RSS FeedFacebookSearch
Gary Younge
Small island. What has happened to Britain?

When we returned to London in 2015, after twelve years in the US, we could not get our son into the local elementary school. His class in Hackney, the neighborhood where we live, had the maximum of thirty kids in it, and none were leaving. Pretty much all the nonreligious schools in the area were at full capacity, too. He ended up getting a spot at a school two miles away. When our daughter started kindergarten a couple of years later, her class was also capped at thirty, and full.

Today her class has just fifteen kids in it. Next year the school—located, apparently without irony, on the borough’s first “21st Century Street,” with dedicated green space, bicycle parking, electric vehicle charging, and 40 percent “tree canopy cover”—will close. (It is merging with another undersubscribed school across the main road.) So will more than ninety across the country. Low birth rates and Brexit-induced emigration have forced these changes. On average, elementary school classes in England are at 88 percent capacity, but in some areas, including my fashionable but still quite poor quarter, the rate is far lower.

Not only are the schools shrinking and shutting down—the kids who go to them are getting smaller. After more than a decade of austerity, British five-year-olds are a full centimeter shorter now than they were in 2010, and they are becoming significantly shorter than children in other countries. I can’t help recalling what Kristian Jensen, the Danish finance minister, said in 2017, not long after the United Kingdom voted to leave the EU: “There are two kinds of European nations. There are small nations and there are countries that have not yet realized they are small nations.”

Britain’s diminished status has been anticipated for some time. It was, to my mind, best captured by the broadcaster Peter Jennings on New Year’s Eve 2000 as he watched an impressive fireworks display cascade over the River Thames:

Britain’s decline is relative, of course (its economy remains the sixth largest in the world), but it is real (it was fifth until the end of 2021, when India, its erstwhile colony, overtook it). Decades ago this diminishment was understood to be gradual and generational. After the Suez Crisis in 1956, there was an attempt to retreat to this smaller position in an orderly manner. I’m fifty-five, and my generation’s parents grew up in a virtually monoracial country, reliant on heavy industry, with the globe colored pink to mark British territories. I was raised to learn the metric system, the names of new countries—Zimbabwe, Benin, Burkina Faso—in a nation that saw itself as the stable conduit between Europe and America, with postcolonial ties across the globe. My children’s cohort has adjusted to an economy in which Indian restaurants employ more people than steel, coal, and shipbuilding all put together, and membership in the EU is a fact of history.

But recently it has felt like we have been experiencing a more disorienting, abrupt descent. Public infrastructure has been run down to such a level that expectations of service, delivery, and maintenance that were commonplace just a few years ago now seem implausible. Trains and emergency rooms are only marginally more reliable on days when the workers are not on strike than on days when they are.

Poorly maintained buildings thrown up using cheap concrete several decades ago have started crumbling, forcing many schools to close shortly before the school year started last fall. Four city councils have declared bankruptcy in the past year—including Nottingham, the ninth-largest city in the country—because they cannot meet statutory obligations with the money they get from the central government. In 2019 the United Nations special rapporteur on extreme poverty accused the UK government of the “systematic immiseration of a significant part of the British population.” Four years later his successor said that “things have got worse” and claimed the UK was in violation of international law over poverty levels.

Welfare payments have been slashed and the threshold for disability payments raised. In 2010, when the Conservatives came to power and launched their austerity agenda, the Trussell Trust, which oversees the largest network of food banks in the UK, operated thirty-five nationwide. Today it runs more than 1,300. At least one in seven of those using food banks is employed.

That includes teachers and nurses. The salary of some experienced nurses has fallen by 20 percent since 2010; of experienced teachers, by 13 percent. In some areas you can’t get an appointment for your child to see a mental health professional unless they have already tried to commit suicide. In February 2023 I was diagnosed with a serious heart condition and put on a waiting list for an MRI. I’m still waiting.

