A stone stands beside the spring in Gloucestershire which marks the source of the River Thames. Besides it stands a pub, named the Thames Head. Besides stone and river today, though, the Thames is nowhere to be seen: the bed has dried out, and the river doesn’t begin to flow for miles. Even where it does, the water is warm and shallow and contains significantly less oxygen than its inhabitants need to survive. Following what the Met Office has described as the driest July for England since 1935, the country is in the grip of a drought. Satellite images show the normally damp, green island looking parched and brown.
The signs of looming environmental catastrophe are terrifying: both drought and heatwave are afflicting much of Europe, and several hundred miles south the River Loire is running dry, too. As things stand though, they’re passing, barely noticed, hidden by the myriad other signs that Britain has quite simply broken.
The most prominent problem is the energy crisis, of course. Ofgem recently announced plans to update its increasingly misleadingly-named price cap every three months instead of every six; wholesale prices, though, are moving much faster than that, and the consultancy Cornwall Insights has raised its expectations of the price cap twice in the last eleven days. Now it expects that the “cap” – no, I don’t know why they call it that either – for the typical energy bills to hit £4,266 a year next January. As recently as last winter, it was little more than £1,000.
This is not “tighten your belts” stuff, the sort of increase that’ll force families to cut out the weekly takeaway, or holiday in Britain rather than the Med. This is the equivalent of simply not being paid for several months of the year, a cost that’ll leave households facing destitution. Were that not enough, interest rates, which affect any household with a variable rate mortgage or other form of debt, are climbing steadily for the first time since the crash. Incomes have not risen in 15 years.
Rishi Sunak has, belatedly, woken up to the scale of the problem, and pledged to find £10bn to address the crisis. But it’s far from clear that his sums add up, and Sunak is probably, in any case, irrelevant – the consensus, certainly among the MPs who are rushing like lemmings to back her, is that the next prime minister will be Liz Truss, who like her mentor Boris Johnson seems less concerned about governing than about playing dress up. This week, in a metaphor so on the nose it could make you bleed, she was photographed pretending to drive a train.
Meanwhile, we have all grown so used to the idea that Britain’s new status post-Brexit has turned Kent into a lorry park that we’ve all stopped noticing it: it’s become just another slightly depressing bit of the backdrop to life in this country, similar to rail replacement bus services or Michael Gove. Horror stories about soaring food prices and empty shelves have disappeared, though the problems themselves haven’t. Instead, we get headlines about how early you need to present yourself for a plane or a ferry if you want to have a 50:50 chance of getting off this benighted island.
Strikes, too, barely seem to register any more: there are simply too many of them (railway, postal service, Scottish bin workers). The government’s plan to damn Labour by association seem to be running into the twin problems of Labour not being in power and widespread support for industrial action, because at least it means that someone is doing something besides sitting there and taking it.
The biggest signs of crisis, though, can be found in the public services. Shortages have left some hospitals unable to offer women giving birth the usual choice of pain relief, to find which works best for them. Just as terrifying is the number of people waiting more than 12 hours for admission to hospital in an emergency. Before a few years ago, even in bad months, even in the depths of the annual winter crisis, this number would never top 1,000, and in many months would not even reach double figures. In July, it neared 30,000. Next winter, everything we know about the health service suggests it will be worse. It is hard to look at these stories and not conclude that people are quite literally going to die.
To end where we began, fire fighters are warning that, after a decade of austerity, the service is in no state to deal with the spate of wildfires resulting from the heatwave. “We simply can’t get to these fires quick enough,” Riccardo la Torre, the national officer for the Fire Brigades Union, has said. “When we do, we simply don’t have the resources to deal with them adequately.”
Public services, household budgets, the physical state of the land itself: all seem to be in crises hitting at the exact same time. In 2010 the Conservative Party came to power under the slogan “We can’t go on like this”, and promising to fix “Broken Britain”. Since then, its political dominance has only increased: the right has had everything its own way, abandoning the need for constructive cooperation with our neighbours, all but laughing at the notion it might consider the needs of those who disagree with it.
Little wonder, then, that prominent right-wing thinkers are spouting nonsense about “wokery” and the immovable “left blob”. If they admitted to themselves that there was nothing standing in their way, they’d have to grapple with the real results of a decade of Tory hegemony: a country that everyone can see is coming apart at the seams.