Look back in anger, look forward in hope. Easy to say: this remains a country with beautiful, complex towns and cities, ancient landscapes, well-educated and talented people, and an atmosphere of cheerful tolerance. But it’s badly governed and in a terrible economic mess. Getting out of it will involve great political courage, of which Britain suffers a deficiency.
Let’s look at the most immediate issue: strikes. Rail strikes. Strikes by nurses and firefighters. Strikes by border staff, strikes by scientists and weather forecasters. Strikes by postal workers, teachers, coffin-makers and border staff. Strikes on the buses; by highway workers, and baggage handlers, too.
Unless you are very determined, this might be the “festive season” to avoid seeing anyone, holidaying, falling ill, travelling to buy presents, or sending cards. Huddling will, apparently, be allowed. We’ve had pandemic lockdown. Welcome to the winter lockdown.
I say winter lockdown, not “trade union lockdown”, because there is a fundamental problem here that goes beyond how far Mick Lynch of the RMT, Matt Wrack of the FBU or Christina McAnea of Unison want to push things. The fundamental problem is that we have become a low-wage economy in which millions of people are locked into unrewarding working lives, from which they can see no escape.
This has been a simmering problem for ages. We seemed to dodge it during the last part of the 20th century and the beginning of this one. The end of the Cold War and a new phase of market-driven globalisation shovelled wealth into London’s financial market and made Britain, with its reputation for fair laws, global language and membership of the EU, a go-to destination for capital and skilled, motivated labour.
Happier days. The government blames what’s happened since on Vladimir Putin’s war against Ukraine and the pandemic. Clearly, up to a point, it is right. Turn-of-the-century globalism is over. Individual states matter much more again. And beyond that, in an age of climate crisis, we are bumping up against the material limits of what the planet can tolerate: the time of ever-cheaper consumer goods is probably over.
But I started this piece with the words “look back in anger” because we also know that our own political record carries a big part of the blame. This was a Conservative screw-up, too. Yes, the world came calling, loud and fast, but we elect governments to respond and do their best.
The Tories did some good things: getting in early in support of Ukraine, organising a fast vaccine roll-out under Kate Bingham. But they made a Horlicks of the supply of PPE, a scandal that isn’t over; they allowed the decanting of people with Covid from hospitals into care homes; they partied at Downing Street while the country suffered lockdown. According to Bingham, they are now busy unlearning any lessons they did learn.
Levelling up was a great Johnsonian phrase but, so far, no more than that. Then, when the Conservatives pulled down that leader because of his record of deceit and selfishness, they chose another, who promptly crashed the economy. So yes, even in this season of goodwill, look back in anger. And if the proposition now is that the more straightforward, restrained men, Rishi Sunak and Jeremy Hunt, can sort the problems those earlier Conservatives left behind by taxing us more heavily and promising more austerity, and then expect to be thanked for it… Well, that’s what you might call a hard sell.
We have been a low-wage economy, for most people, because we haven’t been a high-productivity or high-growth economy. That’s about education; investment in science and infrastructure; and the long-term incentives for business to invest more and disperse less to shareholders. All of which suggests it will take us a long time – far more than one parliamentary term – to begin to recover.
I don’t see how the Conservatives can turn around the ship. This is going to be the next big social democratic project. It’s going to require a much more assertive state, long-term investment and a commitment to fairness on wages, which will require even higher taxation on the better-off. We are going to have to lower our heads into the wind and make for Scandinavia.
This may not sound appealing. But this is the season of hope. And the Gordon Brown/Keir Starmer announcement on major political changes offers the beginning of that.
The individual announcements are welcome, particularly a full-throated commitment to abolishing that bloated retirement home for party donors and cronies, the House of Lords. A small, limited-powers senate or second chamber, probably with its members indirectly elected through a list system, seems, in the 21st century, a modest and thoughtful proposal. Sadly, we also need a corruption commissioner to oversee Westminster politics; and although there are real problems with banning MPs’ second jobs (does that tilt the system towards wealthy people who can afford politics as a sideline?), getting rid of a merry-go-round between corporate lobbying and political office would be wonderful. Move 50,000 civil service jobs out of London? Yes.
Exactly how real economic devolution for the towns and cities can be achieved, who gets elected mayors and what happens to those who don’t, remains unclear. Similar ideas have been touted before without getting anywhere. But if you don’t begin with the ambition to change what doesn’t work – and patently, our hyper-centralised way of doing politics hasn’t – what’s the point?
Enter, stage right, the inevitable chorus: that gloomy circle of nay-saying, double-chin-shaking, buttock-scratching “can’t-do-that” wiseacres who greeted the Brown plan like paid mourners at a Dickensian funeral. Conservatism in Britain is not limited to Conservatives, but when did we become a country convinced that the only way to plod is the way we’ve always plodded before?
In a sense what matters about the Brown initiative is less the detail – which will now be the subject of endless internal and external debate and will be, inevitably, part-delayed and partly diluted – and more the basic assertion that there is an alternative and better way of doing things.
It’s worth getting hold of a copy and digging down into the detail, in particular polling evidence that suggests a majority of Britons don’t think there will be significant changes to their lives whoever they vote for, and that there is a permanent London ruling class in power, whatever happens.
This hopelessness is a poison. The present wave of strikes is about cash and inflation. But the belief that there is a permanent ruling class produces an edge of anger that will be with us throughout 2023.
Political reform isn’t a distraction from daily life; it’s the starting place for change. It’s an assertion that things can be done differently. It’s about hope.
Keir Starmer’s wider task is immense: he must show us a way through. To get growth, he will need a much better relationship with our neighbours, and grit and imagination. But for some time now the Labour leader has been deflating expectations – not particularly open to Europe, or anywhere else; punitive, tight, disciplinarian. This may be intelligent tactical behaviour at a time when Conservative Britain has not yet given up.
But many were wondering whether this was the full, echt Starmer, the prospect ahead. And we felt our shoulders slump. For some of us, taking on unreformed Westminster was more than it seemed: it was evidence of political imagination, guts, a flash of fire. Welcome, therefore, to 2023.
This piece appears in the New Statesman’s Christmas special, subscribe now to get your copy
This article appears in the 07 Dec 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Special