“The issue isn’t just incomes and inflation, but that people’s experience day to day is getting worse as public services crumble,” Diane Coyle, a professor of public policy at Cambridge, recently told the Financial Times. “The bill for sustained under-investment in everything from infrastructure, health and education to private business is coming due.” We are experiencing the highest tax burden since World War II. Standing at around 33 percent as a share of the GDP, it is 4 percent higher than it was at the last election and 10 percent higher than in 1993, though still lower than that of other advanced economies. But with the biggest jump in child poverty of the world’s richest nations over the last decade—29 percent of UK children live in poverty—we have little to show for all these taxes beyond the bill for Covid-19. That’s in no small part because, thanks to instruments like value added tax and local council tax, the burden falls most heavily on the poor.

What has happened to Britain? For all its faults, the British ruling class used to take itself seriously—if anything, too seriously. No one would accuse it of doing that now. The deluded act of self-harm otherwise known as Brexit was the most glaring example: for momentary electoral gain and an internal party truce, former prime minister David Cameron asked the country a question to which he did not want to know the answer and then resigned when they got it “wrong.” A nation that insisted on an aggressive, isolating version of its own sovereignty has spent the past eight years struggling to figure out what to do with it. But Brexit also acted as a sifting mechanism, elevating the least serious to the top.

A public inquiry into the Covid-19 pandemic laid bare the incompetence, infighting, and contempt of these new leaders, which has left Britain with one of the highest Covid death rates in the Western world. Dominic Cummings, as chief adviser to then Prime Minister Boris Johnson, referred to cabinet ministers in his WhatsApp messages as “useless fuckpigs,” “morons,” and “cunts.” Of Matt Hancock, then the health minister, Cummings wrote that he “is unfit for this job. The incompetence, the constant lies, the obsession with media bullshit. Still no fucking serious testing in care homes his uselessness is still killing god knows how many.” Hancock later resigned after he was caught on camera making out with a woman who was not his wife in what could have been a scene from a high school prom—in defiance of both his marital vows and Covid laws.

Sir Patrick Vallance, the former chief scientific adviser, describes a “bonkers set of exchanges” from an August 2020 meeting in which Johnson appeared “obsessed with older people accepting their fate and letting the young get on with life.” In his own testimony during the inquiry, Johnson claimed he simply was not getting the information that everybody else in the world was already acting on. “When you read that an Asiatic pandemic is about to sweep the world, you think you’ve heard it before, and that was the problem,” he said. “I was not being informed that this was something that would require urgent and immediate action…. We should collectively have twigged much sooner. I should have twigged.”

Britain has an election due before January 28, 2025 (elections are scheduled every five years but can be called earlier if Parliament agrees). The pollsters’ consensus is that Labour, which holds a consistent twenty-point lead in the polls, will win for the first time in twenty years.

How could this be? In 2019 the Tories won a colossal eighty-seat majority, their largest in more than three decades. Labour, meanwhile, which had long seemed intent on self-immolation, won its lowest number of seats, albeit with a higher vote share than the party gained under its two previous leaders and with more seats than the Conservatives won the last time they were in opposition. Most assumed that the Conservatives would comfortably hold on to power for at least another electoral cycle. With a lead like that, how could they possibly lose?

On the other hand, after four years of Conservative rule, inflation here is significantly higher than in most of Europe and almost double that of the United States; interest rates, in an economy where most mortgages are, to some degree, variable, are at a fifteen-year high; rents are rocketing. The economy is in recession; the pound is worth 35 percent less against the dollar than it was seventeen years ago. This economic and social calamity has been coupled with political chaos. We are now on our third Conservative prime minister in as many years.

The first, Johnson, resigned after his own party wearied of his inability to tell the truth. His lying to others, along with the jovial, floppy-haired posh-boy shtick, had already been factored in as part of the package. This is a man who had been fired from a journalism job for plagiarism, refused to say how many children he had, and was caught on tape conspiring to have a journalist beaten up on his friend’s behalf. Max Hastings, the former editor of The Daily Telegraph and Johnson’s former boss, once said, “I would not trust him with my wife nor—from painful experience—my wallet.”

