On the streets of our major cities, rough sleeping has once more become a wearingly familiar sight. A scourge that had been largely eliminated has increased by 169 per cent since 2010.
Other social ills that were thought to have been eradicated are similarly recrudescing. The number of people reliant on food banks to avoid hunger has reached more than a million. There are 79,000 households living in temporary accommodation owing to homelessness. And, for the first time ever, the number of working families living in poverty has outstripped the number of workless and retired ones doing so.
Nearly a decade has passed since the Conservatives first declared, as a consequence of the financial crisis and Great Recession, an age of austerity. Punitive cuts to public spending were justified by the coalition on the grounds that the state could do “more with less” and that the government was “crowding out” the private sector. When Britain’s current budget deficit was finally eliminated – two years later than promised – the former chancellor George Osborne declared victory: “We got there in the end – a remarkable national effort.” But 2018 was the year that the cost of this doctrinaire project became undisguisable.
Since April, in our Crumbling Britain series, we have reported online and in the magazine on the decay of the public realm and revealed the suffering behind austerity: the distress caused by the sudden closure of a long-established local doctors’ surgery in Harlow, Essex; the loss of Sure Start centres in Somerset (nearly a thousand have closed nationwide); the creation of a “hostile environment” for welfare claimants; the closure of libraries and the decline of youth services. In an essay this week, Dr Phil Whitaker, our medical columnist, charts how the nationwide closure of 450 GP practices has eroded the traditional doctor-patient relationship.
This is not left-wing alarmism. In February, Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, warned: “There is a danger that there is a schism in our society into which the most vulnerable are falling. Austerity is crushing the weak, the sick and many others.” More recently, Philip Alston, the United Nations special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, described ministers as being in a “state of denial” about the effects of austerity. The primary motivation for austerity was, he said, “an ideological one”.
For Britain, the sixth largest economy in the world, severe austerity has been a choice rather than a necessity. Government borrowing, it is said, will “burden” younger generations. Yet austerity has enfeebled the collective institutions that they depend on and that we collectively strove to build.
Faced with a growing public revolt, Theresa May promised to end austerity (as David Cameron never did). The National Health Service, most notably, was awarded a real-terms average spending increase of 3.4 per cent a year, amounting to £25bn by 2023/24.
In truth, austerity has been moderated, rather than abandoned. Three quarters of the £12bn of welfare cuts announced since 2015 will go ahead. Unprotected departments, such as Communities and Local Government, Justice, and Transport, will endure budget reductions.
If Prussia, as Voltaire remarked, was an army with a state, the UK increasingly resembles a health service with a state (the NHS is forecast to account for 38 per cent of all public spending by 2023-24, up from 23 per cent in 2000). The United Kingdom is in urgent need of social and economic renewal, but it is absorbed by the epic task of Brexit and parliament is deadlocked.
Yet there is no need for fatalism or despair. This remains, in many respects, an admirable country with a resilient, pragmatic and ingenious people. By harnessing the idealism and ambition that inspired the postwar generation, and recreating a sense of common purpose and endeavour (not easy but necessary), Britain can remake itself once more.
We wish all of our readers a happy Christmas and a peaceful New Year.
This article appears in the 08 Dec 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special