HomeBusinessBritain is already in the grip of a deep malaise – what happens when zero growth bites? | John Harris
Britain is already in the grip of a deep malaise – what happens when zero growth bites? | John Harris
June 13, 2022
Far from the madding jubilee crowds, I spent the May half-term holiday doing a long sponsored walk in Cumbria with my two kids. I intentionally tuned out of the news, but even so, reminders of politics and the state of the country were sometimes unavoidable.
In the crowded town of Keswick, I discovered that the cash-strapped council had closed the local swimming pool. There were also clear signs of post-Brexit labour shortages in the hospitality trade. And when we finally began our journey back home, the inevitable happened: our first train was delayed in Crewe by a “mechanical issue”, and on the second leg of the journey, the collision of hordes of weekend travellers with a measly number of carriages meant whole families squatting in corridors. Here, yet again, was proof of what all the flags and mad parades couldn’t cover up: a country in the grip of an increasingly deep malaise, where life seems to regularly hit the buffers, to the sound of that very British apology: “Sorry for any inconvenience caused.”
As excitement builds around two upcoming byelections, in Wakefield and Tiverton and Honiton, this is too easily forgotten. So far, the government’s plunge in popularity has been almost exclusively seen in terms of Boris Johnson’s character and the horrors of Partygate. But clearly, there is much more that is frustrating and angering people: most notably, raging inflation, and a crisis in the NHS manifested in sometimes fatally long waits for ambulances, imploding A&E departments and the near-impossibility for many people of seeing a GP or dentist. Outside London, public transport is too often erratic and expensive. One other aspect of our current national condition is rather overlooked, and centres on what more than a decade of austerity has meant for the most basic aspects of people’s immediate environment: parks, leisure centres, roads.
If some of these things suggest a continuing story of underfunded services and spending cuts, a lot of other stuff is changing. After the crash of 2008, the mounting issue of flatlining wages was just about smoothed over by access to seemingly endless credit and the availability of cheap essentials sold at stable prices. In many places, this model amounted to people working in shops to earn money to spend in other shops, and borrowing to bridge any gaps. It is now finished, thanks not just to rising prices and the prospect of further increases in interest rates, but also to fundamental changes in the labour market. A new economy is cohering around automation, online consumerism and working from home: if you are not one of the lucky people whose days are spent in Zoom meetings, you may well be adjusting to a new life as a warehouse “associate” or delivery driver.
For millions of people, what all this amounts to is the worst possible combination of change and continuity: their livelihoods and immediate surroundings are in flux, but a state that was so hacked back from 2010 onwards offers little help. Brexit, meanwhile, is fusing with the effects of the war in Ukraine to make things even more difficult. Late last week, the OECD predicted that economic growth in the UK is about to sputter to a halt, with this country likely to register figures that will make it the worst-performing member of the G20 apart from Russia. One crucial factor is our comparatively high inflation rate, and its connection to our exit from the EU. On Thursday, the Financial Times drew attention to “an imbalance between levels of UK consumer spending and the ability of companies to supply, partly as a result of additional trade barriers that accompanied Brexit”. Leaving the single market and customs union, in other words, is going to have very serious consequences – not least for the government’s tax take and so for public spending. In all likelihood, for the next year at least, our problems will probably only deepen.
I am old enough to just about remember one of this country’s most protracted periods of breakdown, which stretched from the mid-1970s into the 1980s, and took in strikes, shortages, the advent of Thatcherism, riots, and much more besides. My memories are a little less dramatic: cafe tables were always sticky, adults talked endlessly about the ways to somehow dodge all the everyday privations, and the public sector reeked of cheap detergent and decline (at my secondary school, many of the lessons took place in rickety portable buildings so close to a railway line that when a train went past, the teacher had to pause). There are plenty of parts of the country where that kind of atmosphere never went away. But what makes the current moment so politically significant is that a modern version of it is reaching even the more affluent parts of the UK. In any medium-sized British town, the spectacle will be much the same: empty retail units, charity shops, chain stores where a bare minimum of staff endlessly coach people in the use of self-service checkouts, neglected public spaces, and a latent anxiety focused on schools and hospitals. To state the blindingly obvious, this is not what people were promised by their politicians, nor what they expected to face as they left behind the miseries of the pandemic.
As proved by their increasingly desperate policy ideas, Boris Johnson and his colleagues have no clue how to respond to such a complex tangle of problems. But for Keir Starmer and the Labour party, 2022’s sense of crisis is also replete with danger. So far, rather than offering any kind of cure for the malaise, Starmer has tended to look like yet another embodiment of it: a nervous, hesitant presence, seemingly as confounded as anyone else, and singularly lacking any story about where we are, how we got here and what should happen next. In its absence, if Johnson is sooner or later toppled, there may still be room for another senior Conservative to claim that they have an answer. That devout Tory free-marketeer, Liz Truss, may yet get the chance to subject us to even more of what got us in this mess. Some other Tory pretender – Jeremy Hunt, for instance – might affect to be a little more compassionate and centrist but do much the same.
As old certainties crumble, what is lacking from both everyday life and party politics is any coherent, credible, halfway optimistic story about the future, voiced by someone people feel they may be able to trust. The popular view of politicians may be too cynical to allow any such visions to take flight; perhaps the Westminster talent pool is now so dry that anyone trying to inspire us will sound callow and unconvincing. Perhaps those in leadership positions are now so steeped in abstractions and cliches that they cannot pull off the trick of framing what they offer in terms of people’s day-to-day experiences. But remember the great Welsh writer and thinker Raymond Williams’s famous contention: that to be radical is “to make hope possible rather than despair convincing”. At such a watershed moment, what the malaise of 2022 demands is exactly that.