The second, Liz Truss, boasted the shortest premiership ever. In just forty-four days she managed to crash the pound and the economy after a “minibudget” that proposed £45 billion in unfunded tax cuts—the biggest in half a century—that primarily benefited the wealthy. As the cost of borrowing spiked, parts of the pensions sector were threatened with insolvency. Truss fired her ideologically aligned chancellor, replacing him with a successor who ripped up the entire minibudget, making a nonsense of her agenda. The appointment smacked of desperation. Within a week she was gone. Her brief reign would have been even briefer were it not for the fact that the queen died just as her premiership began, suspending politics for ten days of official mourning. We are still paying the price, particularly with our mortgages.

The third is Rishi Sunak, the man Truss originally defeated for the job and who was drafted after her resignation to perform triage on his colleagues’ self-inflicted wounds and repair the damage their party had done to the country. Sunak, born in Britain to a Kenyan-Indian father and Tanzanian-Indian mother, went to Oxford and then Stanford, where he got an MBA before working at Goldman Sachs, becoming a partner at a hedge fund, and going into politics. His wife, Akshata Murty, is the daughter of the Indian billionaire N.R. Narayana Murthy of Infosys and the source of his only real scandal thus far. In April 2022 it emerged that she claimed nondomicile status on her taxes, which meant that she did not have to pay tax on foreign earnings—a loophole that was entirely legal (she is an Indian citizen) but nonetheless reflected poorly on her husband, then the chancellor of the exchequer, who, the joke went, could not even persuade his own wife to pay her fair share of taxes in Britain.

When the BBC pollsters constructed a word cloud from the terms most commonly used to describe Sunak, the four biggest epithets were “rich people,” “rich,” “money,” and “the rich.” With his favorability ratings at -29, Sunak is currently less popular than his party—which is really saying something. Conservatives have lost eight out of the nine seats they were defending in the last two years. The only seat they hung on to, in July, was Boris Johnson’s old seat. It is revealing that clinging to the former prime minister’s constituency was regarded as a victory.

The manner in which the seats become vacant suggests at least partly why they were lost in the first place. One MP resigned after he was twice found watching porn on his phone in the House of Commons (one of those times, he said, he’d intended to look at tractors); one was sentenced to eighteen months after being found guilty of sexually assaulting a fifteen-year-old boy; another was accused of sexually harassing three women and using cocaine. Another admitted to groping two men while he was drunk. Yet another was found to have harassed and bullied a staff member and exposed his genitals near their face. Taken as a whole, these apparently unrelated incidents characterize the Tory government’s record over the past four years: a period of offensive lewdness, decadence, and entitlement against a backdrop of economic devastation and social misery, culminating in stinging electoral defeats.

With few enticing economic levers to pull in an election year, the Conservatives are instead relying on a range of wedge issues, including transgender rights, environmental protection, immigration, and crime. Their flagship policy is a plan to send asylum seekers to Rwanda, even though this has been declared illegal, is proving unworkable, and is deeply immoral. The people who did not want Brexit are still angry, and many of those who did want it are angry because it hasn’t delivered any of the things they were promised.

And so a change in government is likely, but a change in the nation’s fortunes is less certain. Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, has indicated that he’d like to maintain Conservative tax and spending plans until growth returns. On most issues, ranging from nurses’ pay to student tuition, he refuses to say precisely what he would do, only that he would do it differently and better.

This is a significant and discouraging departure from the leadership he promised. Starmer took over as Labour leader in 2020 from Jeremy Corbyn with a pledge to unite a demoralized party at war with itself. His launch video celebrates his record of standing up for unions, workers, and environmentalists, joining picket lines, marching against the Iraq war. “I spent my life fighting for justice, standing up for the powerless and against the powerful,” he said. “We can promote peace and justice around the world with a human-rights-based foreign policy…. We can put factionalism and division on one side and unify around a radical program.”

