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15 August 2022

Why Britain’s decline resembles the fall of Rome

Under craven, venal, populist leaders, countries can lose their way frighteningly fast. Just ask the Romans.

By Martin Fletcher

Last month Nadine Dorries retweeted a mocked-up image of Rishi Sunak, head superimposed onto someone playing Brutus, stabbing Boris Johnson, playing Caesar, in the back. It made me wonder: did the last days of the Roman empire feel a bit like Britain has this summer? 

Was there the same sense of a degenerate ruling class fighting like rats, ignoring the gathering apocalypse, heedless of the common good, bereft of vision, peddling illusions, hooked on short-term fixes, endlessly scapegoating, desperately seeking to divert attention with gimmicks and spectacles, promising instant gratification in place of anything remotely resembling serious long-term strategy – in short, fiddling as Rome burned, its empire disintegrated, and its enemies encroached? 

Do I exaggerate Britain’s woes? I’m not sure. All summer it has felt as though the UK is spiralling hopelessly downwards. A third prime minister in six years is forced to resign, this one having disgraced his office. He idles away his final weeks in Chequers, Slovenia and now Greece as temperatures break all previous records and his country burns, almost literally, beneath a blazing, malign sun. 

His zombie government goes through the motions, nothing more, while food and fuel prices soar, the national debt climbs relentlessly and the economy unravels. Reservoirs are drying up. The NHS is close to meltdown. Railway and postal workers, dockers, doctors, teachers and others are disrupting, or threatening to disrupt, essential services through strikes. The police are manifestly failing us. Courts have record backlogs. Ambulances take hours to arrive. Care homes and nurseries are closing en masse for lack of staff. Fruit and vegetables rot in fields for lack of pickers. Travelling anywhere, anyhow, has become a nightmare. It takes months to get anything as simple as a passport or driving test.

[see also: Paul Mason: Is anyone in charge of post-Johnson Britain?]

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The coming winter promises to be worse still, with millions of people forced to rely on food banks or unable to heat their homes, and with the very real possibility of blackouts, widespread industrial strife, civil disobedience and social unrest.

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Meanwhile, the two Conservative candidates to succeed Boris Johnson engage in a bitter and demeaning scramble for the votes of right-wing Tory party members (the same tiny electorate that propelled Johnson into No 10 despite knowing he was utterly unfit for office) that the rest of the country can only watch with bewilderment and dismay.

Rishi Sunak launched his campaign with a promise to avoid “comforting fairy tales”, but that did not last long. He has since gone head to head with Liz Truss in a battle to appear the deepest tax cutter, the most hostile to Brussels, the harshest on asylum seekers, the greatest scourge of “woke nonsense”, the purest Thatcherite. 

It is a battle being fought in some parallel universe, one that bears little or no relation to the real world. It is an exercise in pandering to the interests and prejudices of a tiny, well-off few that does nothing to address the pressing needs of the great majority of British citizens.

The tens of billions of pounds of unfunded tax cuts that the candidates promise will help the rich, not the poorest who pay no taxes, and pile up debt for future generations. The cost-of-living crisis goes largely unaddressed, with Truss (by far the guiltier of the two) contemptuously dismissing help for the poor as “handouts”. At a time when Britain desperately needs to rebuild its relations with Europe she declares, absurdly, that “there is only one thing the EU understands and that is strength”. Following a summer when the perils of climate change have never been more obvious she disparages wind and solar farms and proposes to suspend green levies. As the Union with Scotland threatens to fracture she chooses to mock Nicola Sturgeon as an “attention seeker”. Instead of seeking to harness the civil service she accuses it, preposterously, of anti-Semitism.

Neither candidate dare tell uncomfortable truths, or suggest that sacrifices are necessary. Neither dares acknowledge that Brexit is anything less than a triumph. Neither dares to admit that the government in which they served for the past three years was rotten to its core, or to talk of the need for moral regeneration in public life. Neither proposes ways to tackle deep-seated problems such as the crisis in health and social care, energy dependency, declining educational standards and deteriorating infrastructure. Neither offers fresh ideas or compelling long-term visions – just short-term sugar rushes and gimmicky announcements designed to steal headlines. 

Truss, in particular, seems to believe that boosterism alone is enough to solve Britain’s woes. She scoffs at all “portents of doom”. She dismisses criticism of her platform as “Project Fear”. In the face of mountainous evidence to the contrary she insists that “our best days are ahead of us”, and accuses her critics of running the country down, of lacking patriotism. 

All the while a debased British press, and a slew of Tory MPs and ministers desperate for jobs in a Truss government, shamelessly cheer her on as a jaded, cynical, disenfranchised public grows ever more disillusioned with politicians and democracy. And all the while, the centre of global gravity shifts eastwards as the US remains politically polarised and paralysed, and China emerges as a new great power. 

There is no cast-iron rule that says Western democracies such as Britain must grow steadily richer, safer, cleaner and more stable. Under craven, venal, populist leaders they can decline frighteningly fast. Ask the Romans.

[See also: Does Keir Starmer’s plan to freeze energy bills go far enough?]

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