis Britain faces has been built on a raft of lies. Unless we can find a way to revive our traditional respect for the democratic norms and constitutional principles we once held so dear and we were so admired for, who knows where this experimental project will end?
In just a few short years, Britain’s international standing has been all but ruined. Its democracy is now looking decidedly weak. The rule of law as exercised by the government and its Prime Minister is now meaningless and the institutions being undermined by it is proving both divisive and prejudicial. Far from their promises of a new era of prosperity, the immediate future is already unravelling the Union and civil society has become decidedly uncivil and intolerant. The UK has been described in the recent past as a “cultural superpower” and London a world cultural capital. Both sentiments now sound hollow in an atmosphere of a fully divided nation where nationalism, extremism and racism now rule. Values such as liberty, tolerance, respect, justice and freedom that underpinned the nation are no longer the characteristics of our country.
It was out an out of control system of free-market capitalism, unrestrained corporatism and lack of political leadership that has led to such discontent that civil society is prepared to risk all that makes Britain strong and gamble its future prosperity.
Make no mistake – with Boris Johnson at the roulette wheel of Brexit, no-one knows if our number is up or not. He has a history of winning elections, dreaming up possibilities and failing at everything else. The consequence is that Britain is now facing an existential crisis of what made it great in the first place.