UK: Fragmentation and Decline Under Conservative Rule

After 12 bleak years of various Conservative governments, led by inadequate Prime Ministers, the UK is on its knees. Democracy is under attack like never before; the disaster of Brexit, which has resulted in a catalogue of negatives including social polarization, isolationism and rabid tribalism.

Years of grinding austerity, underinvestment in public services, frozen wages and staggering levels of incompetence have culminated in the unmitigated mess we see before us: A country in terminal decline, poverty growing, inequality entrenched, and  to cap it all The Wicked Witch of the raving Right, Liz Truss, has now been elected leader of the Conservatives, and, as they are in office, the new Prime Minister. A totally undemocratic electoral process, but hey, ‘that’s the way it’s always been’.

She was voted in, in a country of around 69 million people, by 81,326 (57.4% of the total gaggle) Conservative members. A tiny group, overwhelmingly old, posh, white, male, anti-Europe, anti-immigrant, anti-environment – pro-fossil fuels, backward-looking nationalists. A crazy bunch operating within  a dysfunctional system that, like much of the UK parliamentary structure and the primordial electoral model, desperately needs reforming.

The revolting campaign rhetoric spouted by Truss, was we hoped, just that, ranting rhetoric aimed solely at the conservative golf club nobs. Alas, in her first pronouncements as PM, surrounded by baying Tory sycophants, it was clear that Truss lives not in the real world at all, but in a crumbling castle for one, built on a foundation of Neo-Liberal doctrine, situated further to the right than any UK Prime-Minister in recent years.

Despite decades of disappointment, whenever a new PM/government takes office, naivety gives rise to a prickle of optimism: surely now things will improve, surely social justice will be prioritized, peace and environmental action imperatives. Well, PM Truss swiftly crushed any such childish hopes with her first speech in parliament and her wooden responses during Prime Minister’s Questions. Arrogance masquerading as certainty imbued every cruel statement of policy intent, and, as opposition parties shook their heads in disbelief, people around the country, millions of whom are struggling to pay rising energy bills and increased food prices, were again crushed.

Truss, her cabinet, and thanks to a purge of moderate voices undertaken by Boris Johnson to quieten dissent, most, if not all of the parliamentary party, is now firmly wedded to an extreme version of Neo-Liberalism and the failed doctrine of Trickle Down economics. After forty years of most boats being sunk by the rising tide, the Ideology of Injustice has been shown to deepen inequality, intensify poverty and further concentrate wealth in the pockets of The Already Wealthy.

In addition to economic plans designed to benefit corporations and, by her own admission, intensify inequality (‘I’m not interested in re-distribution’ she told the BBC), she plans to increase military spending, allow global energy companies to restart gas extraction in the North Sea, end the moratorium on fracking and abolish green levies, which are used to fund energy efficiency and renewable electricity. She despises labor rights and the Trades Union movement, peaceful public protest and immigrants, all of which she is threatening to criminalize or clutter with so much bureaucracy as to make such human rights unenforceable.

Her policies, dogmatism and the doctrine that underpin them are, in many ways, terrifying. And with the  suspension of parliament and consequently, any form of scrutiny, resulting from the death of The Queen, there is a danger, or for her, an opportunity, that she attempts to introduce legislation under cover of national mourning. If Truss and her gang get their way, the limited form of democracy that exists in the UK will become a distant memory, rather as ethics and honesty in public office, compassion and honoring international commitments have in recent years.

Rising misery

The list of national crises that the Truss government inherits, most if not all of which she had a grubby hand in causing, is long, and growing. As is public anger. It is a list resulting from ideological obsession, gross incompetence and absenteeism.

The National Health Service (NHS) is in crisis – years  of underfunding, lack of training and Brexit, which saw thousands of NHS workers from Europe leave the UK, have led to around 135,000 vacancies, including 40,000 nurses and over 8,000 doctors in England alone. The service has the longest waiting lists for routine treatments on record; if you dial 999 for an ambulance, it could be hours, or in extreme cases, days before it arrives. Social care is dysfunctional; there is a housing crisis, property prices are sky high, rents are unaffordable, tenancies offer no security, homelessness is increasing – according to Government figures, “between January to March 2022, 74,230 households were assessed as homeless or threatened with homelessness,”up 5.4% in the same period in 2021, a further 38,000 were regarded as at “risk of homelessness”.

