AMAC Exclusive – By Daniel Berman
When I was an undergraduate, I was fascinated by the final decades of the Roman Empire. How had the citizens of the empire perceived the process of dissolution? It came in fits and starts, and at any point the populace could console themselves with a false sense of stability. “At least the worst is over,” many likely said to themselves at various periods of the long decline.
I have had cause to reflect on that attitude, having spent the end of 2022 in London. For decades London has been, and arguably continues to be, the city of choice for the global elite. It is a mixture of accessible pedestrian living, shopping, and nightlife, combined with the presence of many commercial powerhouses.
However, London in 2022 is not the city it was in 2012, the year of the Olympic games, or even 2016. For one thing, the city is cold. Many acquaintances are being forced to huddle at home under multiple layers, as consequence of heating prices that have increased four-fold in two years. Escaping to pubs is no answer, as most can’t afford to turn on the heat either.
Once revered for its public transit, getting anywhere in the city is now a crap shoot, with bus and train services on regular strike. Anyone trying to leave the country risks being unable to return, as the border force that manages customs is also striking.
The government has taken to warning Britons to avoid risky activities this winter: ice skating may be fun, but injuries are extra hazardous when the ambulance services are on strike. Even if you can reach a hospital, there is no guarantee of treatment when nurses are also striking.
Then there is the crime. The police are, thankfully, not on strike, but they may as well be. A combination of underfunding and increasingly restrictive policies have led them to abandon enforcement of property crime, something reinforced by the decision of government-employed defense barristers (lawyers) to strike. As a result, the courts have allowed many of those charged and awaiting trial to wander freely. Much as in New York, “law enforcement” is becoming a joke, the punchline being that the “enforcement” part makes it an oxymoron.
Comparisons have been drawn with the 1978 “Winter of Discontent,” when a wave of strikes brought down the Labour government of James Callaghan and ushered Margaret Thatcher into office. There are elements of the Conservative Party that would love to exploit the comparison by going to war with the unions. But having achieved the confrontation they sought, they seem to lack any idea of what to do with it, much less how to turn it to their advantage.
Margaret Thatcher played a clever game of divide and conquer, confronting one sector at a time. Most importantly, Margaret Thatcher also held out a carrot as well as a stick. She did not demand that the coal miners accept less to perform the same work for a greater number of hours. Rather, she argued that the government should cease subsidizing them for performing economically inefficient tasks, when both they, and the country would be better off doing other things. Thatcher was not fundamentally threatened by coal miners closing pits, because she ultimately wanted them closed as well. The only threat arose when the miners attempted to disrupt other economic activities, and there it was relatively simple to justify the use of force to protect the right of other workers to do their jobs.
By contrast, the Conservative government of Rishi Sunak is not willing to downsize the striking services. For all the talk of reducing the number of civil servants in the abstract, the government complains about shortages of teachers, nurses, and transport workers. The government needs them to do their jobs, but insists it cannot pay them, or cannot match their pay to inflation. It is the striking workers, therefore, who hold greater leverage over the government in this new Winter of Discontent.
For all her failings, the short-lived government of Liz Truss seemed to understand that you could not demand sacrifices without offering something in return. Truss recognized the dangers posed by the interplay of inflation, the vast sums spent by Boris Johnson (with now-PM Rishi Sunak as Chancellor) during the pandemic, and any efforts to control wages or giving into demands. With inflation over 10%, public sector workers could be forgiven for seeing a 2% rise in wages as a pay cut.
Sunak, by contrast, insists flatly and unapologetically that there is no money. His policies have combined tax increases with cuts in spending. Solidarity, in his view, is established when everyone suffers together.
The results have certainly brought people together. The rich and middle classes are as inconvenienced by the collapse of transport and higher taxes as the poor and working classes are by austerity. The UK already had the worst economic performance in the G7 for 2022, and it managed to underperform even these pessimistic projections in the third quarter. It is hard to imagine the strike-ravaged figures for the fourth quarter not being even worse.
What would perhaps be most shocking to visiting Americans is how readily the British seem to have accepted this state of being. Some of Liz Truss’s advisers suggested that the British had learned to become comfortable with “managed decline” and that institutions at all levels would resist any attempt to leave their comfort zone. The behavior of the Conservative Party in removing Liz Truss for bad poll ratings, only to unanimously install Sunak, whose poll ratings have barely improved, seems to vindicate that.
This is not to say the British people are happy, or even that Sunak is. Sunak seems out of touch, even bored with the job. He has seemed petulant when asked to discipline the behavior of his ministers, and his political instincts have been called into question, when, as the richest member of Parliament, he chose to make a major issue of the Labour Party’s proposal to tax private schools.
Whatever Sunak’s issues, MPs show few signs of removing him. What else would they do? The sense of despair is palpable. Whereas Americans unhappy with government tend to make their displeasure known, as they did over COVID-19 shutdowns and school closures, British MPs seem despondent. Removing Truss seems to have exhausted the final shreds of the Conservative Party’s tradition of ruthless self-preservation. Apart from a few MPs on the right pining for Boris Johnson to return, the rest seem to have resigned themselves to the impossibility of doing better.
The same despondency seems to be on display in reaction to the collapse of services. I have encountered no end of griping from acquaintances of all ideologies and social classes, but the one unifying belief is that no one could do much better. There is a broad consensus it would be hard to do worse than Sunak’s Conservatives, and that is what is driving the party’s 20-something percentage poll rankings. But for everyone else, it is already accepted as normal that you only heat rooms when you absolutely need to, that you spend as much time at home as possible under the covers, and that you keep your phone hidden when in public lest it be grabbed.
There are some vague aspirations for the future. But most involve emigration. I am constantly told by friends or even strangers I run into that they hope “to someday move to the United States.” Parents of students I work with are entirely focused on admission to American universities. Hope exists in finding ways to get out of Britain, if not for oneself, then for one’s children. That extends to professionals in their late 20s and early 30s, who lament a sense of abandonment by friends who have moved across the Atlantic.
The idea that “someone” should “do something” is largely limited to the unions, who in many ways are merely repeating the words and phrases of their predecessors from the 1920s almost as religious ceremony rather than a concerted strategy.
The only groups which have shown a sense of vitality in British life are the ethnic minorities. Not the Welsh, whose devolved government and national movement is comatose, nor the Scots, who echo the unions in reciting the words and phrases of their glorious defeat in the 2014 independence referendum, unwilling to engage with the eight years that have transpired since. No—when it came to opposition to sexual education in primary schools, it was largely Islamic immigrant communities who rallied, only to be denounced as threats to public order. The willingness of Muslim parents to protest such lessons, was, in a touch of irony, seen by the establishment as proof they were “un-British.”
From a geopolitical standpoint, the British Empire has been declining for a century. But in nearly a decade of living there, I never felt the degree of despondency among the population I have experienced during my visit this winter.
A nation can survive economic crisis and defeat in war, but it cannot survive its own population losing faith. As Churchill once said, “Nations that go down fighting rise again, but those who surrender tamely are finished.” The British Conservative Party now seems content to surrender tamely to entropy, the unions to see what they can extract on the way down, the Labour opposition to merely wait to inherit office, and the public to hope to escape to somewhere better and preferably warmer. Liz Truss’s vision may have had problems, its execution was without a doubt flawed, and Boris Johnson too was far from a savior. But they, at least, had something to unite people. In this new Winter of Discontent, the best anyone in Britain hopes for is for things to get only marginally worse.
Daniel Berman is a frequent commentator and lecturer on foreign policy and political affairs, both nationally and internationally. He holds a Ph.D. in International Relations from the London School of Economics. He also writes as Daniel Roman.
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