Why is the political response so muted in the face of this colossal crisis? - Joyce McMillan
The summer of 2022; and by all reasonable measures, Britain’s society and economy are beginning to look profoundly unfit for purpose, if not downright broken.
The recent months of disarray in Downing Street provide a predictably unedifying metaphor for the wider state of the nation; but a glance at the bigger picture reveals systemic failures on almost all significant fronts, many of them exposed during the pandemic, and now thrown into even higher relief by Britain’s vast and looming cost of living crisis.
It has long been understood by social reformers everywhere that in order to sustain a healthy and functioning society, governments first have to take care of the basics. Food, fuel, housing, transport, healthcare and education, including some access to culture and the arts, are the basic elements of a decent life in any developed economy; and for eight decades, since the outbreak of the Second World War, British governments have broadly succeeded in ensuring that the vast majority of the population, including most ordinary working people, could take these basic necessities for granted.
Well, no more; because a striking characteristic of today’s cost of living crisis - with its soaring food costs, rising interest rates, and literally extortionate increases in energy bills - is that it is both inflicting further damage on the chronically poor and disadvantaged, and also cutting deep into Britain’s new middle class; the people from working-class backgrounds who, in every decade since the 1980’s, have bought their own homes, and moved on upwards, into what was supposed to be an increasingly “classless” society.
This apparently endless escalator towards greater affluence first seriously faltered during the 2008-2009 financial crash, which led, under the Tories, to a decade of needless austerity in the British public sector, and growing economic stress in less prosperous communities, as real wages flat-lined, job security became ever harder to find, and vital local services began to fall the most vulnerable.
The pandemic brought a welcome rush of government support to some of these places, people and services; but since the lockdowns ended - and the UK government returned to its old and fatuous Tory refrain about the need for austerity - the looming storm of price rises has sent millions who were just about managing before 2020 straight over the brink, into the territory of food banks, cold homes with the heating switched off, and desperate struggles to afford basic transport costs.
Add to this a stressed-out NHS which can barely cope with demand, the highest public transport prices in Europe, and an utterly broken housing market - in which ever more property is hoarded as an underused asset while hundreds of thousands go homeless, and a whole generation despairs of ever owning a home - and you have a perfect storm of failure on all major fronts, compounded by a looming climate and food security crisis which the UK government, despite fine words, seems incapable of taking seriously.
Yet in the face of this abject failure to fulfil the basic tasks of government, the real political response seems muted or non-existent. From the Conservatives, at this stage of the game, nothing coherent can be expected; they are a party ravaged by the nonsense of Brexit, and still wedded, insofar as one can tell, to the same free market ideology that brought us to this state.
Where, though, in the name of politics, are the parties of opposition, which should surely be taking the measure of this colossal crisis, and proposing some of the major reforms that will be necessary to deal with it? Radical land and housing reform, an end to poverty wages and pitiful benefit levels, universal basic income, renationalisation of energy companies, massive government investment in the transition to a low carbon economy - all of these should be the daily stuff of political debate, both here in Scotland and at UK level.
Instead, though, we get endless ad hominem arguments about the Tories’ unfitness to rule, and an evasion of the big issues so marked that it almost amounts to denial. Labour remains terrified of any repeat of the Corbyn experiment; and seems to have forgotten that the Corbyn-McDonnell manifesto, which did tackle some of the underlying issues we face, won an impressive 40% of the vote at the 2017 general election.
The SNP, meanwhile, have become the true heirs in Scotland of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, assiduously applying sticking plaster to the consequences of UK failure, while vaguely asserting that Scotland could do better as an independent country. What the SNP has not done, though, is to produce any attempt at a costed plan for an independent alternative; one that would offer a radically different path for guaranteeing the basic welfare of Scottish people, while building the prosperous post-carbon future that should, given a decent road-map, be so clearly within our grasp.
Of course, the SNP has to maintain its reputation for a certain basic competence in government by operating within the limits of current political reality; in that sense, it has slightly more excuse than Labour for the banality, and the dismal Tory management-speak, of some of its recent budgetary statements and policy-making.
If the leaders of either party were social democrats worth the name, though, they would now be seeking to build international alliances against a broken global financial system which often rewards government for punishing their own people to enrich the already wealthy, and makes real investment in their future painfully difficult. And unless Britain’s main opposition parties can recover at least a little of their radical mojo, and begin to challenge the now discredited assumptions around which the last 40 years of British politics have been built, they will surely be struggling to offer any policy programme worth voting for the next time they face the people at the ballot box.