His record in the years since, alas, says otherwise. During a period of popular public sector strikes, he told his front bench spokespeople not to join picket lines. He called for a nationwide ban on environmentalist demonstrations outside oil refineries and on roads. And as the war in Gaza intensified, he endorsed Israel’s decision to cut off Gazans’ water and power.

This caution has a rationale. Starmer believes Labour has so much ground to make up after its enormous 2019 defeat because of the left turn it took in 2015, when the party chose Corbyn as its leader. But the rationale is at best partial. It is true that the party was bedeviled by allegations of antisemitism and that the membership had twice overwhelmingly backed a candidate—Corbyn—whom the parliamentary caucus refused to work with and sometimes actively worked against. Yes, it lacked unity and message discipline, which contributed to its catastrophic electoral losses in 2019. But it is also true that Corbyn was leader during the 2017 election, in which Labour increased its seats and its vote share and robbed the Tories of a majority with an extremely popular platform. Just as it’s true that Labour’s 2019 defeat was in no small part thanks to its insistence on a second Brexit referendum—an insistence championed by none other than Starmer himself.

His efforts to lead the party to the right have left it, and him, without much to say and often directly contradicting things he has stated fairly recently—which the Tories will almost certainly focus on closer to election day. The party’s green investment pledge is a case in point. Just a couple of years ago Starmer pledged £28 billion a year for an industrial strategy that would invest in “battery manufacturing, hydrogen power, offshore wind, tree planting, flood defences and home insulation.”

The green investment pledge was popular with voters and business. Conservatives sought to depict it as the kind of reckless, socialist spending commitment that would drive up taxes and borrowing, yet given the Conservatives’ own hapless economic record there is a good chance it would not have cut through. But the possibility of any vulnerability, no matter how remote, was more than the cautious Starmer could bear. In early February he slashed the commitment to one sixth of the original (£4.7 billion a year), insisting they would invest more only when the country had more.

What words did pollsters report were associated with Starmer? “Nothing,” “Labour,” “not sure,” and “don’t know.” His favorability ratings stand at -13. So Britain’s two main parties, once coalitions of a broad swath of conservative and social democratic viewpoints, have now been taken over by single factions—the right wing of each.

The Labour leadership may reasonably claim that their reorientation is producing results: they are tipped to win. Nonetheless, whatever enthusiasm there is in a country facing its fourth general election under its fifth leader in nine years tends to be roused by the Tories losing, not Labour winning. It’s clear what that does for Labour. It is not so obvious where that leaves my MRI.

Polls show a significant majority of voters support nationalizing energy companies and water—which both party leaders oppose. The majority of the country is for a cease-fire in Gaza, which both parties oppose. The proportion of Britons who believe the government should control prices and reduce income inequality has more than doubled since 2006, and now stands at more than half the population, according to the British Social Attitudes (BSA) Survey, one of the nation’s most respected polling institutions. “The public are as left-wing in their outlook as they have been at any time since 1986,” concluded the BSA. The coming election reflects none of this.

When I returned from America in 2015, people asked if I was leaving because of the racism—as though by returning to Hackney I could somehow escape racism. When the UK voted for Brexit in June 2016 they asked if I regretted leaving the US; when Donald Trump was elected they assumed I must be relieved I’d left when I had. Only now that the two electoral cycles are in sync is it possible to convey my ambivalence at moving between two dysfunctional countries at war with themselves and the rest of the world, where the ballot box offers the clear choice of something even worse but few options for anything much better.

Here in Britain, where my family and I remain, one of the most consistent predictions is that voter turnout, which never fell below 70 percent from World War II until 1997 and has not gone above it since, will fall even further.

© Gary Younge. All Rights reserved, site built with tlc
Dispatches From The Diaspora
latest book

'An outstanding chronicler of the African diaspora.'

Bernardine Evaristo

 follow on twitter
© Gary Younge. All Rights reserved, site built with tlc