Ten years ago, King Charles (then the Prince of Wales) travelled to the villages of the Somerset Levels, where hundreds of people had been forced to leave their homes by flooding. Among the drowned fields and ruined homes, Charles told locals it was a “tragedy” that nothing had been done to prevent the floods, which to him represented a failure of stewardship. But it was also an opportunity, as he was overheard to say: “There’s nothing like a jolly good disaster to get people to start doing something.”
However, the people whose job it was to “do something” were committed to a political programme that had little regard for Charles’s primal conservatism. The prime minister, David Cameron, who had been embarrassed into visiting the Levels himself, would preside over further cuts to spending on flood defences after securing a majority in the 2015 election.
Under a Conservative banner a radical economic agenda was being imposed on the British state. A programme of austerity, launched by the coalition government in 2010 in the wake of the 2008 financial crash, would push many of our institutions into a condition of recurring disaster. Its legacy is a health service that is overloaded each winter, school buildings that are crumbling, cratered roads, a justice system that cannot keep up, a degraded public realm.
In medicine, bad news is best learned early, and it is to be hoped that the King’s diagnosis of a form of cancer that, at the time of writing, remains undisclosed is prompt enough that he makes a full and fast recovery. This is an outcome that his subjects are too often denied.
The UK has some of the lowest five-year cancer survival rates in the developed world, a consequence of poor public health and a lack of access to primary care: more than a third of people with cancer in the UK are not diagnosed until they have been rushed to hospital. Most people with pancreatic cancer in the UK never receive treatment for it.
The long-term decline in public health is one of the greatest indicators of a debilitated and unequal economy. Two and a half million people are economically inactive due to long-term sickness. Men in the most deprived areas of Britain can expect to die almost a decade earlier than those in the least deprived areas.
On Britain’s high streets the consequences of more than a decade of negligence are immediately apparent: shops that have been forced to compete, undefended, against online giants that feel no responsibility towards the taxpayer, and public spaces that local authorities cannot afford to maintain.
The differences between Britain and similar nations are getting starker – middle-income households in the UK are on average 16 per cent worse off than those in France, Germany, the Netherlands, Canada or Australia, according to the Resolution Foundation. Britain’s GDP may appear healthy but the typical British household is poorer than its international counterparts by more than £8,000 per year.
What growth recent Conservative governments produced was mainly illusory, the result of cheap debt rather than productivity or profitability. With debt becoming more expensive, British companies are now going bankrupt at the highest rate for 30 years. In both the private and public spheres, a Britain run by narrow economic dogma has failed to invest properly in its future, or to act on the bad news as it was happening. Distracted by years of vicious political infighting, the Conservative Party has given up on revitalising the country and now clings to a series of obvious untruths about tax cuts we can’t afford to make and spending plans that don’t exist.
King Charles’s suffering will be readily understood by his subjects. As Will Lloyd writes on page 9, the King is “more likely to be defined by his struggle with cancer, where the stakes are clear, than anything he achieved during his life”. He retreats from public life at a time when his daughter-in-law, Catherine, the Princess of Wales, is recovering from a recent operation, leaving a pronounced absence on the royal stage. Their health may be a private matter, but it is likely to be the focus of public conversation for some time. The same should be true of Britain’s ailing body politic. This is a time for honest diagnosis, transparency and strong medicine.
[See also: A Tory reckoning]
This article appears in the 07 Feb 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Who runs Labour?