Inflation is at 10.1% and rising, recession predicted, poverty booming. Thousands of people/families (many of whom are in full-time employment) rely on food banks for basic supplies – over two million people visited a food bank last year, and this doesn’t include independent providers – local charities, churches etc. Ten years ago food banks barely existed in the UK, now there are estimated to be 2,572, and constitute a growth area.

The privatization of utility companies including water in 1989 under Thatcher, has led to energy and water companies making huge profits for shareholders (£72bn in dividends), but neglecting consumers and failing to invest. Since water was privatized no new reservoirs have been commissioned (in 33 years), and, The Guardian reports,“2.4bn liters [of water] a day on current estimates have been allowed to leak away.” Airports including Heathrow, have had to limit the number of flights due to lack of staff; the airport authorities and airlines use the ‘It’s not us, it’s Covid’ excuse, so loved by companies and government agencies who laid off too many employees during the pandemic and either haven’t re-hired enough, or employees refused to return unless wages and conditions improved.

The judiciary is in crisis, as is the prison system and the police, particularly in London; childcare and nursery education is shambolic, unaffordable for most, hard to find, limited places, particularly for those on average incomes; again due in part to lack of properly trained staff. It is, it seems, an endless list, shameful and intensely depressing, There may, however, be a glimmer of light within the storm; a positive effect of this cacophony of chaos is a growing movement of resistance to economic injustice, and Trades Union industrial action.

Enough is Enough

Wages for most people in the UK have been effectively frozen for years; and now, with rising inflation income is reducing in value, economic hardship intensifying, fury rising. Unions, which have been greatly weakened in the last thirty years through restrictive legislation, have rediscovered their courage and purpose, and in response to members’ demands have organised strikes in a number of areas. Most notably, railway and Transport for London workers have withdrawn their labor on a number of occasions in disputes over pay and conditions; refuse workers in Scotland have been on strike over pay; postal workers have also been striking; junior barristers are on indefinite strike over pay; workers at the UK’s largest container port, Felixstowe, recently withdrew their labour for eight days in another dispute about pay. Nurses and doctors working in the NHS are threatening industrial action, as are teachers.

The leader of the RMT union, Mick Lynch, who has emerged as a leading voice for the people, has suggested that, “unions are on the brink of calling for ‘synchronized’ strikes over widespread anger at how much soaring inflation is outpacing wages.” If such a positive step were taken, it would be a powerful act of resistance against  years of exploitation and injustice, and may further empower working people, who for years have been silenced.

In parallel with the workers revolt is a social movement of defiance. Initially triggered by high energy bills, rising costs and low wages, the scope of disquiet is expanding to include outrage at huge profits for energy companies and other corporations, increasing payments to shareholders whilst the majority struggle to feed themselves and their families; i.e., it’s about social injustice, exploitation and greed. Two movements of resistance and change have emerged from the widespread disquiet – ‘Don’t Pay’, which aims to empower people to not pay increased energy bills, and ‘Enough is Enough’, which is a broader social movement founded by union leaders and MPs.

The appearance of these groups is deeply encouraging and could prove to be a pivotal moment. Many people, the majority perhaps, are worn down, ashamed of where the country finds itself, and have had enough. Enough of being ignored and manipulated; of being told to ‘tighten their belts’ and ‘carry on’, whilst corporations, public/private companies including energy firms, pay out huge dividends and government ministers, spineless, unprincipled puppets, who live in the silk-lined pockets of big business, including most notably the media barons, lie and lie and lie again.

In the face of increasing levels of social injustice, government duplicity and economic hardship, eventually the people must unite and revolt. If, after the endless pantomime of the Queen’s funeral, people do come together, refuse to pay rising energy costs; refuse to work, refuse to be exploited and marginalized; refuse to stand by while the natural world is vandalised; if the unions do take coordinated action, and many of us would support such a progressive act, there is a chance, slim, but real, that years of frustration and anger, can be turned into empowerment and hope.

Graham Peebles is an independent writer and charity worker. He set up The Create Trust in 2005 and has run education projects in India, Sri Lanka, Palestine and Ethiopia where he lived for two years working with street children, under 18 commercial sex workers, and conducting teacher training programmes. He lives and works in London. Read other articles by Graham, or visit Graham's website.